Roger Smith’s updated report, Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes, identifies Siaro as an emerging platform for family law. The platform will be tested by a group of family law practitioners in the Summer of 2016. The prototype for Siaro is a conditional logic questionnaire (or as Roger identifies in his report, a ‘guided pathway’) that sits in a secure hosted environment. I will call it the ‘FLP prototype’. It has over 1,000 questions focussed specifically on married couples and civil partners in the family law context and has been in use at my firm, Family Law Partners, since July 2014. At the date of writing, there have been 210 client submissions which is a reasonably large cohort from which to make observations and reach tentative conclusions. In short, the inspiration for Siaro is not new but has been deployed in prototype form for nearly two years in an English legal practice. I offer this appreciation of some of the lessons to be drawn from our experience as a contribution to discussion of the potential of this type of approach.
The Guided Pathway.
My starting proposition is that there is a general acceptance, validated by Ministry of Justice research in 2015, that the classic 30 minute free interview often requested by family law clients is unsatisfactory. It provides insufficient time for a client to fully explain the relevant facts of their case to a lawyer. There is significant risk for a lawyer being drawn into giving advice on those insufficient facts. Despite these clear drawbacks, I had a concern, at the launch of the FLP prototype, that only a modest percentage of the firm’s clientele would use an online questionnaire before a first consultation. I calculated that that if we could just get 30 per cent of the clients using the questionnaire then there would be a worthwhile reduction in the soft cost of time otherwise being spent in initial telephone calls and some free interviews. The proposition to the clients was simple: use the questionnaire in your own time free of charge or pay us while we ask you the same questions. And, if you could use the questionnaire, we can utilise the subsequent consultation to provide tailored advice. The take up was 100%
The management of risk
The prototype captured, as may be imagined with over 1,000 potential questions, a rich factual matrix. This made it possible for the prototype to make meaningful connections between clients’ answers that would flag up issues for the lawyer to address at the subsequent consultation. There are, at present, 25 such ‘red flags’ in the Siaro platform that will appear immediately for the lawyer. The management and, as far as possible, elimination of risk from the first consultation is as much a priority for the client as it is for the lawyer.
Client expectations and needs
Sometimes the important issues are not legal in nature. The prototype demonstrated the value of including ‘soft’ questions alongside factual enquiries. Any experienced family lawyer will recognise that capturing the needs, wishes, anxieties and expectations of a client is essential. Acknowledgement of that capture, reflecting back to the client that we have heard and understood, is a human need. To exploit the full potential of a guided pathway, Siaro draws upon the lessons of the collaborative law model to allow clients the opportunity to articulate their legal and non-legal needs. Some of the most powerful questions, and the value of the answers to a lawyer, are non-legal and non-factual.
Unbundling has the potential to make legal advice available to more people than appears possible (affordable) under a traditional full retainer model. It is important to acknowledge that unbundling carries significant risks for legal practitioners facing the Rumsfeld Conundrum of the ‘unknown unknowns’ when advising on a discrete aspect of a client’s wider engagement with the judicial system or their spouse’s lawyers. A principal aim for Siaro is to accommodate unbundling by allowing clients to make additional submissions to refresh their data and allow a lawyer to see at a glance what has changed since a first consultation. This is most easily achieved, as are other functions within Siaro, by the use of data visualisation.
A decade ago, automatic or intelligent document production would have been a significant deal for lawyers. Such platforms still are and we pay for them to help our clients. And yet, having client data available through the client pathway, it seems inherently daft not to allow a lawyer to populate a legal form for a client, especially an unbundling client. Siaro will have that additional function, not to compete with document production providers, but just because Siaro can (and should) make life easier for clients.
Only connect – software and services
Siaro has been designed to connect to other services, whether hosted or running on a lawyer’s local hard drive. The problem here is that many of those services are not designed to play along. If a client or lawyer wants to pull in data about house prices in a certain geographical area or information from land registry to assist in the guided pathway then that should be made possible. And if a lawyer (imagine it) wanted to submit a form to the court service from Siaro then that should happen also. Connectivity is at the heart of the covenant we have with digital services and platforms. And yet, in legal services, we still see the dominance of operational silos amongst the leading software providers. Data from one platform has to be re-keyed into another platform. Such inefficiencies should not be tolerated by lawyers for much longer since it impacts so adversely upon an optimal experience for their clients.
Only connect – ODR
The guided pathway is how Siaro begins the engagement process between clients and lawyers. Siaro enables the engagement to clear the hurdle of unbundling if that is the model required by the client. And yet, if Siaro strips out the cost and risk of process in order to allow family law clients to engage directly with the core skills of lawyers it follows that the remaining impediments to cost-effective and swift dispute resolution are thrown into sharp focus. One such impediment is the lack of a platform that allows opposing lawyers or (as has become more common) one lawyer and an unrepresented litigant, to refine the relevant issues, engage productively, and attempt settlement. Siaro has been designed to offer such a platform – and it will include online dispute resolution. The fact that Siaro will be a platform that is utilised by, but independent of, the lawyers may allow for a more informed and trusting dialogue with unrepresented litigants. However, I have practised family law for too long to be naïve about the prospect of unrepresented litigants learning to love their spouse’s lawyer. But I would hope, (and it can only be hope since my crystal ball is not working) that Siaro and other providers seeking to positively disrupt existing practices can tap into the latent legal market and encourage more litigants into obtaining legal advice.
Access to justice
There is no reason why Siaro could not be used to more easily and economically provide free, or partly free, initial consultations or unbundled services. If such lawyer/client interactions offer greater ‘value’ (value defined as specific, tailored advice and solutions addressing the unique and nuanced reality of any one client’s situation) then the perception that such legal services are unaffordable can, arguably, be challenged.
I can offer some data at this point. The in-house metrics at Family Law Partners suggests that a minimum of one hour and 40 minutes is required on an initial consultation to obtain sufficient facts to safely advise a client. If that client presents with a significant amount of distress, then the time is closer to two hours. This is before full advice, and a plan of action tailored to that client, can be identified and agreed with them.
The use of the prototype threw up one unexpected outcome. Logically, if a consultation without a guided pathway took on average 1 hour and 40 minutes to obtain the facts, then the use of a guided pathway would reduce the consultation time proportionately. Not so. The time was reduced by an average of 30 minutes only. The unscientific consensus among the team’s lawyers is that the explanation lies in the changed dynamic of the consultation. Having used the pathway, clients appear generally more relaxed, more informed, and more willing to discuss and examine the various dispute resolution options that best suit their expressed needs and those of their family. Almost without exception, the cohort of 210 clients who have used the prototype at Family Law Partners, paid for their subsequent consultation at an agreed hourly rate rather than on a free interview or a fixed fee basis. The conversion rate – from prospect to client – has been 100%.
I make no grand claims but wonder whether the willingness of clients to pay is that we have demonstrated to them that a technology-assisted model of engagement has real value for them, and not just in the financial sense? I am genuinely curious to discover if Siaro, with its data visualisation tools, document production and ODR potential, will introduce cost-savings and efficiencies sufficient to re-connect family lawyers with clients of modest means who have been so badly served by the civil legal aid cuts in England and Wales.