Sleeping with Google: a view from Australia

Andrea Perry-Petersen

Andrea is a consultant, researcher, speaker and clinical legal education supervisor.  Views are her own.  If you would like to explore these ideas with her she can be contacted – andrea@andreaperrypetersen.com.au, via LinkedIn or Twitter @winkiepp

If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.’  Attributed to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Mark Twain and Anthony Robbins!

Last month, Roger Smith asked, Should the takeover of three major commercial players in the access to justice market by commercial behemoths concern us?’ I commented:  ‘Interesting – I’m not sure about takeovers but I think we may see more solutions driven by big (non-legally focused) companies. That could actually be good for access to justice?’

So, just how likely is it that corporations without a traditional focus on providing legal services will leverage technology to enter the legal market? And, if it is likely, what are the chances of such corporations addressing the access to justice crisis when they do? Perhaps, technology companies with a strong commercial imperative could assist?  Could that limit ‘access to justice innovation’ from grassroots organisations such as community legal centres, who best understand the needs of their clients?

I had in mind the possibility of big technology companies (let’s call them BTCs) developing legal tech products – which could, directly or indirectly, have the effect of increasing access to justice.

So here, with some slightly more reasoned thoughts, I explore whether well-resourced BTCs – with a strong client focus and with the means and the motive, could, in fact, have a positive effect on access to justice.

Is it likely?

I did a Google search of the top 10 companies in the world.  I then did another search with the name of the very largest company and ‘legal services’.  Bingo.

Non-legal partnerships and corporations are already providing legal services https://www.australasianlawyer.com.au/news/big-four-firm-launches-legal-services-market-assault-245444.aspx#.Wlf2T5X-Ty0.linkedin, not to mention the increase in alternative legal service providers.

It is widely known that Microsoft has been working with the legal assistance sector in the USA for a couple of years https://law-tech-a2j.org/united-states/legal-services-corporation-announces-timely-microsoft-collaboration/.  A press release in April 2016 stated: ‘Drawing on state-of-the-art cloud technologies, this portal will enable people to navigate the court system and legal aid resources, learn about their legal rights and prepare and file critical court documents in a way that is accessible, comprehensive and easy to navigate’.

This is a great partnership of organisations with access to the significant resources and the right information.  But it will take some time to roll out and,in the meantime, other (perhaps less ambitious but nonetheless useful) legal tech solutions are likely be proposed.

More so than law firms, BTCs are client focussed; have consumer pricing models that are arguably more transparent than time-costing; and embrace change.  BTCs have research and development capacity and a profit motive.

Concerns

So, with the means and the motive, what would be the downside of BTCs providing legal solutions which helped to bridge the justice gap?

Could it potentially limit the opportunity for agile legal tech start-ups or legal assistance organisations at the coalface of providing legal solutions to the most vulnerable members of the community, to innovate?

This is the status quo in Australia:

  • lawyers in community legal centres (‘CLCs’) work very hard to meet the increasing demand for legal advice;
  • there are limited opportunities for CLCs to access consulting services including IT;
  • there are discrete examples of technological innovations being developed by individual CLCs for their client base;
  • due to conditions attached to funding, there is minimal opportunity to plan for or implement systemic change (and it is unlikely that will change anytime soon when even the sector’s ability to advocate for its marginalised clients is undermined by certain government measures (in Australia).  See https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2018/01/gagging-charities-equals-gagging-communities/);
  • there is no obvious coordinated approach to innovation in the sector (although responsibility lies with Federal and State Justice Departments) and
  • there is no dedicated funding for these kinds of solutions (like the Legal Services Commission Technology Innovation Grants in the USA).

So, while there are many innovative leaders and potential projects that arise within the sector, the ability to develop and implement such ideas is  a challenge.  Unless a number of these factors are to change, innovation on the scale required will remain insufficient.

In the meantime, would it not be useful for others to weigh in?  The legal assistance sector doesn’t have a monopoly on our clients or their legal problems.  Shouldn’t we be focused on seeking the best outcome for the individual client?

Legal tech start ups and the legal assistance sector would be able to continue exploring even if BTCs were to get involved (although resourcing will always determine to a large degree who gets to do what).  Surely it is not one or the other – lots of solutions are needed in the short, medium and long term!

Having said that, not all legal tech start ups promote products that do anything to increase access to justice (some are simply making workflows more efficient to increase law firm profits).  New firms, products and services  often claim to espouse benefits which on closer examination reveal that the founders don’t understand the nuances of providing information to people who may have limited functional or digital literacy, or are from diverse socio-economic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

There are other valid concerns – such as engaging with corporations with poor human rights records for example, and the implications of personal data collection.  The latter was raised by John Mayer, Executive Director of Computer Assisted Learning Institute, who looked at the use of Google as a one-stop search facility and suggested “swiping right” on Google in this post https://law-tech-a2j.org/funding/legal-self-help-should-swipe-right-on-google-john-mayer-extends-the-discussion/.

Clients need new solutions 

The fact remains that, as in other developed countries around the world, around 80 per cent of Australians are unable to access or afford legal assistance. That is a significant untapped market allowing for commercial opportunities. Commercial solutions could also (partially) bridge the justice gap.

Commercial and social outcomes are not mutually exclusive; in fact some may say the most successful commercial enterprises have always met a social need. Of course, we must always weigh up the potential concerns with the likely benefits, but BTCs providing legal solutions could provide new opportunities for mutual evolution and have a positive social impact.

What can be done?

As a strategic thinker working at the intersection of law, technology and access to justice, and based on my years of experience being embedded in a community legal centre, here are some ideas that seem to me, to have some potential for positive impact:

How about a pilot project where the community legal centre is the ‘customer’ that has a need for a product or service?  It is best placed to fully understand the needs of its clients.  The organisation could receive pro bono consultation services from a BTC who may then have the rights to commercialise down the track? I’m sure the specialist intellectual property and corporate lawyers reading this could suggest more creative and nuanced structures than that, but you get the idea.

What about an online matching platform or virtual ‘menu’ on which BTCs could list the types of strategic consulting, social media or marketing and IT support they could offer which could then be “ordered” by a community legal centre?  Or vice versa, CLCs could list ideas for critical and innovative projects from which a BTC could select and assist?

Maybe an incubator housed within a BTC with a specific focus on and commitment to a critical access to justice issue?

Or, rather than an arrangement with a mega-BTC, a long-term partnership with an established yet home-grown technology company in your state or city?

Importantly, at a leadership level, a peak body whose membership comprises clients,  engineers and technologists, academics and researchers, students, legal designers, communication specialists and lawyers?!

Conclusion

There are connotations of an imbalance of power or reduced reputation implied in the phrase ‘sleeping with Google’

But if CLCs could get to know some BTCs and they could get to know the sector and we could fulfil mutual goals well … that could be a marriage made in heaven.

It is impossible to predict all that would flow from such an approach, but unless the status quo (outlined in the previous post) is to suddenly and radically change, we owe it to those individuals who are turned away from community legal centres to try.

In the interests of bridging the justice gap, the time has surely come for new approaches and new collaborations.  If that means that those of us determined to make improvements engage with corporates, let’s make sure the relationship is respectable and respectful.

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