Ten Things Legal Aid Administrators Need to Know about A2JTech

Those involved in administering legal aid cannot help but notice that a legal tech revolution is spreading like an Australian bushfire through the legal profession. They must wonder whether they should get stuck in and, depending on their orientation, look for savings or opportunities to extend services. And if their own intellectual curiosity is not enough, their ministers and masters will certainly be on the line pretty soon. So, I offer this quick crib for hard-pressed administrators required to give a quick update on what is happening.

1.  A2JTech is LegalTech’s baby sister

Commercial investment in legal tech is running at over $US1bn a year. There is no global estimate available for A2JTech, ie technology developed specifically for the access to justice and legal aid fields. However, if you discount crossover fields and court investments in digital delivery, it is doubtful if the comparable investment amounts to $10m. (The US Legal Services Corporation is probably the biggest single funder with its $4m Technical Innovation Grants programmes.) Be cautious and you could put a maximum figure of $50m on it. The investment is still tiny in itself and in comparison. So, from that alone, you would expect much less impact.

2.  Business Management is the biggest area of investment

Most A2J organisations invest both in general business management (eg Microsoft Office suites) and specific products like case management systems. These have often been developed internally but various commercial companies, notably Canadian provider Clio, are developing rivals that offer standardisation, high quality and the opportunity to be used as platforms into which other products can be plugged. Clio – targeting small and medium sized legal firms but stretching to not for profits and legal aid practices – has just received $250m venture capital funding. So, hard-nosed players are backing their success. 

3. There may be other areas of ‘trickle down’ from commercial development

The A2J sector suffers in the tech field not only from low levels of available cash but also – and for a variety of reasons – low levels of clean data about their users and their problems. There may, however, be areas like family, employment and some immigration programmes where there is at least the possibility that commercial products might be developed for paying customers that can be recycled or opened up for low or no income users and their lawyers. This is hazardous and the Dutch Rechtwizjer was a largely family product whose hopes of exactly this cross-subsidy were dashed by failure of sufficient paying takeup.

3. There has been, as yet, no ‘killer app’

In the time that I have been writing about A2JTech, at least three candidates have emerged for killer app status, the key use of digital that transforms delivery. The first was the wholesale investment in assisted DIY in family cases made by the English firm Co-operative Legal Services. This offered multiple packages. They bombed and family legal services – which it threatened to transform – carry on much as before. Then came the Rechtwijzer – with its guided pathways, online mediation an assisted online dispute resolution. It burst on the scene and dominated discussion for a couple of years. Then it too failed. It could not meet the financial targets set for it by the Dutch Legal Aid Board. Finally, came Nadia – a highly sophisticated chatbot with a realistic face and the golden voice of Cate Blanchett. She looked like the future of video delivery of AI assisted interactive assistance. She was – all too soon – the past. Too expensive and the AI was not quick enough.

The most fruitful area of development is likely to be the integration of self-assembly and self-assisted documentation systems to guide users. There are signs of these becoming more sophisticated and adding an explanatory and educational function to simply asking for information to populate a form. But there is not enough use yet to call this a killer app. Generally, there should be more space for interactive advice and information giving using developments like guided pathways and chatbots. 

4. The most successful tech deployment for service delivery in A2J supplements, rather than replaces, conventionally delivered individual services

Take a moment to go through back issues of this blog and look up projects like FLOWS, Project Callisto, the Citizens Advice strategic plan and Justfix.nyc. These are a diverse list of products and services that integrate individual and digital assistance in different ways. They do not seek to replace individualised services.

For all that, more use might be made of how individualised services are delivered – in particular, with more video in the mix. But there seems a limit to people’s tolerance of digital only delivery. This can irritate governments and the UK is not the only country to wish to deliver its benefits system with marginal assistance other than digital. Right now, however, that seems at the limits of users’ competence and confidence.

5. Development is patchy and characterised by interesting but diverse challenge funding programmes 

This is early days in the tech revolution. Remember that the iPhone was only launched in 2007. Agencies are still exploring what is possible through tech. The LSC TIG (US), NESTA/SRA (UK), and  HiiL (Netherlands) are all running programmes that are exploring the possibilities by canvassing a pretty broad range of applicants for funding. The results can be interesting but patchy. Projects can last – even when seen as successful – only for the duration of the funding and then fall by the wayside when no sustainable alternative comes forward.

6. There is an absence of much rigorous and public evaluation

It is a brave and confident organisation that announces that a once much trumpeted project was a failure or even releases the objective data on use of a once hyped website or document assembly programme. So, getting at ‘what works’ – or what does not – is harder than it should be. This is an area where there is a common interest around the world in publication, evaluation and analysis. The sector needs to address this.

7. Court/tribunal digitalisation may jumpstart legal service digitalisation

England and Wale is leading the global dash for the savings that are promised by digitalising courts and tribunals. There is every sign that others are following in increasing numbers. Whatever you think of this development, one consequence is that those helping users will need to adapt to digital and that this will transform their delivery of services.

8. Everyone talks about AI but it is not very relevant yet in A2JTech

There is a widely held but vaguely expressed view in governments around the world that somehow AI will solve the access to justice problem. It won’t and AI is not really very important in A2JTech at the present time. But, there are areas where it may have some uses – for example, the use of natural language processing or managing the triage/referral process. But, for the present, AI is marginal in this field.

9. We are at the beginning of interactive use of the net for A2J and there will be imaginative responses yet to be explored.

My example of this is what is now the range of products which were led by Project Callisto. This allows the victims of sexual harassment to make encrypted notes of incidents and perpetrators which remain secret until someone else with access to the programme makes a matching entry. A person can then approach those involved and the establishment of a course of action can be begun. Who would have predicted this kind of use of the recording, encryption, data comparison, human-digital mix? But what a potentially useful tool against serial perpetrators in campus universities.

And the big takeaway? Be in no doubt. Those expensive lawyers and troublesome practitioners are not replaceable by a bunch of websites, document self-assembly programmes and apps. But, as a legal aid administrator, you could think of extending their effectiveness and – how outrageous even to think this let alone express it – challenging any of their complacency – by funding properly researched A2JTech products and services.

10. Technology is inherently international and challenges national boundaries

This is good news. How could a good and competent administrator know what is going on without attending the ABA annual TechFest in Chicago, Clio’s conference in San Diego, HiiL’s annual get-together in The Hague or the Legal Geek event in London? You need to get on a plane to find out what is going on. Or, in this straightened times, you need at the very least to read blogs like this and keep in touch with developments around the world. A later post will cover my assessment of the ‘best in class’ products and services. They span the world. If you can’t get there physically, you need at least to read about it.

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