‘Let’s Sleep with Google’: an interview with John Mayer

John Mayer is a veteran of the US legal services technology movement. He has been executive director of CALI (the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction)  since 1994. He added an engagement in legal services to the Center’s main concern with legal education.  CALI is best know for its interactive tutorials for law students, but is also the developer of A2J Author. This is ‘is a cloud based software tool that delivers greater access to justice for self-represented litigants by enabling non-technical authors from the courts, clerk’s offices, legal services organizations, and law schools to rapidly build and implement user friendly web-based interfaces for document assembly’.

A2J Author has had widespread success and since 2005 has handled  something like 4m interviews and assembled 2.3 million documents. It takes users through a series of questions which then allows a document to be produced on the basis of the answers. It is very simple to use and to customise for different purposes. The process is visualised as progress along a road with a number of stops at which an avatar asks a question that follows on from the one before. So, it combines a visual interface with a series of questions based on branching logic and linked to a document assembly programme. One of its great attractions to legal services programmes in the US is that  LSC (Legal Services Corporation) funding means that they can use it for free to produce their own programmes. John’s background is not as a lawyer: he was director of computing services at Chicago Kent College of Law before joining CALI. A regular attender at LSC technology conferences, this short interview  reflecting on current developments took place at the LSC latest conference held in New Orleans earlier this month.

The LSC has been absolutely vital in getting legal services programmes to use technology. It realised early on that it could not demand technology as a condition of grant to the 130 odd organisations that it funds. The grants to each would be too small.  Its selective and competitive Technology Initiative Grants  program has been critical. It has kept the wheels turning and the money going. The annual conference associated with it has been a real source of encouragement and cross-fertilisation of ideas.

The current situation seems to me interesting. I don’t know which way it is going to go. The good thing is that people are thinking big. I have always spoken for projects that can scale. But there seems enormous faith in artificial intelligence and machine learning. I fear people are a little captured by the hype. There is a also growing commercial interest. There is a whole bunch of people attracted to the opportunity to capture some of the money which may be available. And that has tended to encourage way more hype than previously.

We face a choice about how we go forward. The current state of provision is so bad thatwe have what Iwould call a ‘target rich environment’. There are lots of low hanging fruit that we could pick off. We could really help to narrow the justice gap by focusing on specific, focused projects. We know that we are only meeting something like 20 per cent of the need. By contrast, there has been a lot of interest in big projects such as state-wide triage portals providing a central reference and referral point. I am a little pessimistic about how valuable these may be, as compared with developments that may come from commercial providers such as Google and Microsoft After all, Search engines already seek to link problems with providers and legal services could be an adjunct to its services if we collaborated and could provide compatible and reliable information, ‘Let’s sleep with Google,’ is the best idea that I have heard coming out of the two days of the conference.

Such an approach would be relevant to what could happen to A2J Author. There is a bit of criticism that it is beginning to look old fashioned and suggestions that we should update the visuals. We could, indeed, make the avatar look more lifelike – though we have already increased the ways in which you can customise the figure. We could add a new visual interface. Google and Amazon are pressing ahead in making it clear that the one possible interface of the future is conversational. We are moving beyond the keyboard as the prime way of communicating with our computers. That is what I am going to look at over the next year. It would be possible to create chatbot interface that makes the current visual one redundant.

So, the choices we make at the present time are crucial. We have limited money. We face massive need. And we need to make the best decisions we can about what we should do and how we link to broader developments in the market.

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