Monday, April 28, 2014

Iron Tech Lawyer Spring 2014--Legal Technology That Works


I viewed most of the live streaming Georgetown Iron Tech Lawyer competition Wednesday afternoon (April 23rd). 

Previous related coverage of Iron Tech Lawyer includes Scott Rechschaffen's thorough post on the ILTA KM blog about his experience as an Iron Tech Lawyer judge last spring and my December 2013 post about Michael Mills' visit to speak at the Boston Innovation meetup (for background on the underlying legal technology, Neota Logic, which graciously provided free software and support).

I really liked how the law students worked.  Each team tried hard to identify the specific client needs that could best be met by a specific application of Neota Logic's technology, recognized challenges that clients, and the clients' clients, faced, and proposed solutions that kept the apps simple and usable.

Answers Or Coaching?

Normally I think of expert system applications as resulting in partial or complete legal answers.  As with Littler's HCR Advisor, a company or individual answers a series of questions, the system (very quickly) carries out an analysis, and, Hey Presto, you or your client is advised to [pay a $10 million  Obamacare penalty] [pay no taxes for the next three years] [report the water quality violation to the EPA]. 

One of the applications, the Unemployment Benefits Hearing Coach, did not directly attempt to provide an answer, but rather, sought to in effect train individuals and companies about the unemployment benefits process and educate them about what may be the most important aspect of the hearing process, their respective burdens of proof, so they could be more knowledgeable about what they needed to do at the hearing.

In a former life (or so it seems now) at another firm I actually spent a frustrating few weeks representing an employer in exactly those types of hearings. It turns out to be suprisingly challenging to prevail as an employer--typically employers have the burden of proof to establish that you fired the employee for cause, with a valid rule that is consistently applied. For what it's worth, I checked out the wizard in the factual situations I was familiar with, and it matched my recollection of the appropriate standards.

What struck me is that these types of "training" apps could well be leveraged in a range of other situations.  Even sophisticated firms could use an app like this one to provide basic information to a witness for deposition or trial testimony, in advance of meeting with the person, for instance. Or if a firm does a significant amount of a certain type of work, it could develop training apps for its associates or other junior lawyers, say around inter-state federal subpoenas or preparing deposition notices and logistics.

Apps As Workflow

Some of the apps were anonymous; others resulted in a report being sent on to the non-profit that sponsored the app, in effect operating as a partial onboarding tool.  In fact, one of the apps, the Triage and Intake Assessment System, functioned in part as an onboarding tool, for the Virginia Legal Aid Society,  It asked a simple series of questions that established the key facts (such as residence, income, and disability/age) that the VLAS needs to determine whether the user falls into the unfortunately comparatively limited pool of people who are its potential clients (compared to the demand for legal aid services). I think apps like these could serve as the start of an onboarding process for a law firm's pro bono or regular clients (as could traditional document assembly packages). 

I do not envy the judges.  One of the entries that had the lowest vote in the straw poll was the New York Sick Time Advisor , where the team was dealing with as complex and challenging set of rules faced by any of the teams, but with what at least appears on first glance to be quite dry and limited.  How would you rate a team that tackled a challenging issue, and handled it well, but simply didn't have a subject that compelled interest or had widespread impact? 


As I tweeted during the session, I found the whole set of presentations quite inspiring.  These students students were using sophisticated technology to solve real-world legal service problems, using web-based, mobile-enabled applications that appeared simple to the user but can handle a high degree of sophisticated legal logic under the hood.  They were able to pull these apps together quickly, without a rich understanding of the legal landscape, but with the ingenue's lack of apprehension and what is likely now a higher order of appreciation for the possibilities of legal technology than is the case with the broad run of lawyers. 

For more on the competition, you can view the #irontechlawyer twitter stream, follow Georgetown Iron Tech on Twitter, and visit the formal site for the Spring 2014 competition.

Update May 1, 2014--As recently announced on the official Awards page, the winners were:
Congratulations to the winners and all the participants.