The Race to the Bottom and How it Might Help Access to Justice

I just ran across another legal tech startup that is going to automate a common legal problem space and sell access to their web-based questionnaire for $29.95 or some such. It’s potentially a huge market because millions of people must deal with this legal situation every year. There are hundreds of possible startups like this – each centered around a single vertical that can be automated with a little javascript and a some marketing.

TurboTax was the first way back in 1987 (that’s when I first bought it) when it was a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet with a ton of macros made by a company called Chipsoft. Now the 1040 and accompanying forms were and are hard to automate, but the market is huge (100 million potential uers) every year. There is a lot of law to keep up to date and it changes every year. Intuit bought Chipsoft for $223 million back in 1993.

a2j author logoHere’s my prediction. Every single “simple” legal problem that is process definable or form-oriented will go this way, but for much much less money. My thinking when we started working on A2J Author over 12 years ago is that courts and legal aid should do this for themselves and law students could help them by taking courses that include an experiential component.  This would give law students the ability to be smart users, builders, and purchasers in the new normal of the automated process marketplace.

Even complicated legal matters can be broken down into steps – some that can be automated and some that shouldn’t. This could either make law practice more efficient or it could result in smaller, chunkier work for lawyers doing unbundled, limited license work.

This won’t put lawyers out of business either. When I started my first programming job in 1983 coding COBOL on an IBM mainframe, I read about a new code generator in ComputerWorld that was going to replace programmers. Instead, every new advance in coding has just meant that programmers had to change their development environment and upgrade their skills. This too shall happen to lawyers. It seems like it’s happening rapidly, but it’s actually going to take some time.  Law moves slowly.  Very slowly.

If this becomes a “race to the bottom”, then cutthroat competition will lower prices and maybe quality. This will make it very hard for companies to find sustainable income. There will be winners and losers and this might not be all good for the quality of legal service delivery.  Even so, the market is not very good at measuring the quality of legal service delivery.  Why is that?

Court forms are a kind of domain-specific language that courts and lawyers use to communicate with each other about legal matters. Courts have a monopoly on how the forms are formatted, but not on the guidance that is given in filling them out.

That is where lawyers add value and can differentiate themselves. Maybe automation and explanation is proof that the lawyer you are thinking of hiring actually understands what you are hiring her for.

John Mayer
Executive Director, CALI


About John Mayer

Executive Director of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). Follow me on Twitter @johnpmayer. Contact me via email at Call me at 312-906-5307.
This entry was posted in CALI Spotlight. Bookmark the permalink.