• Sam Cowan

It's Technology, Stupid!

A few questions to think about as 2017 comes to a close: how efficient is your practice? Are you taking advantage of readily-accessible technologies to streamline your processes and reduce costs? And if not, what’s stopping you?

For the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of like-minded people who think the “best-before date” on the current practice model for legal services has come and gone. We’ve undertaken a simple task: re-imagine legal service delivery from the ground up.

As with any start-up with big ideas, we’ve encountered roadblocks and setbacks, some expected, some not. But during the process, one thing has become very clear: technology has the power to stand traditional legal service delivery on its head.

I’m not talking about cutting-edge AI being developed by a superstar engineer in Silicon Valley (although the potential for AI to disrupt legal services is enigmatic). I’m talking about using off-the-virtual-shelf technology to make legal service delivery more efficient, both in terms of time and expense. Every manual step taken to open, advance, and close a file is an opportunity to do better. At Aspire, we’re trying to use online forms with conditional logic to gather client information in an effective way. Why charge clients hundreds (who am I kidding, thousands of dollars) just to ask them straight-forward questions?

These are not generic PDF questionnaires that clients download and fill out before meeting us. They're automated tools that guide clients through an information gathering exercise. Clients are asked questions relevant to their circumstances and chosen service. The questions are asked one at a time, in a conversational tone, and legal concepts are explained in plain language. They’re not perfect. Inevitably information is missed, and we need to circle back to ask uncommon questions directly. But we’re able to gather lots of information (and data) without lifting a finger.

Think about that for a second. We can ask clients a series of questions using multiple layers of if-then logic, and collect their answers, without doing any manual work. Plus, these tools can easily be improved as we collect and analyze data. If question X commonly needs to be asked in situation Y, we can build that into the automation. And unlike humans, computers don’t forget to ask questions. They don’t send clients follow-up emails asking about something they forgot to discuss in their last meeting because they weren’t sufficiently caffeinated. If you program a computer to ask 35 questions in a certain order, according to certain conditions, it asks them every time, without fail.

I'm not saying that computers are inherently better at asking questions than people. They're not. Great lawyers guide their clients in a sympathetic and constructive way. But not every question needs the same level of expertise and finesse to ask. And if we're serious about dealing with major access to justice issues, we need to look for creative ways to become more efficient.

If you’d like to see a (very limited) example of how we use this technology, head over to our services page and click “Get Started”. You’ll be taken to our intake tool, where clients are able to select their service and determine their flat-rate fee according to our sliding scale.

What do we do with the information we gather using these tools? That’ll be the topic of my next post. Here’s a hint: we don’t print it off and store it in a filing cabinet.

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