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Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity Knocks

By Katie Miller

Innovation Technology Wills 


Snapshot The future is here – Victorian lawyers are using technology now to automate legal services. Automation is for everyone – automated legal services have been developed by new entrants and existing firms. An opportunity to change – automated legal services are not digital replicas of analogue legal services. The current wave of innovation washing through the Australian legal profession has been a sea of opportunity for legal start ups, many of whom serve consumer or small business clients. Experienced lawyers have recognised the opportunities presented by technology to change the way they interact with clients, for example Nest Legal’s use of Skype to meet with clients after hours,1 Sinclair + May’s clever use of social media to build personal relationships with followers and clients,2 and The Happy Family Lawyer’s use of blogging and podcasting to help clients navigate family separation.3 Now innovators are taking the next step and exploring how technology can remove the need for a client to interact with a lawyer for at least some parts of the legal service. Unsurprisingly, the early innovations are focusing on the legal services most consumers use – such as wills and family separation – as well as streamlining the process of gathering information from clients and supporting clients to navigate available legal options. Technology for wills Law Central,4 Online Will Kit5 and Slater and Gordon Online6 are online, technology driven services from which clients can produce and purchase a will. The will is tailored to the client’s circumstances based on the answers given by the client in the guided online interview. The services generally only provide a “standard” will, with disclaimers that clients with complex (but common) circumstances, such as blended families, should see a human lawyer. The detail of the interview questions varies between the services. There appears to be some tension between a simple interview that clients will complete and being comprehensive. Online Will Kit has focused on simplicity. The interview is limited to 10 questions which are seen by the user at all times, providing the client with visibility of their progress through the interview. In comparison, Slater and Gordon Online has a very detailed interview, the first part of which assesses whether the client’s circumstances are appropriate for the use of the standard will produced by the online service. Each service clearly states that it is not providing legal advice. Generally speaking, the services do not include a meeting with a lawyer or an explanation from a lawyer about the meaning or effect of the final will or individual clauses. Although they do not provide legal advice, each service provides, to varying degrees, guidance during the interview. The guidance explains the legal terminology and issues, as well as helping the client to consider practical issues such as the decisions and information required to make a will. Law Central provides a series of hints, which allows the interview form to be kept relatively simple while still providing comprehensive information to clients who want more information. Each service has a fixed fee, usually under $100, for the will. The websites for Law Central and Slater and Gordon Online clearly identify and connect to the law firms which own the websites. They also provide clients with a referral pathway to those law firms if they have more complex needs or decide they want to speak to a human lawyer. None of the services had adopted the option of “phone a lawyer” during the guided interview for advice on a particular question, although this was an option available on a similar online will service that did not have any visible connection to a legal practitioner. Lawyers are not the only ones using technology to produce cheap wills online. Easywill7 and Online Will Centre8 provide standard wills online for a fixed fee and are owned respectively by a professional trustee company and a software company. Given that everyone needs a will and technology to automate the process is now relatively inexpensive, it is likely that increasing numbers of providers – legal and non-legal – will offer online wills. Technology for client intake Several family law firms are using technology to enhance the process of client intake. Many firms, including Berry Family Law,9 Coote Family Lawyers10 and Settify itself11 use Settify’s automated online family law service. This service uses a combination of cognitive computing (also known as artificial intelligence)12 and expert systems to gather information about a prospective client’s circumstances, provides preliminary information to clients about their options and refers the client for an appointment with the law firm. Clients complete a guided interview online. They can save their progress at any time and return when it is convenient. At the end of the interview, the information provided by the client is forwarded to the law firm, together with a request for an appointment. Using technology for client intake allows clients to provide information relevant to their circumstances at their own pace; receive information about their circumstances and options as they complete the guided interview; and be referred to police if the client has urgent needs, such as the need for protection from a violent situation. By providing the answers to the lawyer before the lawyer and client meet, the lawyer and client can use their first meeting to discuss substantive issues and options, rather than just collecting background information. Technology such as Settify also automates the process of capturing client instructions for the file. For legal practices that provide services in particular areas of law or for particular client groups, client intake may also involve triaging clients who do not fall within the practice’s target market. Victoria Legal Aid has developed a beta version of a “Legal Aid Checker”13 to identify clients who are seeking assistance for legal problems that are not eligible for legal aid, such as wills and estates, employment issues and disputes between landlords and tenants. The web-based application provides information relevant to those problems and refers clients to organisations that may be able to assist them. Technology for family separation DivorceRight goes further in using technology for family separation.14 DivorceRight uses technology throughout the process of family separation, primarily through a client portal via the internet. Email, Skype and telephone contact are used. Face to face meetings are still available, but are on request, rather than a standard part of the process. Online forms and video conferencing are used for client intake. The information provided during client intake is then used to set a fixed fee for the matter, which is based on the complexity of the issues involved. Most fixed fees range from $3500 to $12,000. DivorceRight aims to help couples separate amicably, to focus on the best interests of the children and to avoid court. The service adopts a collaborative approach, with each member of the couple completing the initial interview separately. Initially, virtual mediation through Skype will be attempted. If unsuccessful in resolving the matter, the clients will be referred to separate lawyers for advice about further negotiation and mediation. Clients are supported by experts to negotiate and mediate the legal, financial and emotional implications of separation. Lawyers, financial planners, accountants and psychologists are available to assist the clients throughout the process. However, the clients remain in control of the process and obtain assistance and advice from the experts when needed. Legal advice is available to review any agreements reached during the negotiation or mediation. Since the mediation and negotiation occur virtually through the DivorceRight system, clients can seek advice from experts, even while they are in the mediation or negotiation. Clients can access an expert for a discrete issue, without needing to retain the expert for the entire period of the mediation or negotiation. Technology for pleading guilty Robot Lawyers Australia15 is a free online service for people who are pleading guilty to theft, driving, assault, drug or drink/drug driving charges before the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. The service is designed to assist self-represented accused to inform the court of circumstances relevant to sentencing in a way that will make sense to the magistrate. The user completes an online interview which addresses matters relevant to sentence. Depending on the answers given, the user may be referred to a lawyer, eg, if an answer suggests that imprisonment may be a possible sentence. The interview captures questions that would ordinarily be asked by a lawyer, but may not be found in a statute, such as whether the user has “learned anything positive from [their] offending”. At the end of the interview, the “robot lawyer” emails the user a document that can be handed to the magistrate. The user also receives a document recording the answers provided in the interview (a “Personal Instructions” document) and a Character Reference Guide to assist the user to obtain character references. Tips for delivering legal services using technology If you are considering using technology to deliver part or all of a legal service, consider the following: Tell us who you are and why we should trust you. How will you build the client’s confidence and trust in your service, as well as distinguish your online service from one provided by someone who is not a lawyer? Internet searches produce numerous results and clients have difficulty finding relevant, credible information.16 Some online legal services rely on established names and brands, including by using the LIV logo. Others provide a human story to introduce the online service. Providing legal services online does not mean removing the human lawyer entirely. Moving a legal service online does not mean you have to replicate your existing legal service. Technology provides you with the opportunity to redesign your legal service. Embrace the freedom and design a legal service that is tailored to your target clients and infused with your values. Use technology to deliver more in your service. Online services are an opportunity to inform and educate your clients about their legal issue and the solutions available. Use video, animations, pop ups, links, FAQs and hover details throughout your service to explain legal terms or pose questions your clients need to consider. Informing and educating clients about legal problems improves their ability to identify and seek help for their current and future problems. This is important given that most Australians do not recognise they have a legal problem and, of those who do, only 16 per cent seek help from a lawyer.17 Katie Miller is executive director, Legal Practice at Victoria Legal Aid and an LIV accredited specialist in administrative law. 1www.nestlegal.com.au. 2www.instagram.com. 3www.thehappyfamilylawyer.com. 4lawcentral.com.au. 5onlinewillkit.com. 6online.slatergordon.com.au. 7www.easywill.com.au. 8www.onlinewillcentre.com.au. 9Note 8 above. 10Note 8 above. 11www.settify.com.au. 12Katie Miller and Jason Leonard, “A helping hand”, Law Institute Journal, June 2016, 90.06. 13lac.vla.vic.gov.au. 14divorceright.com.au. 15www.robot-lawyers.com.au. 16Department of Justice and Regulation, Access to Justice Review: Summary Report (2016) p14. 17Law and Justice Foundation NSW, Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal Need in Australia (2012), 57, 111.

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