Los Angeles-based Venerable Injury Law, which specializes in personal injury, launched the first version of its ClaimTrack app two years ago. The app allows clients to do things like track their daily pain, schedule doctor’s appointments, receive reminders and view medical reports. One of the key features is they can see in real time how the case is moving along and what needs to happen to proceed to the next step.
“The technology boom in the legal industry has only happened in the last three to five years,” Venerable partner Alex Tsao said. “Technology can really speed up our work, and that means cost savings for clients and consumers.”
Venerable is one of a growing number of law firms using new forms of technology, including apps, to make their practices more efficient and keep their clients satisfied. Tsao said the firm’s ultimate goal is to develop and offer artificial intelligence technology that will enable clients to handle less complicated legal matters on their own.
“It’s evolving, as every app does. We want to build it to the point where clients can use the app in conjunction with other tools” that will allow them to handle their own cases if they don’t go to litigation. “We are going to give them the keys to the car to do it themselves,” he said.
DoNotPay, which was born in Stanford, CA, calls itself the “world’s first robot lawyer.” It started out offering users templates for challenging parking tickets in court without an attorney. In 2018, the app was updated to make it possible for users to sue someone for up to $25,000 in small claims court in every state in the country. It has documents to file in every county and even a script to read in court.
“There are some cases, a no-contest divorce, filing certain types of bankruptcies, that really are just a matter of filling out and filing forms. There should definitely be an app for that,” said Raina Haque, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C., with expertise in computational law and emergent technologies.
Like so many other industries that have been transformed with technology, however, the new territory comes with the potential for serious security vulnerabilities and the risks of something important being overlooked without a human touch, added Haque, who is also a practicing lawyer.
“There is so much in the personal relationship” between a client and an attorney, she said. “When a client comes to me, they may be asking A, but when I talk to them what they mean to ask is really B, C, D, and E. When you are using an app there isn’t an opportunity for that. They may think the legal problem is closer to being solved than it is.”
Over the past few years, law firms have had to respond to market changes with smarter technology. A recent survey of several hundred firms found 64% of large law firms and 43% of mid sized firms are using technology tools to replace human resources, according to the 2020 Report on the State of the Legal Market, presented by the Georgetown Law Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession, along with the Legal Executive Institute and Peer Monitor.
“Legal technologies, including apps, have proliferated in recent years. This includes law firms using apps, whether native to the firm or owned by a third party, for easier client communication, increased productivity, and even answering basic legal questions,” said Ellen Murphy, Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives, who also is a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.
Law and technology are an integral part of the legal ethics classes she teaches, as tech now impacts many of a lawyer’s tasks. For example, 38 states require lawyers to be competent not only in their substantive areas of law but also in relevant technologies, she said.
Murphy is also working with Fordham University School of Law professor Russell Pearce researching how artificial intelligence will impact the regulation of lawyers and other legal service providers.
“As the delivery of legal services becomes more client-centered and market-driven, it is likely that the demand for technologies to facilitate communication and drive efficiencies and reduce costs will increase,” she added.
Improved client satisfaction and increased attorney efficiency were two driving forces behind Venerable Injury Law’s ClaimTrack app, which is patent-pending. Tsao explained that when you have numerous clients, lawyers spend a lot of time returning calls to update them on what’s happening in their cases. This kind of action is what he calls a time consuming “’lateral” move, that does nothing to move the case forward. Yet, he respects that clients want regular updates on where things stand and what needs to happen in order to move to the next step.
And therein lies the most common complaint within legal services, especially personal injury law: clients say their lawyer isn’t returning their calls quickly enough.
“What we did was address one of the biggest problems we saw in this practice area,” Tsao said. “Now our clients can know at any given time exactly what’s going on with their cases.” Instead of calling their attorney, they have the latest information in their own hands on their phone. Every attorney’s notations, from ordering an MRI, to getting results of a second property damage estimate, are recorded on the app.
Many other firms across the country have similar tracking options available for clients through website portals, and more and more have apps.
Increased access, fewer safeguards
Haque sees great potential in apps and other technology that offer more, or even, complete access to the legal system. Even with hundreds of thousands of lawyers across the country, she said statistics show 80 percent of legal needs are unmet.
“In any other industry this would be considered failing,” she said.
“I was a software developer. I’ve worked with advanced machine learning. I know we’ve barely tapped into the world of possibilities,” she added. “This is a whole new approach and there is so much to explore.”
Law firms are starting their own software divisions while software and other technology companies are focusing more and more on legal applications, she said.
The merging of technology and the law offers great promise, but also much room for error. Technology experts don’t know the countless nuances of the law. If they are an outside contractor not working hand in hand with law professionals during development, important details can be missed.
Tsao’s firm worked closely with its software creator and the attorneys and staff used the app constantly as it was in development to flag and fix problems. This, of course, isn’t always the case.
DoNotPay was created by Joshua Browder when he was a Stanford University undergraduate student. Browder is now 23 and his brainchild is steadily gaining millions in investments. The app is constantly gaining more specific “fixes,” from getting an Uber Eats refund to fighting Lufthansa for money back from a cancelled flight.
While it has received positive accolades from users and some positive press, other reviews, such as those found on appgrooves.com are extremely negative. Ironically, many users complain of having a hard time terminating their account.
Haque shared the story of a client who came to her after spending $4,000 through a DIY legal program to apply for a patent on a book she wrote.
“Books are generally non-patentable, even a law student who took Patent Law 101 would have been able to tell her that,” she said. “But the online DIY-program didn’t alert her to that fact at all, and that’s $4,000 she paid for a patent application that is going to be rejected.”
She believes a rating system from outside organizations and clients themselves are crucial to helping others navigate the new world of legal apps.
Security is also a major concern.
“When any system is asking a person about their legal problems, this means the person is entering data into a server that is not in their control. … What if that server is hacked?” Haque said, referring to consumers using a legal app with AI on their own. “When you work with lawyers, there is a very strict (mandate) to protect that attorney client privilege. The burden is on the lawyer to have a very secure system.”
No doubt, artificial intelligence in legal apps will make the law more accessible to many low-income consumers. But it is far from as smooth and simple as loading case law history or court filing documents into an app.
“I think we’ve got to try something new,” Haque said. “But, of course, there is the risk of when it fails it involves a person’s life and livelihood.”
Contact Katherine Snow Smith at Katherine@legalexaminer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @snowsmith.