Can Algorithms Give Legal Advice?

This article originally appeared in the publication Medium.

Lawyers and AI

If you have no interest in the legal system, the law, access to justice, public policy, regulation, the future of human work and professions, or in lawyers for that matter, then please save yourself some time and click away now.

Algorithms and Conditional Logic

An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. An algorithm is basically a set of steps that must be taken sequentially to solve a given problem. Algorithms using conditional logic statements are a common feature of many cloud-based form builder apps. Conditional logic in a form builder app basically lets you easily show or hide form fields based on how someone responds to other fields on the form. It can be thought of as conditional branching, where certain fields will branch from others based on the conditions you set. To the uninitiated, non-digital native, this might sound like some complicated technical coding. The fact is my nine year old daughter used LEGO MindStorms at school and learnt how to code using conditional logic in less than a week. She doesn’t even know that she created an algorithm using conditional logic, to her she was just programming her robot. My point is, anyone can learn how to build algorithms using conditional logic.

Lawyers Using Algorithms

In Australia, some smart young lawyers have built a thriving business based on a conditional logic form. Their business attracted some attention when it launched and seems to have gained the acceptance of a number of law firms. Essentially, what their service does is embed a conditional logic form on a law firm’s website which allows users to enter some basic information and receive some basic responses. The form can also be hosted externally. The form captures the data, together with as much personal information as the user is willing to part with, and submits it to the service provider’s back end to be shared with the relevant law firm, or submitted to a different law firm at the request of the user. This is what I have been able to glean from my browsing of their website and my limited engagement with their system. The service provider in question is itself a legal practice, which gets them around any potential difficulties related to the giving of legal advice, and allows them to place malpractice insurance — a prudent and sensible approach, in my opinion.

Template Contracts and Document Assembly

I think what they are doing in family law is a very good idea that has been happening for a while now in the commercial law setting. There are many document assembly websites, indeed I remember using one as far back as about 15 years ago in New Zealand, I recall that it was operated by a top-tier law firm and it allowed one to assemble an employment contract for a minimal cost. I believe that in the end, the project was abandoned, not because it didn’t work, but perhaps because it worked too well and a lot of revenue was lost. Today, there are many legal document assembly websites, some of which are run by lawyers, and end users are able to auto-generate template contracts, or perform automated tasks such as company incorporation. This is great for end users, great for efficiency, perhaps not so great to lawyers as a whole but when the world changes, one has to adapt. My own mentor in the law, a very well respected and now aging retiree recounts that in “his days” a lawyer could become very well off indeed doing nothing more than property conveyancing. Today in Australia, property conveyancing is very much a low margin, commoditised service that many lawyers steer clear of. I am all in favour of greater efficiency in bureaucratic processes.

Deciding to Code My Own Conditional Logic Algorithm

Anyway, I think that a conditional logic driven online form is a good way for potential clients to research their own matter, and also a good way for them to provide their information to the law firm. I for one hate filling in paper forms and I shudder to think how many law firms are still sending clients Word Docs or PDFs to be printed and filled in by hand, or filled in and emailed back. A senseless waste of time in most cases. It is so much easier just to fill in a form online and press the submit button. Naturally, I began to wonder how difficult it would be to code my own conditional logic algorithm. For a start, if I did it myself, I would be able to customise it exactly as I saw fit, instead of having to accept a standardised algorithm. I could determine exactly how much information my own system would provide (more) and I could add to it over time. I designed my system to provide more detailed information, suitable for those clients who don’t mind spending a bit of time to read. I figured I still had my old simple contact form on my website for those who just wanted to get in touch. I would design my conditional logic algorithm for sophisticated users of legal services, those with the motivation to at least understand the likely parameters of their matter, before they went ahead to speak with a lawyer.

In terms of the actual coding itself, it did take me a while to figure out how it all works. Although I am not a digital-native, I did grow up at a time when computers were first starting to make their way into schools and I learnt how to program in ZX Spectrum Basic while at primary school and later AMOS BASIC on the Amiga 500. So I have some limited programming knowledge which helps. But even with no programming background, I am sure anyone can learn how to code conditional logic forms with a little bit of effort, and there are plenty of free online courses to take advantage of.

Automated Family Law Advisor

I called it the Automated Family Law Advisor, it currently provides user specific information relating to divorce, de facto separation, parenting, and property matters under Australian family law. The user is asked some simple questions about their situation, and based on their responses, specific general advice is displayed and a specific question path is taken. The beauty of this is that users can get the general information that they need instantly and also do not have to answer any irrelevant questions. At the end of the form I capture some very basic user information, however I plan to expand this and offer increased data entry capability based on the user’s indication that they may wish to engage our services.

Please feel free to play around with the system, if you do press the Submit button, kindly enter your Name as “Just Testing” or “From Medium” or something along those lines to save me time in deleting the entries from the back-end database.

If You are a Lawyer

If you are an Australian lawyer and wish to provide me with any feedback regarding the algorithm, I would love to hear from you. If you would like to implement this algorithm, or a different customised algorithm on your own website, again please do get in touch as I am open to such inquiries.

If You are an Australian Seeking Information About Family Law

Please feel free to use the algorithm, you will receive useful general information tailored to your situation that could otherwise take you a lot of time to research.

So, Can Algorithms Give Legal Advice

From a professional legal liability point of view, few lawyers are willing to give legal advice other than to a client under a client agreement/retainer (not necessarily for money, but under a client agreement nonetheless). This is understandable. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to hold that a carefully coded algorithm is incapable of giving general legal advice, in response to the information that the user has provided, and that upon review and explicit approval by a human lawyer such advice would not be capable of constituting legal advice. In other words, yes, an algorithm can give legal advice, the quality of this advice however depends on the legal skill and knowledge of the lawyer responsible for designing (though not necessarily coding) the algorithm. There is still a place for lawyers after all. For now.

About the Author: Bart Janowski is an Australian lawyer and Principal of Jano Family Law, Australia.