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11/1/2016: We're failing at LegalTech

Recently a group in the UK announced the unveiling of a new "law bot", billed as the "World's Most Advanced Legal Chatbot"" that is supposed to help people "understand and learn about legally complex problems quickly and accurately." As anything does when you lump together the words AI, bot, and Law, it generated a fair amount of press.

As you can already imagine, it also generated a lot of interest from people on the internet wanting to see if it could live up to its promise. That generated exchanges like this one from Ken White at Popehat:

Popehat image

Or this one at Associate's Mind. Or this one at Mediation is Dead. It's worth reading though them in their entirety.

Ten days ago a network of insecure internet-enabled devices, such as DVR's and Cameras, took down a large portion of America's internet through a distributed denial of service attack. Basically, someone or some group took over these devices and weaponized them in order to pwn the internet. The ultimate goal of the "internet of shit" realized, at least temporarily.

While these two events seem unrelated, because they kind of are unrelated, a connection clicked for me when I saw a transcript of Warren Ellis' keynote at an "internet of things" conference in his "Orbital Operations" email. I've copied and pasted a portion of the transcript below with his permission:

"Here we are at the beginning of a conference about things. Which sounds vaguely like the top of an episode of COMMUNITY. Ladders 101, Advanced Breath Holding, Conference About Things. But we mean the Internet Of Things, which is the phrase we use to point at the idea of networked environments and objects. This contains the idea of “smart homes.” “Smart” is a loanword for us, one of those invasive American things, like squirrels or a preference for anal sex, that’s sneaked into English off a cargo boat and eaten the native counterpart. Smart means clever now. Smart used to mean well-dressed, back in the days where living in crappy blue jeans and a t-shirt off CafePress was a sign of concern and a cry for help rather than a uniform for an entire class.

Language has taken a turn. The term “Internet Of Things” is a desperate attempt to make a pointer for a field that barely exists yet. We do this a lot these days. We use the word “television” to point at a field of industry that doesn’t particularly use television sets anymore. We use the word “telephone” for a class of mobile devices that we very rarely use telephonically anymore. And we act like the term “Internet Of Things” makes sense for the field we’re trying to define. And, unless the modern internet was originally biological in nature, it was always an internet of things. I always got my internet out of boxes of various kinds. Didn’t you? If you think Internet of Things is a good name, did you previously obtain your connection through whalesong or echolocation? Did you pour Soylent on your Internet Lobe to get online? Did you send your packets by raven? It’s always been an internet of things, and you people have never been any good at naming stuff, and that’s how we ended up with “tweets.”

I have to confess something. The conference organisers brought me here with the specific brief to shout at you. Probably because a lot of you are too interested in building crap. Too many of you just shrug when you hear that a smarthomes service has shut down overnight. You even use the word “service” without really understanding it. You don’t really want to have to handle customers, “customer” being the word for human beings who have expressed trust in your expertise and conscientiousness using their own money. Many of you have never done time in retail, and learned the principles of delighting the customer, nor utilities, where you will never hear from a customer until something goes wrong and the victory condition is silence. There’s no dopamine hit in utilities. Don’t do utilities if you want to be loved. Don’t do retail if you can’t handle having the insanity of the human race rubbed in your face every day.

Some of you are quite relaxed right now, because you have no intent of doing either. Some of you just want to build a gadget or a process, soft launch it, get your story on Techcrunch, wrangle the thousand people you’ve gulled into buying it via Get Satisfaction dot com and wait until someone buys you out. Look around. There are people in this room who are just doing it for the exit. And, when they get it, suddenly a thousand people will discover that their lightbulbs no longer work, or they can’t heat their home, or they can’t get into their front door.

These are perhaps minor stakes, to you. And, yes, there is probably something wrong with anybody who outsources the operation of their front door to three gormless children in a Mission District startup who spend most of their seed capital on Uber and artisanal toast. They probably got the idea over three of those awful IPA beers from Portland. Uber for front doors! Dude, we’re geniuses. Order more toast.

But they’re not minor stakes to the people outside this room. In order to pursue this field, you will inevitably be asking for entrance into people’s homes. You can’t just allow yourself to be invited in, and then fuck around in my fusebox for an hour, set the fridge on fire, take a shit on my floor and shrug and say “oh, well, that didn’t work out! Move fast and break things, right?” and leave. I mean, not without me murdering you and composting your body, crap t-shirt and all.

When my Internet Thing stops working, I can go downstairs, put some music on and read a book until it comes back on. When my Internet House stops working, that’s a different story. The stakes are exponentially higher than providing a web or app based service. “Buyer, beware” is a warning to the consumer about mindful purchasing, not an operating principle for a company to live by.

The same speech could, should be given to a roomfull of "legal tech disruptors" or whatever the operative term is today. Let me show you more concretely what I mean, by altering a portion of it for that purpose:

[A] lot of you are too interested in building crap. Too many of you just shrug when you hear that a[n] [Online Dispute Resolution/Law Bot/Family Law App] has shut down overnight. You even use the word “[legal technology]” without really understanding it. You don’t really want to have to handle [clients], “[clients]” being the word for human beings who have expressed trust in your expertise and conscientiousness using their own money. Many of you have never done time in [law], and learned the [duty to your clients], nor [government], where you will never hear from a customer until something goes wrong and the victory condition is silence. There’s no dopamine hit in [government]. Don’t do [government] if you want to be loved. Don’t do [law] if you can’t handle having the insanity of the human race rubbed in your face every day.

And...

But they’re not minor stakes to the people outside this room. In order to pursue this field, you will inevitably be asking for entrance into people’s homes. You can’t just allow yourself to be invited in, and then fuck around in my [pre-nup] for an hour, set the [mortgage and title] on fire, take a shit on my [estate plan] and shrug and say “oh, well, that didn’t work out! Move fast and break things, right?” and leave. I mean, not without me murdering you and composting your body, crap t-shirt and all.

Legal technology is, at least in part, trying to solve real-world problems that effect millions of people every year. The 'internet of things,' on the other hand, is trying to gadgetize and add internet connectivity to things like wine bottles, pet bowls, and light bulbs -- not what one would call real-world problems. For the most part both are doing a piss-poor job.

While the disjointed weird conversations between lawyers and the Law Bot may be humorous, they expose the dark side of the "moving fast and breaking things" approach so popular over the past years. Legal technology holds promise mainly because the old institutions are failing. Courts are confusing places for the average person with a lawyer, and impenetrable for those without one. Government institutions are notoriously bad at interfacing with the public, especially through technology, where their systems are decades old. Think of the things you can do with your smartphone: send a high-resolution video wirelessly to a remote server where your friends and family can comment on it with two or three taps. Fifteen years ago that was science fiction. Today it's banal. Now consider that in many counties you can't even begin to engage with public services like courts and police departments on a computer - not to mention on the internet. Many government computer systems haven't been updated in fifteen years. Legal aid departments are so behind in technology that anything they put online is announced to great fanfare. Even the mandatory bar associations tout their tech cred, as the Florida bar did by announcing its "Just Adulting" app with an endless stream of twitter gifs - an app designed to educate newly minted adults about the laws that affect them. Here's the passage about the open container law:

It is unlawful for any person to possess an open container of an alcoholic beverage while operating a vehicle or while a passenger in or on a vehicle being operated. Any operator of a vehicle who violates this law is guilty of a noncriminal moving traffic violation and will be fined. A passenger of a vehicle who violates this law is also guilty of a noncriminal nonmoving traffic violation and will also be fined

Hardly the paragon of clarity.

"Aha," you're thinking. "What about that parking ticket bot that was on the news?" Good point. A chatbot - any chatbot right now - is basically a glorified decision tree. It "learns" by adding branches to that tree based on conversations it has. Chatbots are good for about 15 minutes of amusement or talking though very very basic and binary question sets. The parking ticket bot worked primarily because it came pre-sandboxed -- there's only so many questions one can ask and answer about their parking ticket. Start trying to get it to talk about your anus, and you're obviously trying to troll it. Law Bot fails in part because it is so open-ended.

Consider, then, the failure of Law Bot in the context of today. Rebuffed and frustrated after trying to find local government support agencies online, a carjacking victim turns to Law Bot. "Was your anus or mouth penetrated by the person's penis?" Clearly Law Bot is focused on disruption, but of a strange kind. Imagine a rape victim interacting with Law Bot, trying to figure out if they can get a temporary injunction against the other person without having the police file charges because they're terrified of going over the details with the cops. We can assume people who interact with comically bad legal technology will find it funny, like the attorneys did who terrorized Law Bot, but that's a hell of an assumption to make about a terrorized victim trying to find help anywhere they can.

We, as legal technologists, are promising to 'disrupt,' 'streamline,' or even 'be the Uber of' court systems to the average person, whatever those things mean. We're doing a terrible job.

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