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Legal engineering will help deliver efficiencies for law firms

Online hackathon winner points the way to digital solutions for lawyers and consumers

7 July 2017

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Legal engineering will help law firms and in-house teams become more efficient and enable them to provide services differently, according to the winner of the first 24-hour online courts hackathon.

Wavelength, which describes itself as ‘a regulated law firm of legal engineers’, said the combination of legal knowledge and technological know-how allows it to create solutions that improve business processes.

‘Anybody who’s looking at the efficiency of getting something done in a legal environment, or to create entirely new types of legal services, are going to need legal engineers,’ co-founder Drew Winlaw told Solicitors Journal.

Winlaw and his colleagues, together with the Law Society, used legal engineering to create CoLin (Courts OnLine), a digital assistant for housing claims which won the online courts hackathon last weekend (2 July 2017).

The invention used ‘pathfinder’ technology and voice interaction to help users through each stage of a claim against a landlord. Information is harvested from a chat with the CoLin app using Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa.

A tenant in private rented accommodation suffering from damp, for instance, could file a claim that this was the likely cause of their daughter’s chest infection. All the parent would need to do, CoLin’s designers said, would be to talk to the app using its voice-assisted functionality, which would help pre-populate a letter that could be sent to the landlord. CoLin would also suggest providing additional information, such as a picture of the damp.

‘People only needed a basic awareness that there might be an issue and a smart phone,’ said Winlaw. ‘The benefit of that from an access perspective is that if you live a distance from where these services are provided or can’t get to an advice centre during opening times, then they can be accessed digitally.’

Much as concepts such as CoLin have the potential to deliver the much-vaunted 24/7 access to justice, they rely on two key assumptions: that everybody has access to the internet, and that they are able to think in terms of rights.

Key to their successes will be the development of adequate public legal education programmes. This was identified as a critical issue when the first raft of legal aid cuts came in under the last Labour government. Little has been done since, although the Bach Commission has ear-marked PLE as a key objective.

The issue of digital exclusion is the other major problem. It has been identified by judges as a priority if the online solutions court project is to succeed and a condition to the judiciary endorsing a move towards more online justice.

That’s not to say legal engineers should press the pause button until these issues are resolved. In many ways, the more they develop online solutions, the greater the pressure on the government to take steps to educate consumers and digitalise the nation, and Winlaw said events such as the hackathon generate momentum.

‘Events like this galvanise activity around a theme,’ he said. ‘They remind people of what is possible and inject new energy into the industry. Change needs a trigger, and a hackathon is a trigger for idea generation. The downstream impact after a hackathon is improved awareness, funded projects and new chances to convert those ideas into real services.’

The hackathon was hosted by the University of Law in London and organised jointly by the Society for Computers and Law, Legal Geek, the judiciary of England and Wales, and HM Courts & Tribunals Service.

Some 30 teams were challenged to design various efficiency tools to support online courts in areas such as bundling, dispute classification, and outcome prediction.

CoLin beat off competition from runners-up TeamPM from Pinsent Masons. The international firm’s ‘MobiMapper’, a case visualisation and argument mapper, narrows the issues of a case into a single document that a litigant in person might bring to court.

Meanwhile, the award for ‘Coolest Tech’ was awarded to a team from Cambridge University for ‘ClaimR’, described as ‘an algorithmic decision tree that predicts case outcomes with 83 per cent accuracy’.

Wavelength was co-founded by Winlaw and fellow lawyer and former Taylor Vinters colleague, Peter Lee. Launched just over a year ago, the alternative business structure was funded by the duo and three non-executive directors. No further capital has been necessary thanks to growth from successful client projects.

The firm employs ten people - including legal engineers, a user experience expert, and a developer; it uses a share option scheme to attract the calibre of new staff it believes is necessary ‘to kick-start a new industry’.

‘Our vision is to become the go-to legal engineering business in the world and to become involved in not just the large projects but also those with potential for a high impact,’ said Winlaw, who is clearly setting high goals for the firm.

When asked by the journal whether the firm might work with HM Courts and Tribunal Service, Winlaw said his firm had some ‘fabulous conversations’ with HMCTS last Sunday.

‘The hackathon itself is a community event rather than a sales forum so we’d be really happy to talk to HMCTS or any of the advisers around them to help them address the big challenges ahead of them using our legal engineering talent.’

Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Legal engineering Online Court Legal hackathon public legal education PLE Digital exclusion