Law students at the University of Alberta are learning the basics of automated legal reasoning in online services, a technology which helps make many routine legal services less expensive and more accessible.
Thanks to an idea from sessional instructor Jason Morris, they’re also learning it by a cost-effective method not dependent on commercial software products.
Coding the Law is a new upper-year law course developed by Morris, ’10 LLB, who is pursuing his master’s of law in computational law. That field includes artificial intelligence technologies used to automate the analysis of facts and rules in contract, law or regulation, to provide automated legal services. Morris, himself, was an American Bar Association Centre of Innovation Fellow in 2018/2019, for his work on a software extension that will be able to predict the outcome of certain legal matters.
Traditionally, automated legal services have been provided with the attention of a lawyer, or not at all. Since the 1980s, technology has existed to automate the parts of those services that require only applying clear rules to known facts, but it has been seldom used. Only recently have software tools improved to the point where lawyers can do the automation without the help of programmers.
Several law schools in the U.S. and at least one in Canada now offer courses in how to work with such software, said Morris.
“But the one thing those products have in common is that they’re very expensive,” he said. “Up to the mid-five figures. That’s out of reach of the average lawyer and completely out of reach for most legal aid or non-profit organizations.”
Morris created his course using a free, open-source software called Docassemble, with which law students can learn the core concepts behind automated legal reasoning.
By “effectively learning how to learn the technology,” students become an asset to a potential employer without that employer having to pay for the software, said Morris.
“The technology is changing faster than it’s possible to accommodate in three years of law school. What you need as a practising lawyer of the future is not a specific set of skills, but the ability to acquire new ones.”
In Morris’s first class, which launched in September, students are surveying the various technologies available for automation in legal reasoning, and also the professional, ethical and regulatory issues that crop up in automating legal services. Once they learn to use Docassemble, they will build a simple web-based access-to-justice tool that could be used by a community organization whose work involves access to justice.
“An example might be a website that legal aid can use to have people do most of the client intake work involved in determining whether a person is eligible for legal aid, or something concerning public legal education, like whether they need to apply for a divorce in Provincial Court or Court of Queen’s Bench,” said Morris.
To promote student skills and confidence, Morris and the class have applied to attend the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, a U.S.-based competition for student-created tech solutions that help bridge the justice gap.
For the competition, the students are building a prototype of a web application that will interview Edmonton Community Legal Centre clients, and then use the answers to provide useful legal information and to automatically fill-in legal forms.
Run by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology and Law Policy and its Justice Lab, the competition is at the leading edge of what Morris believes is an important alternative to the traditional inter-school competitions in negotiation and mooting.
“Mooting (simulated appeal court trials) has been a big part of the law school experience — a source of pride for law schools and students and also a strong motivator for learning,” said Morris.
“I think if people had the same kind of pride in the students representing them in coding contests, that would open people’s eyes to the fact that what a lawyer does is more than oral representation in court. There’s a wide variety of skills you can use and a wide variety of roles. It’s not all about appellate litigation.”