New course teaches UAlberta Law students how to automate routine legal services

Coding the Law introduces skills needed for future direction of legal practice

Helen Metella - 31 January 2020

In a class introduced in September, UAlberta Law students are learning a technology that helps make many routine legal services less expensive and more accessible - and they're doing so without expensive commercial software products.

Sessional instructor Jason Morris, '19 LLM, developed Coding the Law, a course in the basics of automated legal reasoning in online services, around Docassemble, a free, open-source software that is able to predict the outcome of certain legal matters. He adapted it for his purpose during 2018-2019, when he was an American Bar Association Centre of Innovation Fellow.

Morris's LLM is in Computational Law. The field includes artificial intelligence technologies used to automate the analysis of facts and rules in contract, law or regulation to provide automated legal services.

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. Some law schools in the U.S. and Canada now offer courses in how to work with such software but that software is very expensive, says Morris.

"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."

By using Docassemble, law students learn the core technology behind automated legal reasoning and become an asset to a potential employer without that employer having to pay for the software, says 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."

After Morris's class learned how to use Docassemble, it built a simple web-based access-to-justice tool - 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.

The prototype has been entered in April's Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, a U.S.-based competition for student-created tech solutions that help bridge the justice gap. 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.

"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."