Is Digital Automation the Key to a More Equitable and Efficient Justice System?

By: Abigael Diaz

Advancing technology is propelling the legal industry forward. According to a report by Legal Week Intelligence, 83% of legal professionals believe that technology will impact their work in the next five years. Private law firms are at the forefront of capitalizing on this technology and using digital automation to optimize resources, improve consistency, and increase transparency. Law firms are leveraging automation technology, either in-house or third-party, to streamline processes, increase efficiency, and maximize profits. There are two major ways automation is being used to improve processes: (1) making the legal intake process seamless to minimize legal triage and (2) increasing and improving self-service systems. 

If legal service providers had access to the same technology, they could use it to assist survivors of domestic violence to streamline their legal process. Alternatively, this technology could be used to help those about to be evicted when pandemic protections are lifted, working-class individuals traverse employment cases, or low-income families navigate family court. The possibilities to help those disserviced by the justice system are exponential. 

Legal service providers helping underserved populations are forced to triage who receives legal assistance and who does not because they are underfunded and lack resources. Some of the weight could be taken off the shoulders of legal service providers by using automation technology to streamline cases intake, limit triage, and allow for more lawyers’ time to be applied to substantive legal work. 

  1. Using Digital Automation to Improve the Intake Process and Minimize Triage. 

Private law firms use this automated technology at the intake and triage level to increase productivity and improve the services offered to users. The courts have used a caseflow management system based on case complexity, but triage becomes more necessary as legal aid increases and the court’s budgets are cut. Those who survive the intake process often have more money or time, can speak English, have the ability to persist, or can advocate for themselves. Richard Zorza, writing for Access to Justice, believes that it is impossible to give 100% justice access with a traditionally funded lawyer to everyone in our current system; thus, triage is a necessary feature for civil legal aids to be successful. 

Triage is a French word that means to sort or categorize. It is most recognizable as a word from emergency medical situations where hospitals sort their patients based on various factors, including the potential to survive, available resources, and current condition. Lawyers use triage to delegate work appropriately, deliver services, allocate resources, and ensure timely and cost-effective resolutions. The legal intake process is costly and requires patience, persistence, and a keen eye for detail. Law firms use digital automation to optimize the legal intake process to relieve lawyers of “low value and monotonous tasks,” allowing lawyers to focus on cognitive and strategic work. 

Triage is inevitable as soon as one person cannot receive adequate legal assistance.  When there is an increased demand for legal services, marginalized individuals lose out on the traditional attorney-client relationship. The need for triage can be limited by expediting and automating the intake process. Especially because in the current system, if a legal service provider chooses to give one client the full traditional services, the act would also deny services to another person in the system.

  1. Digital Automation Can be Used to Improve Self-Service Options to Navigate Legal Procedures. 

Another way digital automation technology can be utilized is by improving self-service. Law firms are using this concept to increase services to clients without increasing output from lawyers. Self-service is typically used to help draft legal documents and give general legal advice. Marginalized folks are already limited to pro se self-representation if they cannot afford or have access to an attorney. Pro se is when someone represents themselves in court because they could not or chose not to retain counsel. So, what if the same technology being used to create optimal self-service experiences at the top was used to assist those without an abundance of legal resources to become educated and properly complete their necessary legal documents. 

If the legislature could make automated resources accessible to all, it would positively impact the court system’s cost and time efficiency while actively increasing justice. This may cause an immediate influx of cases because more people will be empowered to seek justice through the legal system, but it will also make the courts more efficient as there will be less human error. An automated system could ensure clients are better-informed  about the legal system and its procedures. More folks could be enabled to represent themselves and have the necessary knowledge to approach their particular legal situation. 

Those most vulnerable in our society are being left up to legal service triage systems that decide whether they get access to legal assistance or not. The technology to assist with legal documentation, filling out forms, being aware of traditionally relevant policies, legal templates for contracts, and other documents that could be automated, already exists. It is about capturing that technology and making it accessible to those who need it most. 

A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable members. As this technology advances, we as a society must share it with those who need it most. Automation can break down barriers for those who do not receive equitable access to the justice system.

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