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Are you a lawyer? Feeling relaxed? Convinced you’re part of a protected species?

According to the BBC, there is a mere 3% chance that solicitors’ jobs could be replaced by artificial intelligence and automation.  For family lawyers, the risks should be even lower because particularly human skills of empathy and negotiation are integral to your work.

Not so fast. That BBC article’s a year old, and artificial intelligence is shaking up the law.

In Melbourne, Settify is a new family law firm that has embraced artificial intelligence. Settify is so machine-based that it can offer many of its services, including initial advice, free. Clients complete a questionnaire and an algorithm provides them with advice on the likely range of appropriate outcomes. If the other side agrees, the AI chatbot lawyer helps them negotiate a fair outcome. Once agreed, Settify’s system drafts all the court documents, the clients meet with a lawyer to sign them and Settify submits the documents to the court. Parties only pay the fixed $2499 fee if they reach agreement. If further written advice or a coaching call is requested, one of Settify’s lawyers is available for $8 a minute.

Max Paterson, one of the lawyers who founded Settify, thinks the emotional side of family law makes it more suited to new ways of resolving disputes:

Settify is non-scary and non-confrontational. We keep parties at arm’s-length when dealing with their legal issues, rather than being a conduit between two emotional people, which can exacerbate things.

Wishing you’d thought of it first? Australian family lawyers who want in on the action can partner with Settify and offer their service to their own clients.

UK app Amicable (currently in beta) helps separating couples collect information and reach agreement on children and property. It uses technology to fill the gap in the market between those who need more support than a DIY divorce but don’t want the expense and acrimony of traditional lawyers. Rather than operating through a legal framework (which risks costs escalating if agreement can’t be reached), it focuses on the emotional journey of reaching agreement and keeping the co-parenting relationship functional going forward. Co-founder Pip Wilson explains the app’s genesis:

My business partner went through a very difficult divorce herself and then retrained as a family counsellor in order to help other families. I come from a technology background and we discussed how broken the model for divorce is in most parts of the world and how the mixture of psychology and technology could lead to a better and scalable solution.

She doesn’t think that the emotions involved in resolving family disputes make automation inappropriate:

We believe that large elements of it can be automated but the option to reach out for help when you need it should be there. We don’t believe that it’s legal help that is needed in the majority of cases but rather emotional support.

Virtual family lawyer Sarah Jefford of Gaffney Law doesn’t think getting rid of lawyers is the answer, but thinks that lawyers can adapt their services to be more accessible. This might be through fixed fees, empowering clients through provision of free education materials or unbundling services to suit a client’s budget:

Allow them to pick the service they want, such as drafting documents, or writing their own documents and having a lawyer review them, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all Rolls Royce package. .. Many of my clients come to me having already worked out their own parenting arrangements and financial settlements, and my role is very much to make sure the arrangements reflect the law and are sustainable and realistic. I’m a great believer in lawyers not over-servicing their clients, and people feeling informed and educated about the law so they can make decisions without being overly reliant on professionals.

Simple family law cases in Australia cost parties on average between $20,000 and $40,000, and complex cases can cost in excess of $200,000. So new and cheaper alternatives for resolving family disputes should be welcomed.

But what about the twenty per cent of family disputes that involve allegations of violence? Sarah, Pip and Max all agree that online dispute resolution services may not be appropriate because participants need additional support and family dispute resolution might not always be appropriate. Parliament knows that too, and there’s no mandatory requirement for “family counselling” before a parenting order can be made.

Just because family dispute resolution isn’t always appropriate doesn’t mean that there should be an absolute bar on trying. Complementing access to an AI dispute resolution platform with emotionally-intelligent support people might provide a way to a negotiated and effective outcome. The Productivity Commission says that ‘lawyer-assisted dispute resolution’, along with ‘family violence specialists’, should be used more broadly even where violence is a factor (p 50). With sufficient sophistication and nuance in the AI platform (and from what we’ve seen, Settify’s looks pretty good), the support people wouldn’t need to be legally trained to help achieve a fair and legal outcome in most cases.

We might not be alone in this thinking.  Victoria Legal Aid has taken an interest in the Dutch Rechtwijzer technology, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help people negotiate family disputes. The platform works through areas of dispute and gives proposals based on what other people have achieved in similar resolutions. The technology also allows its users to escalate their matter to trusted lawyers.

So will family lawyers exist in ten (or five) years’ time? We reckon it will depend on each particular lawyer’s ability to adapt. Sophisticated legal analysis and appearance work seems safe for now, but it seems unlikely that clients with standard problems will need specialised assistance when a computer can help. Most importantly, if you can see how aspects of your job could be automated, you might want to get cracking on automating it.

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