by Jackson McNeill
July 16, 2015
Just talk to your neighbor, listen to the office funny guy, or read through your favorite online message board.
It’s only a matter of time before you run into a joke about lawyers.
The truth is, many people don’t love lawyers, and even more would like to avoid them.
That’s the aim behind a new Silicon Valley startup called Modria, Inc.
Modria originally developed software to help eBay and PayPal solve customer complaints about damaged goods or late deliveries without having to employ scores of customer service representatives.
A few years later, Modria’s co-founder, Colin Rule, realized that a modified version of the same software could be used to help solve legal disputes.
Soon, the software—also called Modria—will be able help users settle family law disputes, traffic fines, simple tort cases, and even full-on divorces.
The aim, of course, is to help people resolve their legal issues quickly and cheaply without the need for lawyers, and without the need to go to court.
A version of the software is already being used in Ohio to resolve disputes over tax assessments and keep them out of court; a New York-based arbitration association, meanwhile, has deployed it to settle medical claims arising from certain types of car crashes; and in the Netherlands, Modria’s software is beginning to be used to guide people through their divorces.
“There is a version of the future when computers get so good that we trust them to play this role in our society, and it lets us get justice to more people because it’s cheaper and more transparent,” said Rule.
To make this goal a reality, the software starts by asking its users a large series of questions.
It also lets users enter their demands as well as certain facts. It then notes the areas where the parties already agree, and helps them negotiate through the areas that they don’t.
If the parties can reach a solution, the software can generate filled out legal documents to be printed and filed in court.
Larry Bridgesmith, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School, said Modria “can provide legal support to people and businesses that have written off lawyers and the court system as too expensive and tedious and would otherwise try to resolve their disputes on their own…”
Modria, of course, is not the first site to try and replace lawyers. Other websites already help customers fill out legal forms that would normally otherwise require an attorney.
Modria, however, expands this concept by allowing users to settle full-on cases.
That’s not to say that lawyers are going to disappear.
Disputes that involve any sort of complex legal issues, unsettled areas of law, court appearances, or strategy are unlikely to be able to be solved by a computer.
In those cases, there is simply no replacement for a lawyer. Indeed, even small claims may require an attorney for clients who want to make sure they don’t make mistakes.
It also remains to be seen whether the software is technically illegal. Every state and jurisdiction has laws against the unlicensed or unauthorized practice of law.
Given that Modria verges on giving legal advice, expect to see attorney bar associations argue that Modria is illegally stealing their practice.
Together, any threat to the legal profession is probably still years away, if there really is a threat at all.
That being said, there definitely is a market for software and/or websites that can help clients solve their legal issues without hiring an attorney.
In any case, lawyers of all types would be wise to watch this portion of the market with a careful eye.