Siri for the Law

November 1st, 2011

I had this idea earlier today, and I had to blog it.

So by now I’m sure you’ve seen Apple’s new iPhone 4S, with Siri. Siri is a program you talk to in natural language. Whatever you ask Siri, it figures out and does (within limits). You ask it about the weather? It finds the weather. You ask it to schedule an appointment? It locates the contacts and sends out the invites. Ask it how to tie a bowtie? Etc. It can’t do everything. But it can do a lot of things. The key, is that it responds to the most natural form of human communication–voice.

At some point in the future, I want to build this for the law. I will call it Harlan.

This is something that could be used by both lawyers, and laymen.

First, imagine a conversation a lawyer may have with Harlan.

  • Harlan, I may have a new potential case.
  • What is it about?
  • It’s a contract case.
  • What jurisdiction?
  • The contract was drafted in New York, was executed in New Jersey, and carried out in Florida. There may have been some partial performance in Georgia.
  • What is the nature of the contract?
  • Joe Smith, who came into my office, agreed with his business parter, Jane Doe, to sell a certain amount of widgets each year in his store.
  • What happened?
  • Joe Smith suspects that Jane Doe has been intentionally selling the widgets to a third party below cost, and claiming that the widgets are not selling.
  • Do you have a copy of the contract?
  • Yes, it is uploaded to our server.
  • (Thinking)
  • Based on the terms of the contract, and the facts you described, it seems that Joe Smith has a valid claim for breach of contract against Jane Doe. Because Jane’s store was in Florida, that would be a permissible venue. However, because there was partial performance in Georgia, that would also be a suitable venue. The law to Joe Smith is more favorable in Georgia. I would recommend filing the action in federal court. In actions brought in the northern district of Georgia in the past three years, 72% breach of contract cases of this nature were resolved in favor of the plaintiff. Only 5% of cases of this nature were dismissed following a motion to dismiss. Of the cases not dismissed, discovery ranged from 6 months to 8 months. 80% of the cases were resolved on summary judgment, with 65% of the motions resolved in favor of the plaintiff. The average summary judgment motion took 12 months to resolve from the filing of the complaint. For those cases not resolved on a motion for summary judgment, 59% of cases of this nature were resolved for the plaintiff in jury trials. Jury trials were usually completed within 18-24 months of filing the complaint. Jury verdicts in this jurisdiction, based on the range of expected damages in this contract and the current market price of the widgets, range from $500,000 to $1,000,000. I would recommend that you file suit in the northern district of Georgia. Shall I proceed to draft a complaint based on the briefs that received the most successful outcomes in this jurisdiction?
  • ….
This would effectively simulate a client counseling session, where an attorney is walked through all the key relevant questions. But why would this be limited to lawyers? This flow would work just as well with a laymen.
Or, imagine this conversation between a laymen and a Harlan smartphone app:
  • Harlan, I got a problem.
  • What happened?
  • My landlord refuses to fix the heat in my apartment, and it is getting really cold.
  • How long has the heat been broken?
  • For the past 2 weeks. I have asked my landlord at least a dozen times to fix it, and he keeps saying he will get around to it.
  • (Thinking)
  • The local tenant rights law provides that the landlord must fix broken heat within forty-eight hours. You have a few options.
  • First, you can call the city’s tenant protection agency. Would you like to call them? (Harlan provides phone number).
  • Second, we can send your landlord a demand letter, telling him the large fines he can receive if he does not fix your heat. You can contact an attorney registered with the local bar association to provide free pro bono services for tenants. Or, based on the facts you told me, I can draft together a demand letter, and email a copy to your landlord citing the relevant law. Obtaining a pro-bono lawyer would likely be more effective, but it may take some time, and you are cold–and the temperature is expected to dip in the next few days to record lows–so you need this done urgently. Your landlord was hit with significant fines three years ago, so we will be sure to remind him of that.
  • Third, if the city cannot provide assistance, and the demand letter does not work, I would recommend you file an action in the county housing court. I can automatically file something called a complaint on your behalf, asking a judge to order your landlord to fix the heat right away. This is called a preliminary injunction. Proceedings in this court do not require an attorney, so you would be able handle the case yourself with my assistance.
  • ….
Imagine what this would do for lawyers? Imagine this would do for poor people to increase access to justice? The key to developing these tools is simply mapping out and understanding how the law works. The ethical issues, there are many. But the promise of this technology is startling.
This is more-or-less my vision for the next decade or two.