What about a WebMD for law?

For my excellent class at Stanford Law School on the future of legal technology, I am proposing to build a WebMD for law.

My central question is ‘how might we build tech that could help a lay person diagnose their own legal problems’? I am asking it because most legal technology currently is being built for a few audience segments:

1) Big Law lawyers who want to cut costs and make their practice more efficient

2) Law students to do research and construct arguments better

3) Fairly well-educated consumers who want to accomplish discrete tasks — making a will, incorporating a business, getting a marriage or divorce agreement, electronically signing a contract

I am interested in getting legal services & counsel to people not in these three categories: those people who lack the legal grounding to know what their legal problems are, and how they can go about fixing them.

The target audience for ‘a WebMD for law’ would be people with a legal itch — they have a problem in their life that is worrying them, and they think it might be tied up with something to do with the law.  Their dentist botched a root canal. Their landlord is asking for more money. Their employment interviewers are asking about immigration status. A policeman confiscated their camera at a protest.

There are many services currently online for people to look up statutes, cases, commentaries, and other sources of law. See Legal Information Institute, Google Scholar, PlainSite, Ravel Law, Wikipedia — and if you have money in your pocket, WestLaw and Lexis. But these legal tech products are not useful to a person unless she first knows what she is looking for.

There is a gaping need for a technology that can bridge the lay person from ‘I have a problem’ to ‘What is the law to help me with my problem’.  This technology would provide the lay person with the understanding: ‘This is my problem in legal terms. These are the specific legal matters that are at issue’. It would do what first year law students spend all their free time doing: issue-spot.

I am interested in this for a wide variety of ‘lay people’. It would be best to support those who are most removed from the legal system, people who don’t have the money, time, proximity, or knowledge to access legal counsel & services. But it would also have enormous benefit to the many people who are well-educated, living relatively well, but when it comes to the law — feel totally out of their depth, don’t know a tort from a criminal action, and can’t navigate the jargon of the legal system.

These slides are from a presentation, “Is There a WebMD Effect: open access to law, the public, and the legal profession” up on SlideShare by a lawyer, T. Bruce, who was also thinking about the possibility of a WebMD for law.  The presentation highlights that there is a need to serve this ‘latent legal market’ — while also warning that giving greater access to legal diagnosis tools may induce ‘cyberchondria’ in the general public.

People could find more legal issues in their lives than they actually have (or than actually matter), and this could have negative effects — overtaxing the legal system with more frivolous lawsuits, inducing people to seek costly legal help when in fact they do not need it, giving false confidence to people that they can represent themselves with their new legal knowledge.

This 15th century concern — that ‘reading the law without right understanding’ might lead to people harming themselves with legal knowledge — cannot be ignored. But it does not outweigh the need for a technology that can bridge people’s legal itchiness with a capacity to use the many legal resources now available online.