Pro Bono and the Mechanical Turk

Following last year’s decision by the New York Bar that all newly qualified attorneys should provide at least 50 hours of Pro Bono, there is a question how firms might best be able to provide this and maintain profitability in other areas.

Early in 2013, NetLaw Media tweeted an article by Flora McQueen in the UK Guardian, asking if the UK should pass a similar regulation to boost access to justice now that Legal Aid provision is being rationed.

The low cost access to justice movement is constrained by resources, and yet some argue that this very constraint has meant they have had to innovate far more than incumbent, profitable law firms.

The argument is that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and the lack of revenue requires not-for-profit and public service legal services to think – and do – differently. (It also helps that there are few established millionaires in their upper ranks who benefit from the status quo.)

This suggests that firms who are looking to boost their pro bono should consider very carefully whether there are new ways of working that are more suitable for nonprofit work in their firms. In the UK, Law Works can provide advice and experience, and similar organisations exist worldwide (see the International Bar Association pro bono site for example).

An area that should expand is to tap into the recent rise of the online workforce – called ‘Crowdsourcing’, represented most famously by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, which claims to have 500,000 workers at its disposal. A lesser known, but arguably more used service is provided by CAPTCHA, those little pieces of distorted text that are easy (normally) for humans to decipher, but very hard for computers to recognise – such is the brilliance of the human brain. It’s perhaps not widely known that each CAPTCHA code represents a tiny slice of a digitised book, and every word submitted by a human goes towards storing an electronic version of a scanned physical book or manuscript. Thus the whole internet has helped convert humanity’s knowledge – without even knowing it.

There are concerns about Amazon Mechanical Turk, not least the quality of work product available from the anonymous online mass market, and other entrepreneurs are starting more controlled, targeted offerings which allow two-way feedback and workers benefits. It is possible to target groups – perhaps only graduates, or computer scientists, or lawyers. A recent article on New Scientist titled ‘Crowdsourcing grows up’ ends with the question ‘what if you could have 5 minutes with the top people in your field?’ Via an online service.

So perhaps in the very near future we will see a combination of crowdsourcing to drive down the costs of human labour on complex tasks, being exploited by the innovators in the pro bono and not-for-profit. The technology exists, and the various international groups already help coordinate and match people with pro bono requests. All it will take is a small step to break down the work and distribute it for processing before recombining the results, making use of the vast pool of human talent to open up access to the law to those least able to affords it.

I expect that innovation to open up legal tasks to a crowdsource model, and driving down the cost of human tasks in legal analysis will come from outside the large established law firms. Those with least to gain from the existing high barriers to entry are unlikely to drive this down – and their clients will almost certainly feel uncomfortable with knowing their information is being potentially shredded into millions of pieces and distributed abound the globe in tiny chunks for thousands of anonymous workers to analyse. But those with no other option have fewer quibbles – beggars can’t be choosers after all – and if it is this option or nothing, I suspect there’s a market.
Who will be first?

Does anyone already do this? Leave a comment if you are aware of efforts in this area. For example, I believe there is a lot of innovation in Canada in the legal access sector, and likewise I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in India wasn’t already ahead of the game.

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