AI Helps College Students Manage Housing Risks, Propels The ‘Wave Of The Future’ In Legal Services

Jun 1, 2020

Many college students don’t know when they’ll return to campus due to COVID-19, but when they do, they will need a place to live. Some might feel pressure to commit to housing despite the uncertainty, and Pittsburgh lawyer Marcy Smorey is using artificial intelligence to help students be smart about signing apartment leases.

Through Smorey’s recently launched company, CloverContracts, renters can upload their leases to be reviewed automatically. The software uses machine learning and natural language processing to scan the document and then offer guidance based on what it finds. Smorey said the tool can help tenants to decide whether to sign a rental agreement or to learn their rights under an existing one.

“And in both cases, we’ll provide legal interpretation, some general advice, and sample language that can be inserted into the lease … to improve the tenant’s rights in situations like [the COVID-19 pandemic],” Smorey said.

CloverContracts provides users with text for these types of lease terms, called “force majeure” provisions, that help to shield renters from things like the coronavirus.

Under those provisions, Smorey said, “Even though there’s a contractual obligation, one party can be forgiven their responsibility if there’s an outside force. And in many cases, pandemics or government restrictions, government orders, can all trigger that relief.”

Smorey said, by informing tenants of this option and equipping them with sample text, her company gives them more power to negotiate with landlords. She acknowledged renters often do not question the terms of a lease, but she thinks CloverContracts could change that dynamic.

“Now that [tenants] have information and have been given some guidance and some kind of cut-and-paste type language, they’re at a far more advanced position than they would have ever been without CloverContracts to help them," she said.

Smorey added, however, that the final outcome of negotiations will depend on the individuals involved.

Because some renters are hurting right now, CloverContracts is free for all users through the end of June. It usually costs $70 to use the software, and an additional $230 to have an attorney from Smorey’s law firm, Smorey Giger Law, revise and edit a lease.

Using self-service to expand access to legal help

Smorey noted that CloverContracts’ rates are “much lower” than what a lawyer would typically charge.

“If you didn’t have … the [artificial intelligence] tool, [the price for a lawyer] would very largely be based on how long the document was,” she said.

But programs like CloverContracts reduce the contract review process to a matter of minutes. Smorey said that efficiency allows users, and possibly an attorney, to focus on matters that involve “judgment and decisions, particularly if language is being modified, [or if there is] communication to the landlord to come up with the final determination on the end result.”

Smorey partnered with the Pittsburgh tech firm LegalSifter to develop the software. LegalSifter CEO Kevin Miller said the collaboration marks his company’s first venture selling directly to consumers. The firm previously sold only to law offices and other businesses.

“But our mission is to bring affordable legal services to the world by empowering people with artificial intelligence,” Miller said.

Miller said while many attorneys share this goal, the legal industry hasn't enjoyed the same level of technological innovation seen "in manufacturing or marketing or sales or service – or all the other industries and functional units that have had technology that helped them scale.”

Miller thinks that self-service options like CloverContracts are key to expanding legal services to underserved populations, and he added that as with Smorey, “Our strategy is to work with the legal profession, not against them.”

Miller said he “absolutely” faces resistance from some attorneys who worry “somehow [the technology is] going to displace them.” But not only does LegalSifter rely on the expertise of attorneys to build new programs, Miller added, it “can empower them … to make them better attorneys.”

The wave of the future’ for lawyers and non-lawyers

For Susan Altman, a partner in the Pittsburgh office of the K&L Gates law firm, artificial intelligence has dramatically improved her commercial transactions practice. She said it also helps overcome the sheer tedium of working through very dense legal documents.

“The human brain just gets exhausted and you can't keep your attention focused on reading these sentences over and over again," she said.

Altman uses contract review software to search for errors in documents that she or another attorney has drafted. The program can flag problems with formatting, party names or references, for example. And by speeding up the process to address those relatively minor but sometimes consequential mistakes, Altman said, the software allows her to shift more focus to “the greater concept” of a transaction.

“And we're always pressed for time,” she added. “It frees up your time to really think about what ... you're trying to accomplish with the document, not just did I type it correctly.”

Altman acknowledged that the technology often flags errors by mistake, but she said it’s easy to dismiss those “false positives.” But she cautioned, “You have to be careful with that” and avoid rushing through those corrections without giving them enough thought.

She noted also that some worry that new attorneys will not gain the experience of practicing without the assistance of technology like artificial intelligence. “There is a question,” Altman said of those lawyers, “Are you missing out on learning as much … not having to read these contracts in the excruciating detail that [more senior attorneys] had to read them?”

University of Pittsburgh law professor Kevin Ashley said law schools should help to address this concern. Increased automation, he said, “is going to change legal education in that it becomes a responsibility of law schools to prepare students for these new sets of tools and the effects they have on legal practice.”

Ashley has researched the ability of artificial intelligence to perform legal reasoning since the 1980s, and he teaches a course where students develop some programming skills to learn how legal tech systems work.

That class, he said, “is not for everybody in law school, but I think the rest of the students need to know at least that the tools have limitations and what those limitations are.”

As for self-service products such as CloverContracts that are marketed directly to consumers who have not received legal training, Ashley said, “one has to be very careful that the systems communicate not only the answer but the sort of qualifications or limitations. … A naive user could be misled.”

Even so, Ashley is working with a team at the University of Montreal to create a “chatbot” that can aid users in Montreal and Quebec City in addressing landlord-tenant issues. The program would allow tenants to provide details on problems they experience with their rental unit. The bot would then offer advice in the form of predictions about whether a lawsuit would be worthwhile and would try to engage the tenant and landlord in an online dispute resolution process, Ashley said.

Such approaches to legal problems are "the wave of the future,” he said.