Scottish family lawyers have collaborated to adapt an artificial intelligence tool, created in Australia, that should ease the process for new clients seeking advice on their circumstances

Max Paterson on the creation of Settify:

I was sitting near the top of a glass tower in central Melbourne, in a client conference with Mark Parker, arguably Australia’s foremost family law solicitor. I won’t expect a Scottish readership to have a grasp on the strength of the Australian dollar, so suffice to say that an hour of Mark’s time was worth 139 Big Macs. My hour was worth a respectable 63 Big Macs.

As Mark started to recite the usual questions (“What do you think the house is worth? What’s the car worth? What’s on the mortgage?”), I had an out-of-body experience.

I looked at the client, and realised that if I were in her shoes, my blood would be boiling. Literally a lifetime of Big Macs (ideally several lifetimes) being spent on basic admin. That week, I had ordered Ubers on my phone, booked an Airbnb, and arranged flights without going near a travel agent. I realised there must be a better way for the family law profession.

Mark then switched into our standard description of “This is how family law works”. I had heard his exact same words dozens of times. Mark had probably recited them hundreds of times. In the client’s teary, cortisol-fuelled state, I doubted she was taking much in.

After about 45 minutes, we finally got to the useful bit. Mark used his frankly dazzling skills to analyse the client’s situation, comfort her that things would be okay, answer her questions, determine a pathway forward, and relieve her of the weight she had borne for months. That bit was worth the Big Macs. I wished we had more time, and the client more energy, for that bit.

So, I reached out to my friend Athol Birtley, a talented corporate solicitor and coding whiz, and convinced him that a crazy idea I had would work.

Where it fits in

Settify would be a means for sophisticated family law practices to empower their clients to make a start on their matter at the time and place of their choosing. It would be available 24/7. Clients who visit a firm’s website could click a link saying “Get Started Online” or similar. They would be led through an artificially intelligent, responsive, conversational interview process. Based on their answers to questions, the system would use AI to provide them with customised, personalised information about where they stood, and how the firm could assist them. Best of all, each firm would have its very own version, complete with its own branding, and wording that had been crafted to express the voice and attitude of its own practitioners.

The first firms we spoke with understood the obvious marketing benefit. We all know that clients look around. Many are referred to more than one firm. Many are tentative about speaking to a solicitor. Settify would be a way to engage meaningfully with those clients who visit the website, without taking up solicitor time. It would gently take them by the hand and lead them into engaging the firm.

Our early partner firms also demanded that we make this available to clients who phone in at first instance. So, after an initial phone enquiry, the new client would receive a beautifully branded and formatted email, confirming the appointment, and with a link to “Get Started Now”.

Solicitors would commence all their client meetings with a full brief of the client’s information, a pre-prepared chronology, and a sophisticated asset schedule in Excel format, pre-packed with the client’s financial data.

Artificial intelligence and family law

Our favourite definition of AI is “things computers will be able to do, but can’t yet”. 

Settify is an expert system, powered by conditional logic, some heuristics to double-check clients’ answers (“Are you sure the house is worth £1.2, or do you mean £1,200,000?”), and connections to databases to, for example, guess the gender of your child’s name without asking “Is Lachlan a boy or girl?”

We built Settify using AI because we wanted it to feel like a good solicitor asking the basic questions. We wanted it never to ask a question to which we should already know the answer, or to take three steps to do something that can be achieved in two. If you map out all the possible unique user journeys in Settify, it numbers into the billions.

Here in Melbourne, we’re currently working on a world first technology that will use “deep learning” to scan the entirety of parties’ financial disclosure. It will use optical character recognition to pull out the data, and run advanced analytics over it, giving solicitors immediate and superhuman powers of analysis into the financials. We’re excited about it, as are the top tier Australian firms currently beta-testing it.

There are now more than 200 law firms around the world using Settify. It has helped about 14,000 clients and gets constantly glowing feedback from clients and solicitors. We were thrilled to bring it to Scotland in November 2019.

A welcome in Scotland

Australia was a great place to launch in 2017 – many pockets of the profession are tech-friendly, open minded, and no-nonsense. Via word of mouth, Settify expanded to every state and territory in Australia. New Zealand was smaller, more collegiate, and less litigious than Australia, and we then launched in England in October 2018.

England & Wales has been our toughest market by a long stretch, and remains our most frustrating. There are incredible visionaries who immediately “got” Settify, and snapped it up, and there are now 55 firms there who are using it. But we have, I’m afraid, found that there is some resonance in the old trope about solicitors being conservative, risk averse and slow to embrace technology.

So, Scotland has been a breath of fresh air! A collegiate utopia that we’ve not seen elsewhere. I met a handful of Scots solicitors at the Four Jurisdictions conference in Edinburgh in January, and recognised an amazingly openminded, sensible set of practitioners. Most of the leading Scottish family law firms expressed an early interest in adopting the system. We met with a number of solicitors in the summer, including the inimitable Rachael Kelsey of SKO, who orchestrated a startlingly collaborative and collegiate approach to translating Settify for Scotland.

Rather than our solicitors working with one particular firm to translate the system, Rachael encouraged us to facilitate a Scotland-wide approach, which allowed collaboration by around 10 of the leading family teams in Scotland. We have worked together to produce a tool that can be used in all family cases in Scotland, and which individual firms can then tailor to their specific client base. SKO went live last month, with Turcan Connell, Jones Whyte, Patience & Buchan, Blackadders, Thorntons, Cath Karlin Family Law and Balfour + Manson next, and another half a dozen leading firms to follow closely.

In short, we have been bowled over by the attitude, aptitude and approach of the Scottish family law profession.

Rachael Kelsey, SKO, on Settify:

In the summer I met Edward Kirk, a family lawyer in England & Wales until recently, and now leading the rollout of Settify in the UK. I was sceptical about whether AI had any place in SKO’s practice at the moment. We have trialled a couple of AI intelligent drafting tools recently and not taken them up – they weren’t designed for family law matters and the view we came to was that although AI would hit family law one day, it wasn’t likely for some time yet.

We, and the other firms who have been working with us, are excited about family lawyer-designed Settify, though. There are some elements of family law work that are susceptible to AI. If we think about what our clients want (as opposed to what we are habituated into providing for them), there are elements where we can use technology to improve what we do for them, and how it’s done. If you spend 30 minutes getting information from a client, that is 30 minutes of their time, at a time that suits you; someone is paying for that time (them directly, them indirectly, or you); and there is space for unnecessary transcription error as you scribble dates and addresses.

The Settify AI tool allows potential clients to do two things: get some information about the law that relates to their matter (which is tailored, rather than generic), and input relevant information in their own time, with a steer on what information is relevant. The way the tool is set up, the information is not shared with us unless and until we have confirmed there is no conflict, so, in a small jurisdiction like our own it is better than the current situation where people can send you emails that you open inadvertently at the same time as it transpires that your colleague is meeting with the person’s spouse! From the solicitor perspective, what you get from the client is relevant information that is formatted.

This tool will not – thankfully – replace the role of the family lawyer. Clients still want to be able to build rapport with a person who they feel understands their concerns and who they trust to have the experience and judgment that will help them navigate separation. What it can do, though, is help the solicitor spend their time on the things that AI can’t do.

One of the nicest things about the whole Settify project has been the opportunity to work with other agents across Scotland. We have, together, crafted the bones of the structure of Scottish Settify. Our firms have then been able to brand and personalise the content that people will see when they use our own version of Settify. Special thanks need to go to all those who have worked together on this:

Shona Smith, Balfour + Manson; Craig Samson, Blackadders; Lydia McLachlan, Brodies; Lesley Gordon, BTO; Cath Karlin, Cath Karlin Family Law; Alison Nicol, Jones Whyte; Ashley Simpson, Patience & Buchan; Zaynab Al Nasser, Turcan Connell; Amanda Wilson, Thorntons; Hayley Mitchell, Johnsons Legal.

The best way to allay fears about this is to play with it – you can now see it on our website, or look at the websites and, both firms that were early adopters down south.

The Author

Max Paterson, Settify and Rachael Kelsey, SKO

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