Crowdsourcing for justice

University of Queensland law graduate Camille Boileau has received the inaugural Colin Biggers & Paisley Foundation’s Access to Justice (A2J) Prize – introduced to encourage law students and graduates to discuss access to justice issues and to find innovative ways for commercial law firms to respond to these issues through pro bono initiatives. Her essay was inspired by her studies in science and law, and her work with the UQ Pro Bono Centre. Camille is currently an associate to a Queensland Supreme Court Justice. Here is a copy of her award-winning essay.

CROWDSOURCING PRO-BONO LEGAL WORK: INNOVATING THROUGH COLLABORATIVE COMMUNITIES

CAMILLE BOILEAU

1 Sarah Woodhill, ‘Firm pioneers pro bono crowdsourcing’ (27 August 2015) Australasian Lawyer, available at <http://www.australasianlawyer.com.au/news/firm-pioneers-pro-bono-crowdsourcing-204799.aspx> accessed 23 March 2016.

2 Matt Peckham, ‘Foldit Gamers Solve AIDS Puzzle That Baffled Scientists for a Decade’ (19 September 2011) Time, available at < http://techland.time.com/2011/09/19/foldit-gamers-solve-aids-puzzle-that-baffled-scientists-for-decade/> accessed 23 March 2016.

3 Directory of sites, available at <http://www.crowdsourcing.org/directory> accessed 25 May 2016.

4 Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights, available at <http://www.sa-hr.org/>

Introduction

Most of us are familiar with the idea of crowdfunding, whereby individuals, usually strangers, contribute financially to a venture. This technique is starting to be used with great success to fund worthy pro-bono legal cases.1 Perhaps less well-known is crowdsourcing, where individuals work in collaboration, usually online, to achieve a common goal. As a science student, I have followed the creative ways that the scientific community use this method to solve complex problems, most recently the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme.2 Crowdsourcing can be an incredibly powerful tool, leveraging the efforts of an entire community of individuals with diverse backgrounds, knowledge and skills. Indeed nearly 3000 companies employ a crowdsourcing model.3 In this essay I argue that lawyers and law-firms should follow in these footsteps and take advantage of crowdsourcing as an innovative, effective and efficient method of facilitating pro-bono legal work and thus improving access to justice. The corollary of this method’s innovativeness is that it is still somewhat in its infancy, thus I will identify challenges to be overcome before it can fully be embraced.

The problem and its solution

To illustrate how crowdsourcing meets an area of unmet legal need I will outline its potential application to a pro-bono legal task I currently work on for the organisation SAHR.4 SAHR seeks to increase women’s access to justice in Afghanistan through strategic litigation. A current SAHR project identifies best-practice in defending battered women who have killed an abusive spouse. Obtaining a deep understanding of global jurisprudence on these issues has presented numerous challenges: many jurisdictions do not have legal resources available in English or online, Islamic or customary practices are not necessarily codified and in some instances, laws that appear to benefit women “on paper” do not, in practice, do so. Further, it can be difficult to assess, ex post facto, the strategic underpinnings of advocates’ arguments – an essential requirement of our task. Essentially, a lot of information that is important for the project is difficult to ascertain remotely and online. Rather, SAHR would benefit immeasurably from local knowledge and understanding of the relevant jurisdictions’ legal, social and cultural contexts. This is an instance where crowdsourced pro-bono work could operate to great effect by combining the efforts of lawyers and law-firms across the globe with relevant experience and a ready understanding of their respective jurisdiction’s laws. Essentially, I argue that there is a wealth of existing expertise that can be capitalised on more effectively for the provision of pro-bono legal work. Crowdsourcing offers an efficient method of 2accessing this “brains trust” and bringing together the efforts and expertise of many individuals through collaboration.

How it can work in practice

There are numerous ways that crowdsourcing could be used to facilitate pro-bono legal work in the legal community. For example, an organisation like SAHR could advertise assistance sought through an existing crowdsourcing platform5 or through a specific pro-bono platform that lawyers and law-firms could subscribe to. International clearing houses6 that already coordinate pro-bono contributions beyond borders would be particularly well placed to establish crowdsourced platforms. On a smaller scale, law-firms could crowdsource tasks amongst lawyers or offices. A key advantage of crowdsourcing is that there are countless ways that it can be implemented to suit the nature of the task. For example, a Californian Assemblyman recently used an online collaboration tool to enable citizens to craft, revise and draft changes to legislation.7 Some of the ways that the “crowd” could contribute to pro-bono legal work include:

5 E.g. Elance, oDesk, Guru, Clickworker, ShortTask, Samasource, Freelancer, CloudCrowd.

6 E.g. PILNet or Lawyers Without Borders.

7 Melanie Mason, ‘Assemblyman Mike Gatto to use ‘crowdsourcing’ to craft new bill’ (16 December 2013) Los Angeles Times, available at <http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/16/local/la-me-pc-mike-gatto-wiki-bill- 20131216> accessed 26 May 2016.

8 E.g. through platforms such as Google Documents, Dropbox and OneDrive. These have features allowing the tracking of changes and different versions.

9 Admittedly this creates some duplication or redundant work but in theory leads to superior results.

10 Kevin J Boudreau & Karim R Lakhani, ‘Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner’ (2013) 91(4) Harvard Business Review, 61-69.

11 Ibid.

  • drafting or contributing to a single task at the same time;8 or
  • collaborating on improving an existing piece of work; or
  • working independently on distinct portions of a project that are later collated; or
  • “competing” by producing independent contributions to a task with the “best” contribution ultimately being used (this is often used in science-related crowdsourcing).9

Clearly crowdsourcing offers significant flexibility. At its core is the idea of using technology to marry unmet legal need with lawyers and law-firms with the time, experience and motivation to meet that need. In the SAHR example, junior lawyers would be best placed to complete research, while senior lawyers could provide invaluable high-level insight and guidance on advocacy. Harvard academics Boudreau and Lakhani summarise the benefits of this kind of “spot labor market”:10

Labor markets’ low transaction costs allow for extremely “bite-size” outsourcing. … Like outsourcing, [spot labor markets] give companies flexibility and access to a greater variety and depth of skills. They do a better job of matching talent to tasks than was ever before possible.

Indeed law-firms are already experienced at matching matters with expertise. A crowdsourced approach to pro-bono legal work would simply facilitate this on a larger scale through the use of technology. Furthermore, research shows that crowds “are energized by intrinsic motivations … that are more likely to come into play when people decide for themselves what problems to attack.”11 Crowdsourcing pro-bono legal work could enable greater access to this pool of energised workers.

I recognise that this idea, while innovative, faces challenges. As any user of Wikipedia can attest, crowdsourced material can vary in quality. On my proposal, only those in the legal community would 3 

be able to contribute to a crowdsourced pro-bono legal project.12 Invariably, some degree of oversight is required. Further, as noted by Boudrea and Lakhani, “[c]rowd collaboration relies on extensive task modularization, standardized routines, and technology to facilitate coordination.”13 Thus significant efforts would initially be needed to develop new, or trial existing, platforms for crowdsourced pro-bono legal work. The issue of legal insurance arrangements must also be resolved to determine who assumes responsibility for the work, be it the persons or entities doing the work, or the overseeing body.

12 This would require some oversight by the body seeking the assistance or by a body facilitating the work such as a clearing house. The use of a log-on or password to access the platform or legal tasks would assist. 13 Kevin J Boudreau & Karim R Lakhani, ‘Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner’ (2013) 91(4) Harvard Business Review, 61-69.

Despite these challenges, I argue that pro-bono legal tasks are readily amenable to a strategic crowdsourced solution. With technology rapidly evolving, and the legal community growing ever more willing to embrace new platforms, the time is ripe to capitalise on crowdsourcing as a powerful and innovative approach to facilitating provision of pro-bono legal work.

Last updated:
21 October 2016