Making Mischief With Open-Source Legal Tech: Radiant Law

Alex Hamilton is smiling on his couch in London, chatting with me over Skype. It’s early here in Alberta, late afternoon there. He takes a draw from what looks like a vape pen and grins widely, his eyes raised toward the ceiling. He looks back at the camera on his laptop.

“I think we can make some mischief,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

Hamilton is the CEO of Radiant Law, a “NewLaw” firm with offices in London, England and Cape Town, South Africa. In Canada, they have a partnership to Conduit Law called ConRad. Radiant does work for large clients looking to automate their legal and business processes around commercial contracting.

In our Skype chat we are talking about Radiant hiring my consulting firm, Lemma Legal Consulting, to write some software. Hamilton is going to do two things with the software: First, he is going to use it on some client projects that Radiant is working on.

Second — and this is where the mischief comes in — he is going to give it away, for free, on the internet.

Docassemble is one of the most important new legal technologies out there today. It is a tool that generates beautiful websites where your client can do the data entry for your document automation tools. The ABA’s 2018 top 20 list of web tools for lawyers listed Docassemble, and two other tools that were built using Docassemble.

What has prompted Docassemble’s quick rise through the ranks of legal technology? First, it solves an important problem (automating client interviews), and second, it’s free. More than free, it is Open Source.

Open Source, among other things, means that if you’re not happy with the features of the software you can just change it.

Radiant does a lot of document automation work, and Hamilton sees a lot of potential in Docassemble’s capabilities. Many of his clients use DocuSign for online signatures.

Docassemble doesn’t have any way to send documents to DocuSign to be signed automatically. Some of the commercial tools that Radiant Law has used can do it, but the user experience is awkward. Because those commercial tools are not Open Source, there is no way to fix the awkward parts.

So Hamilton’s plan is this: Get Lemma Legal to write a basic integration between Docassemble and DocuSign, and then make that software available under an Open Source license.

There is a virtuous circle here that helps Radiant, helps Radiant’s clients, helps the rest of the world, and forces commercial software vendors to do more, charge less, or both. That last bit is the mischief.

Here’s how open source technology creates a virtuous circle in legal tech.

Take a piece of free software that almost does what the commercial products do. Make it do the same thing the commercial products do, or slightly better. Legal automation firms start referring their clients to the open source alternatives because they are better on price and features. Those firms use some of their time to build, or profit to fund, further improvements of the open source alternatives.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

This virtuous ciricle has already started happening the the legal aid space, with the Legal Services Corporation in the United States recommending open source tools to their technology initiative grant recipients. The terms of those grants require sharing the results with the LSC, who can give them to other funded bodies.

Radiant is happy to have better tools to use. Radiant’s clients get better results, and they get them cheaper because they aren’t paying for commercial software. The rest of the world, including every small law firm and pro bono and legal aid organization on the planet, gets access to better, free software that they can use to enhance access to justice through automation.

Commercial software vendors are forced to compete with free, which will either drive the value of their offerings up, or the price down, or both.

The virtuous circle doesn’t happen without one important element: The people who benefit from Open Source technology need to contribute back to it. Not everyone, but enough of them.

Jonathan Pyle, the lawyer who wrote Docassemble for his legal aid role, used dozens of open source products to build Docassemble, and he gave Docassemble back. Radiant is building things using Docassemble, and giving those things back.

The future of legal technology belongs to those who realize when the benefits of giving it away outweigh the benefits of charging for it. And as a profession we may have a leg up: We already have a culture of encouraging one another to give back. We just call it pro bono instead of Open Source.

The integration between Docassemble and Docusign is available (for free) on GitHub.

Comments are closed.