Docassemble: The open source rebel alliance

I’ve changed my mind about whether lawyers should learn to code or not, and one of the main reasons is speaking to the attorney founder of Docassemble, Jonathan Pyle, who has developed a free, open source expert system for guided interviews and document assembly that can plug in external sources such as client credit reports in bankruptcy proceedings. Oh yes, and Radiant Law has just open sourced a library that integrates Docassemble to DocuSign, so that you can generate a document, including bulk generation, and send it straight out to the signatories without any additional steps.
Pyle is an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, providing free legal advice to low income people in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Frustrated by the lack of affordable technology available to the not-for-profit sector, Pyle taught himself to code, and tells me: “I’ve been using lots of different programming languages – once you teach yourself one you can teach yourself others.”
Docassemble allows people to create web applications incorporating decision tree and document assembly functionality and Pyle says: “It is completely extendable, so if you want to add different features or have the screen look completely different or have it look up your case, you can.”
The platform was released a couple of years ago and is now used in 17 countries globally with two startups based on its code: Documate and Pyle tells me: “They are trying to serve the market for lawyers who don’t want to code but want to create apps.”
Pyle’s quiet ambition is more revolutionary, and he tells me: “I’m focussed on changing the way the law is practiced by having people on staff who aren’t afraid to code and will spend all day developing sophisticated apps. If they are doing it all day long, why wouldn’t you give them a sophisticated tool? If you’re a photographer, you don’t want a children’s camera to take photos.”
He adds: “Proprietary technology tries to make things easy but has less functionality. They don’t want to give too much leeway or users get in trouble. I come from an open source culture where you should have the power to do something advanced even though you might make an error.”
One of the ways that Docassemble is being used in the A2J space is in helping people in 48 US states file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free: Upsolve automates the vast number of mandatory questions and imports outside information such as the client’s credit report, replacing the $2,000 sum that you normally have to pay a lawyer to prepare and file the paperwork.
Pyle says: “It has more functionality because of the nature of open source – so much already exists, so if you’re making an open source product you have the advantage that you can include all that great functionality. My code can send text messages because somebody else already did that.”
From an access to justice perspective, this represents an exciting step in the right direction. Radiant Law’s founder Alex Hamilton built the DocuSign integration to encourage other industry players to back Docassemble. He tells me: “It’s important both because (a) we need as an industry to take seriously the access to justice disaster and pro bono will never be enough, so we have to look to and support scaleable open-source solutions, and (b) because there is a roll-up going on in legal tech and we need flexible, cost-effective, simple platforms to build solutions for clients that don’t require huge IT projects, massive budget and lock-in.”
With his customary grin, Hamilton tells me: “If industry players are set on building Death Stars, it’s time to start a rebel alliance.”
This is likely to accelerate the still fairly nascent trend among law firms towards hiring legal tech engineers. While I stick to the belief that the world has enough crappy code and that lawyers who can’t use Word shouldn’t be encouraged to learn Python, I find Pyle’s argument convincing that lawyers can achieve great things if the knowledge in their head doesn’t have to go through a technical translator to become code. “Lawyers need to concentrate on how you drive down the cost of law and one of the ways they can make it more affordable is by automating whatever goes on that they can automate. They can’t stay away from the idea of reducing their knowledge to something that can be automated,” he says.
“There are a lot of advantages to the lawyer programmer brain: they can be faster and take less communication if they are willing to climb the learning curve. Although he adds: “You need to think of all the possible things that might happen and just as some lawyers aren’t good at writing contracts or regulation from scratch, some lawyers aren’t good at that.”
While this is happening in the A2J space, it doesn’t take a genius to see that open source is becoming more of a threat to proprietary vendors in the mainstream legal sector. Make sure you are signed up for our free Orange Rag newsletter out on Wednesday 30 October for more on that, as we talk to John Tredennick, founder of the Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation. It’s no coincidence that on October 17, Pyle was designated as a member of the Advisory Board of the Merlin Foundation, which is a foundation for furthering the adoption of open-source technologies in the legal sector.  Docassemble was also added as a featured product on the Merlin Foundation web site.