Many legal aid organizations have small staffs, shoestring budgets, basic technology and more cases than they can handle, making it nearly impossible for them to meet the current demand for pro bono representation.
But with access to e-discovery technology used by the biggest law firms and corporations, including the latest advancements in artificial intelligence, legal aid organizations can review documents faster, keep track of information more efficiently, handle higher case volumes, take on more complex cases and be better prepared to take cases to court.
Michael Semanchik, managing attorney at the California Innocence Project, told Law360 in a recent interview that, through a beta testing program with legal research company Casetext, his organization was able to use the company's new artificial intelligence legal assistant, known as CoCounsel, to quickly digest and summarize hundreds of documents.
"We can't read the [court] reporter's transcript on every single case. It's just not feasible given our resources," Semanchik said. "But if an AI can tell me what a case is about without having to rely on a human that might miss some major things, and then at the same time, I can also search it, for us, that's such a time saver."
CoCounsel, which Casetext launched earlier this month, was built using the company's own proprietary legal databases and research tool, Parallel Search, and OpenAI's most advanced large language model, Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 4, or GPT-4.
The tool can be used for several different tasks including document review, deposition preparation and contract analysis, according to the company.
Casetext worked with at least three legal aid organizations during beta testing of CoCounsel, including the California Innocence Project and the Employment Law Center of Maryland, to see how the tool would work in this sector.
Laura Safdie, co-founder, chief operation officer and general counsel at Casetext, said that legal aid organizations using CoCounsel have reported being able to go through case backlogs faster and to handle more matters.
"We're at the very beginning of seeing how AI is going to impact broader access to legal representation," Safdie said.
At the Employment Law Center of Maryland, a nonprofit law firm, three of the firm's four attorneys are currently using CoCounsel, according to Joe Gibson, managing attorney at the firm.
Gibson said that they have been using the tool for one-time consultations with workers, in-depth case evaluations of employment claims, legal research and drafting discovery requests.
CoCounsel can help the firm provide workers with on-the-spot answers to legal questions and more quickly find cases with similar fact patterns.
"We are able to provide answers in our consultations that we just couldn't before," he said.
Casetext is not the only company providing its technology to legal aid organizations. Another AI-enabled platform that e-discovery software provider Relativity made available to legal aid groups recently played a major role in helping to exonerate a man who was wrongfully convicted for murder nearly 25 years ago.
Through Relativity's Justice for Change program, launched in 2020, the company makes its e-discovery platform RelativityOne available for free to legal aid organizations fighting for racial justice. The platform uses AI for comprehensive document review, translation services, redaction and more.
Johnathan Hill, community engagement lead at Relativity, told Law360 that Relativity created the Justice for Change program three months after he emailed the company's then-CEO Mike Gamson about the impact that the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police had on him as a Black man in the early years of his career.
"Thinking about the benefit of our technology, we have a responsibility to get engaged in this work," he said, noting that many legal aid organizations can't afford to pay for e-discovery tools like RelativityOne on their own.
According to the company's website, the program provides legal aid groups with two years of access to RelativityOne for as many as 10 users and allows them to upload up to 500 gigabits of documents. The program also pairs organizations with an e-discovery provider or law firm to help them navigate RelativityOne.
Hill said that 24 legal aid organizations in the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region are currently using RelativityOne through the Justice for Change program.
Two legal aid organizations that have seen extraordinary results using RelativityOne through the Justice for Change program are the Innocence Project and the Hawaii Innocence Project.
Susan Friedman, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, said that the two organizations applied to participate in the Justice for Change program specifically to handle the case of Albert Ian Schweitzer, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 25 years incarcerated in Hawaii for the murder, rape and kidnapping of a young woman named Dana Ireland.
Police had been investigating Ireland's case for nearly 10 years before Schweitzer was convicted, according to Friedman, and Schweitzer's case file spanned somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 banker's boxes. They knew that they would need to get access to an e-discovery tool to review all of the documents thoroughly.
Through the Justice for Change program, the Innocence Project and the Hawaii Innocence Project partnered with e-discovery services provider Complete Discovery Source to use RelativityOne for Schweitzer's case starting in early 2022, Friedman said.
In January, Schweitzer's conviction was overturned based on newly discovered evidence about tire tracks at the crime scene that had not been presented at his original trial.
Friedman said that RelativityOne was helpful for Schweitzer's case to ensure they reviewed all documents related to expert testimony, forensic evidence and jailhouse informant testimony.
Even though Schweitzer's DNA was not a match to the male DNA evidence found on Ireland's body, prosecutors used jailhouse informant testimony to build their case against Schweitzer and secure a conviction, according to Friedman.
"One of the key issues we were looking at is we wanted to make sure we had all of the information about the informants that were used and the efforts that were made to obtain information from those informants," she said.
Another organization that has used RelativityOne through the Justice for Change program is a child abuse and domestic violence legal aid nonprofit in Maryland called Child Justice.
Child Justice case manager Cynthia Cummings said that she has been using RelativityOne for more than a year with the help of e-discovery providers Everest Discovery LLC and Acorn Legal Solutions.
Cummings uses the software in custody modification cases where there can be thousands of documents, including medical records and communications, that she needs to review for evidence of child abuse and domestic violence.
Cummings said that RelativityOne helps her review documents faster, gather more evidence and be more prepared for trials.
Eileen King, executive and program director at Child Justice, added that she believed a recent settlement in a case that Cummings was handling had come about in no small part because the other side in the dispute saw how prepared Cummings had been thanks to RelativityOne.
"In the future, [using RelativityOne] will lessen the amount of time for us to be successful because we can very quickly do something that took a year and a half, and we can do it in six months," Cummings said.
--Editing by Alex Hubbard.
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