Building my first chatbot

I am studying for the bar exam.

It is not fun.

I have learned that when I need to do something I really do not want to do, to do that awful something in stages. And to reward mysellyf with each mini-finish.

So my reward for each legal chapter I complete is to work on building a chatbot. Seriously. Really. Stop laughing.

I am using a chatbot builder through the company called Motion.ai. But it is not easy. And the examples and documentation are skeletal at best. This company is new and the technology is new.

My goal for this first chatbot is for it to give an estimation of a child support amount. The chatbot user would not have a court order yet, nor would they have already talked to an attorney. They would not need to input any confidential or identifiable information either. 

In many states, child support is based upon a formula. But it’s not always straightforward. Texas seems to have one of the simpler formulas (Michigan’s is anything but simple)…. so I started here.

  1. The Texas Code that explains, in writing, how to calculate child support
  2. A web page on the Texas Attorney General’s website that is called a calculator

The problem with the Texas Code is it is legal writing and very, very long. You most definitely have to hire a lawyer to go through the Texas Code to give you your child support amount.

The web page calculator is pretty straightforward, but you need to have a child support order already. So in this case, you’ve already been to court and are NOW using a calculator? Weird. Confusing.

My chatbot was made to be used by either a non-custodial or custodial parent. It does not include every possible way to calculate child support. But it does give a person a beginning value. And then, the chatbot advises that the parent contact an attorney.

That is how I envision chatbots to work for lawyers. As an entry point. Not as a replacement.

To see my Texas child support chatbot,  click on the floating image on the right side of the screen that says “Bot”.


Tutorial for Michigan Law Students on How to Join the State Bar of Michigan

When I joined the State Bar of Michigan, I was a law student. However, I was also a designer and had a few decades under my belt teaching design to undergrads. So while I was thrilled to be joining the SBM, I was frustrated by the process needed in order to join this organization. How can I help other law students join the State Bar of Michigan? I wrote this
State Bar of Michigan Logo

Tutorial for Law Students on How to Join the State Bar of Michigan

  1. Go to http://www.michbar.org
  2. In the upper right, click on “Member Area”, which will re-direct you to https://e.michbar.org/eCommerce/login/login.aspx
  3. Click on the “Click here” link next to “Prospective New Attorneys, New Law Student Section Members”.
  4. Of course, there’s too much text on this page. IGNORE IT. Then select “Law Student” at the bottom of the page. And Continue.
  5. This page pertains to you. But it’s wordy. So basically here’s what you are being told: it costs $15 to join the SBM and it goes from Oct 1 – Sept 30
  6. Go through the form to join.

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Now you get the “free” stuff like the Michigan Bar Journal in print form, attendance to the annual meeting (which was in Grand Rapids in 2016… you  have to go to this next year in Novi because it is an amazing networking experience, but that will be explained in a future blog post).

Other things you’ll see:

  • Casemaker is trying to be Westlaw Next. It’s free for SBM members.
  • You, as a student, can’t edit your limited Zeekbeek profile b/c you are a student. But that’s ok, most of the referrals I’ve seen are through the list servs (see below) and word-of-mouth referrals. Zeekbeek is an online attorney referral service much like Avvo or Lawyers.com.

Joining the SBM alone is good. But what might be more important for law students is to join a section area to get on their list serv (e-mails sent to you). You may not know if the list serv you are on is active or not before you join it, though. Thankfully the costs are low, but you might have to pay (of course).

I’m on solo- it’s a ghost town.

On family law, I get 10-30 e-mails a day. I’ve been told the list serv goes out to 1000 attorneys and judges. You’ll see who is a frequent poster and see their expertise. If you post, be prepared to get not only feedback but maybe teased a bit. I posted, and now I have contacts (who contacted me off-list) that know my legal interests. And they are a really passionate group.

I’ve been told insurance is also bustling.

A practical tip I learned regarding these list serves: Create a new e-mail account that is just for receiving e-mails from the list servs. If not, your main e-mail will become clogged with list serv e-mails.

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How law students can join the sections area…

  1. Log into the Member Area of the SBM site
  2. On the right side of the screen is a link called “Section Membership”. Click it.

Joining the SBM was easy for me to do. But it was a painful experience to join the family-law list serv; it took me weeks of e-mails to resolve. Hopefully the SBM will improve upon this experience (or perhaps it was just unique to me) because they have told me they want to get students integrated better into the SBM.

If you have a problem and can’t find their contact info, e-mail me.

Facing a divorce or child custody battle? There’s a forum for that!

A friend of mine told me she’s going through a hostile custody battle. Actually, she e-mailed this to a group of friends and family in a veryyyy long email.

Given my experiences of having gone through a lengthy custody battle, the quick reply I sent her was, “Go on-line and find a support group. Look for a forum so you can ask questions and get answers from others who have experienced what you may soon face.”

On the NEGATIVE side…

Divorce and custody battles/resolutions/terminations/lawsuits …whatever you want to call it… can be one of the scariest experiences people face. It can lead to depression. Anger. It can be the lowest point in your life.

And just we you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they probably do.

On the POSITIVE side…

You are not alone. Whether you are divorcing and have kids, or have never married and have kids, there are a whole lot of people who have probably gone through what you are going to go through.

So what this means is… you have already a support network. Hurrah!

Forums

Forums can connect similarly situated people.

BUT, it may not be the people who are in your immediate circle or those who you already lean on for support.

Why? Because everyone experiences different things on their legal journey. Your current close friends may start to resent your communications. Perhaps they think you are whining. Others may give you advice like, “Just get over this, already. I did.” (Whether or not that is true is a different story.)

My point is, you are not limited to the physical people around you or your current on-line friends. You are entering a new world, and therefore you can develop/join/create a new circle of supporters.

Google “divorce forums”, “custody support groups”, “single mom forums”, “single dad forums”, etc. Whatever you are looking for, there probably is a forum for it. Forums are sites where similarly-situated people can connect online.

There are various ways to learn things on forums. You can post a question and receive responses. Or, you can simply read other people’s postings.

Sometimes you can message or e-mail other forum members directly. Sometimes forum members use their real names. Often times they are nonsensical names. It really does not matter. What you are looking for is the relevant content. You are looking for answers.

Forums connect people in other serious situations too. Medical patient-to-medical patient forums tend to pick up where the doctor left off and have spawned a movement to let patients help! Caregiver forums provide support for those who support others. Technical forums from people using a product often replace company service manuals. The hard part is finding the forum that works for you.

If you do not know how to use forums, ask someone for help. Have someone sitting next to you who can walk you through a forum site is extremely helpful if you’ve never experienced these sites before.

Try to find an active forum. How often do people respond to posts? What is the overall tone of the posts and replies? These can range from positive-focused through venting-type outlets.  What, exactly are you looking for? Chances are, you’ll find it in an online forum!

The beauty of forums is that you can connect to people who will support you when you need it the most. And now is the time to reach out because, ultimately, divorce and custody battles involve you AND your children. You don’t have the option of NOT involving them.

Re-stated without the double negatives = your children are involved in this matter, too.

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world.

Being a parent who is undergoing family law battles is… well… it’s something you now have to do.

So find your new support network by using an online forum to help you through these times.

 

Are lawyers the only true experts on family law matters?

Like many Americans, I have gone through both a divorce and having to litigate family law issues in a court of law. I have spent enormous amounts of money hiring lawyers to represent me, and have often represented myself.

Unlike most Americans, while I was going through the litigation, I decided to enter law school. So my approach to family law is also intersected with my academic life of being a PhD in Technology. Yes, I like to learn. That is obvious. And it is upon this nexus of real-world experiences/law student/academic that I’ve started blogging.

Recently, I pitched an idea to a legal website about the potential use by family law attorneys of the Ashley Madison data dump. My idea was quickly rejected; I was told that I could not write about substantive law because I was too junior of a lawyer. I found this humorous because I’m not yet a lawyer at all! However, this dismissal was telling.

Do lawyers really believe that only other senior lawyers are qualified as experts in family law?

Are lawyers the only experts of family law?

Are lawyers the only experts of family law?

I beg to differ. First and foremost, a JD or bar-passage does not make anyone an automatic and well-rounded expert in every legal sense. Many lawyers I know believe the degree means you’re ready to start practicing law. It’s the same thing in many colleges… students learn the most after they receive the degree.

Secondly, being dragged through litigation almost forces a party to compile and acquire legal knowledge.  My knees were skinned with the “real world” applications and twists of the family law courts. And I was able to see the disconnection between what I was experiencing within the courts as compared to the beautiful theory of the law. Law school taught me the law and what the ideal process should be. My experiences as a defendant taught me the applications and realities. Additionally, most of my law professors would answer my questions with, “Family law has its own rules”, which gave me the impression that this area of law truly needs people who have practical experiences gained in more ways than by being the attorney of record.

On that same note, the fact is that many people are litigating without the assistance or representation of legal counsel. It’s incredibly expensive to be involved in a lawsuit. A surprising fact is that 2/3rds of California family law cases are filed by a self-represented litigant! So whether it is by choice or by default, people going through the system are learning in a way that is experiential.

Additionally, the State of Washington has started a program where, surely, these non-lawyers will claim expertise in family law matters!

Some lawyers are taking note of these changes and reacting in a flexible way. They may be offering non-traditional services like limited scope representation (ala Julie Tolek) or teaching people how to represent themselves without an attorney (ala Jason Levoy)

Based upon my experiences, the changing fee structures offered by flexible attorneys, and the emerging programs to license non-lawyers in the area of family law, I think that the belief that senior attorneys are the only family law experts is, well, antiquated. We become experts in various ways.

How might family law attorneys use the Ashley Madison data?

If you’ve been following the coverage of the Ashley Madison data dump, you may have read the stories about the expected surge of traffic to a divorce attorney’s office. It is anticipated that prospective clients who find that their spouse’s e-mail or name is within the database may contact a divorce attorney. Of course we would hope that it is not this simple trigger that would lead a client to contact attorney… that there are additional facts/evidence/suspicion of marital problems.

However IF that is the case, the next question is, how might a family law attorney use the information found on the Ashley Madison data dump?

Ashley Madison data

How might the Ashley Madison data be used in a family law dispute?

1. Attorneys should verify that the information is indeed connected to the person of interest.

One big disclaimer to all of the reporting of the Ashley Madison breach and database posting is that the e-mails in the database may have been hijacked, in a way. The site does not validate e-mails when accounts are created. So, in theory, anyone can create an account with another person’s email.

The other information posted in the dump includes full names, addresses, telephone, partial credit card numbers and physical descriptions including height and weight. It also includes the profile write-ups. All of these could be reviewed by the client to see if (most likely) she sees a similarity to what her spouse would post, or where they live, or if he has a telephone number that matches, etc.

2. Attorneys will want to search for additional evidence of the affair by reviewing other dating sites. The Ashley Madison data dump includes names. Of course, if a user used his true name, this is a relevant find. However, users who created false names could also be informative.

Although Ashley Madison is (by now, most certainly) the most famous salacious website, there are other websites a person could use to arrange an affair. Adult FriendFinder, who had their own database hacked into in March, 2015, is direct: Sign-up now and start hooking up tonight, they post on their home page. Okcupid lets a member search by “Covert Affairs”, and Craigslist allows posters to set their posting category to a “Casual Encounter”.

A family law attorney might find that the husband has additional postings on these other sites under the same handle/user name or with the same written description.

If an attorney can find additional profiles on other sites, the validity of the user being the one who posted on the Ashley Madison site becomes stronger.

3. Allegations or proof of an extramarital affair could be used to argue for sole custody of a child.

Like many other states, Michigan is a ‘no fault’ divorce state. This means that residents can establish a divorce without having to establish that the other party did something wrong. So although an affair is one reason a party may ask for a divorce, this reason will not be considered by the courts for granting a divorce.

However, proof of an extramarital affair could be used in determining the custodial arrangements of the divorcing parties.  In Michigan, we have what are called the “Best Interest Factors”. These are used to help make determinations of custodial arrangements between divorcing parents and their children. Factor F is the moral fitness of the parties involved. A family law attorney could most certainly use evidence of an extra-marital affair to argue against the cheating spouse receiving joint custody.

4. Allegations or proof of an extramarital affair could be used to argue for an increased amount of alimony and the division of the marital estate.

Similar to the Best Interest Factors, courts have factors to consider when dividing marital property and awarding spousal support. When dividing the marital property, one factor is the cause for the divorce, including fault in the breakdown of the marriage. When awarding spousal support, two factors are past relations and conduct of the parties and a spouse’s fault in causing the divorce.

In conclusion, evidence of an e-mail being listed in a database that contained information from the past seven years is probably not enough to completely sway a judge in a family law matter. But if the family law attorney leverages this information and builds additional evidence against the opposing party, this could be something included when arguing the big-ticket items within divorce matters.

Are appellate court rulings helping most of the people in family law matters?

As Joshua Lenon, Go Clio’s lawyer-in-residence tweeted recently, 2/3 of California family law cases are filed by a self-represented litigant.

With that in mind, I wonder how many of the 1/3 who can afford representation at the trial level can also afford to file an appeal to their suits!

As a law student, I have learned that we only read appellate cases because they have written legal opinions.

As someone who has been a defendant in a multi-year family law dispute, I know the thousands of dollars it costs to being a defendant in trial. And that is just for trying a case at the lowest level without continual representation by a lawyer.

The majority of all civil litigation happens at the trial level, yet these rulings are minimally studied by law students. We focus on the reasoning made by the higher-level courts.

With this in mind, I’ve often wondered, how representative are the appellate level cases of the trial level suits? Is the issue being appealed a common one? Or is it a problem that only wealthy people face? (This is assuming that those 2/3rds of self-represented folks are not the one filing appeals, of course.)

As an academic, I’ve used the term “generalizability”. It’s a made-up term and certainly sounds impressive, right? A good definition is here, which is “the extension of research findings and conclusions from a study conducted on a sample population to the population at large”.

Simply stated- how relevant is your research to everyday people?

Now if we apply that concept to my questions from above… one could ask, “How generalizable are the corrections made by the appellate courts to the larger population who litigates family law cases at the trial level only and who most commonly litigates without the help of legal counsel?”

Let’s “plain language” that question…

How generalizable are the opinions of the appellate courts?

How generalizable are the opinions of the appellate courts?

Are appellate court rulings really helping most of the people who are suing over family law matters?

If an appellate court is a corrective court, then they are there to correct the mistakes made by the lower courts. My concern is not with this process (and I’m thankful for it!), but with the generalizability of the their correcting rulings and if they predominantly apply to issues that most people may face within the world of family law litigation.