Mark Deuitch is co-founder and CEO of PeopleClaim.com, an online dispute resolution service that uses peer-to-peer and crowdsourced mechanisms to resolve commercial claims. A former investment banker, Mark started PeopleClaim as a way to promote equal and universal access to justice regardless of a person’s income, resources, or knowledge of law. He occasionally serves as judge at collegiate mediation contests, most recently the International Intercollegiate Mediation Tournament at Drake University School of Law. Mark is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he studied legal philosophy and metaphysics.
What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?
Our primary focus is to promote “community-based mediation” (mediation by the public) as an alternative for resolving consumer claims outside the scope of what traditional court or mediation processes can address. Our system increases public participation in claim resolution by crowdsourcing resolution ideas from our online community, and then allowing the disputants to choose the best solution to settle their case.
Another goal is to provide a more compassionate, socially responsible and timesaving way for attorneys to refer cases they can’t represent. Our community-based resolution platform can provide a viable alternative for resolution of small cases that wouldn’t be feasible for formal legal representation given the current costs of running a law practice. It’s our understanding that 70-80% of potential plaintiffs are unable to afford lawyers to represent them.
Our goal is to help lawyers focus on their core business, while helping the country as a whole by offering a simpler yet effective alternative for the growing number of cases that can’t support formal litigation. We offer a viable referral path that can also help save time when rejecting a case, especially those referred by friends and relations where the lawyer feels a need to hear details and explain their process before telling the client they’re unable to help.
We’re also testing public mediation in developing countries. We’ve partnered with a group in Pakistan to extend justice to rural villages and low-income people, and we plan other projects in the near future. Developing countries have problems that are similar to lack-of-access issues in the USA, and unique to specific cultural, political and economic situations, which our approach can help mitigate. It’s likely that less than 10% of the world’s population has real access to civil justice—our goal is to fix that.
What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?
Law has become exclusionary. By some accounts, the majority of the middle class is effectively disenfranchised from civil justice because they can’t afford legal representation. This has also lead to an increase in pro se cases that further burden courts and often end badly for the self-represented. While pro bono and legal aid groups do a wonderful job helping low-income people, many don’t meet the profession’s mandate to make legal assistance accessible. So, we really need to promote ways to help the middle class gain greater access to civil justice. The current trajectory is likely unsustainable, and the industry needs to address lack of access and self- representation issues.
What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?
I’d like to see law become more fairness-based and less technical. One of our goals is to promote abstract justice over technical justice through online feedback mechanisms that help the public weigh in on fairness issues. Businesses are becoming more responsive to social media opinion and we’re trying to harness that movement to evolve more practical ways of resolving disputes in accord with public opinion and consumer sentiment.
There’s a lot of discussion about wealth disparity. Whether wealth and income inequality is necessarily bad is open to debate, but there’s no debate that a person’s or business’s financial resources will have a direct impact on their success in most litigation. So the problems of unequal access to justice is being greatly magnified by wealth disparity, which is another reason we need to move beyond technical law to more fairness-based and abstract justice processes.
What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?
I like the legal insurance movement, which mirrors the medical insurance idea and allows people to pay reasonable monthly premiums to receive basic legal assistance for a wide range of needs. It can give people and businesses a backstop in case they’re hit with unexpected legal issues. Just like online dispute resolution, it’s offering something practical that helps address the inaccessibility problem. As with health care, law shouldn’t be known for bankrupting families just because they have a problem that requires professional legal expertise and assistance.
What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?
A while back, “legal tech” was a popular theme in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, a great deal of money invested has been written down—not an uncommon thing in the first wave of any investment fad. Applications, including Big Data, that allow lawyers to be more efficient, project outcomes better, and help match clients with attorneys are still exciting and might even reduce the cost of pursuing justice. I personally like sites like Avvo and Quora, which can help laymen get answers to questions about law and other matters from a wide range of experts and practitioners.
We’re doing some early-stage work to determine if an algorithm could actually win a case or handicap a case and its outcome probabilities. But this is all early-stage. We don’t think lawyers have to worry about being replaced by computers in compound litigation any time soon. What’s clear, however, is that if a process can be automated, offshored, or otherwise simplified, it will be, and legal practitioners need to move away from “commodity” to higher-value services if they intend to maintain current revenue standards.
What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?
Several of the ideas I’ve noticed in previous “New Law” interviews are intriguing. I’ve mentioned legal insurance as a promising approach. The “low-profit firm” idea obviously could fill a need.
As an entrepreneur, I like Reg A and other developments that allow start-ups to raise money through crowdsourcing and online mechanisms. Those will need to be watched for abuse and the vulnerability of less-sophisticated investors making big mistakes, but in theory the concept is great. The legal industry can and should play a big role in facilitating this new freedom. I’d advise anyone seeking funds and, more importantly, anyone providing funds, to hire experienced counsel before making a big commitment.
Also, as mentioned, PeopleClaim is creating a referral network for cases lawyers have to turn away. The legal profession either needs to fully serve the needs of the populace — especially middle income groups — or offer viable alternatives beyond pro bono or legal aid. In our view, a democracy where a large portion of the population is disenfranchised from civil justice isn’t sustainable.
Note: The other co-founder of PeopleClaim was the late Carl Singer, former CEO of Timberland, BVD, Scripto, and Sealy.
About the Author
Nicholas Gaffney is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and is a veteran public relations practitioner in San Francisco.