Online dispute resolution has quickly become an impactful area for many players in the legal industry as relationships — including many customer and client relationships — continue to move online. Lawyer Jose Fernando Torres has sought to apply design thinking to study how disputes originating from relationships formed and continually occuring offline (e.g., employment disputes related to payments, supply chains, etc.) could be resolved online.
Torres is the first recipient of a year-long fellowship for Stanford’s Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School. (The Legal Design Lab is a joint effort between Stanford’s School of Design and the Law School.) Thomson Reuters is a sponsor of the fellowship.
The focus of the research Torres conducted was not the technology for online dispute resolution but rather the user behaviors and how their interactions could be clarified and simplified to minimize friction in the event of a dispute that required resolution, such as disputes concerning payment for services rendered, or goods wrongly delivered.
Torres’s first use case focused on disputes in domestic employment relationships in Colombia. In the course of his research, he interviewed and worked with a number of stakeholders: courts, employers, employees, attorneys, and technology providers, among others.
As Jose discusses, frequently employers and their domestic employees do not have a documented relationship. The lack of a documented evidence trail creates all sorts of problems for both parties, and for the local labor courts. Given modern tools such as chatbots that are great at guiding the user through a rule-based process, one might expect this to be the easy solution. However, there weren’t ready examples where chatbots have been used to manage complex relationships.
See Video Interview of Jose Fernando Torres below
In pure design thinking fashion, Torres asked: What if you used the chatbot to perform the job that the problem actually requires: generate a contractual relationship, explain in simple terms to the parties how to comply with employment law and create an evidence trail.
In one of his prototypes, Torres used a Short Message Service-based (SMS-based) chatbot to apply local regulation in guiding a contractual relationship between an employer and the domestic worker. The application prompted both the employer and employee to confirm contractual obligations (e.g., how much the employee was going to get paid each week) in a way that meets local admissibility standards and is simple enough to comply via a quick text message. The backend of the system documents the contract formation and its fulfillment as it happens, minimizing the number of disputable facts and creating the potential to automate the resolution of certain types of disputes.
What became apparent to Torres very quickly, in applying this design thinking, was the importance of anticipating the pathways for contract formation at the same time as designing pathways for resolving any resulting disputes that are connected with the contract.
To enable the most effective dispute resolution process online, it requires certainty over the facts being disputed. This can be facilitated by integrating with the customer/contract database to pull relevant contract data; better still is to create contract lifecyle management tools which include an online dispute resolution module that pulls from the same database. The data generated by the parties’ relationship can be further used to improve future contracting processes, thus generating a virtuous cycle between contract formation, performance and dispute resolution.
As Torres demonstrated in his design thinking-led research, innovation — more often than not — is not really about the technology but rather about how we think about the problem from the user’s perspective. The trick is then to adjust the technology in a way that actually simplifies the solution specific to the problem.
See a video interview with Jose Fernando Torres, a Fellow with the Stanford Legal Design Lab. In the video, Torres discusses his research on design thinking in online dispute resolution with Carlos Gámez, Senior Director of Innovation at Thomson Reuters Legal.