Is Eviction-as-a-Service the Hottest New #LegalTech Trend?

Some legal technology startups are struggling nowadays, as venture capitalists pull back from a saturated market. The complexity of the regulatory landscape is hard to capture in a Silicon Valley slide deck. Still, there is hope for legal tech’s “idealists.” A growing firm may bring eviction technology to struggling neighborhoods around the country:

Click Notices . . . integrates its product with property management software, letting landlords set rules for when to begin evictions. For instance, a landlord could decide to file against every tenant that owes $25 or more on the 10th of the month. Once the process starts, the Click Notices software, which charges landlords flat fees depending on local court costs, sends employees or subcontractors to represent the landlord in court (attorneys aren’t compulsory in many eviction cases).

I can think of few better examples of Richard Susskind’s vision for the future of law. As one Baltimore tenant observes, the automation of legal proceedings can lead to near-insurmountable advantages for landlords:

[Click Notices helped a firm that] tried to evict Dinickyo Brown over $336 in unpaid rent. Brown, who pays $650 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Northeast Baltimore, fought back, arguing the charges arose after she complained of mold. The landlord dropped the case, only to file a fresh eviction action—this time for $290. “They drag you back and forth to rent court, and even if you win, it goes onto your record,” says Brown, who explains that mold triggers her epilepsy. “If you try to rent other properties or buy a home, they look at your records and say: You’ve been to rent court.”

And here’s what’s truly exciting for #legaltech innovators: the digital reputation economy can synergistically interact with the new eviction-as-a-service approach. Tenant blacklists can assure that merely trying to fight an eviction can lead to devastating consequences in the future. Imagine the investment returns for a firm that owned both the leading eviction-as-a-service platform in a city, and the leading tenant blacklist? Capture about 20 of the US’s top MSA‘s, and we may well be talking unicorn territory.

As we learned during the housing crisis, the best place to implement legal process outsourcing is against people who have a really hard time fighting back. That may trouble old-school lawyers who worry about ever-faster legal processes generating errors, deprivations of due process, or worse. But the legal tech community tends to think about these matters in financialized terms, not fusty old concepts like social justice or autonomy. I sense they will celebrate eviction-as-a-service as one more extension of technologized ordering of human affairs into a profession whose “conservatism” they assume to be self-indicting.

Still, even for them, caution should be in order. Bret Scott’s skepticism about fintech comes to mind:

[I]f you ever watch people around automated self-service systems, they often adopt a stance of submissive rule-abiding. The system might appear to be ‘helpful’, and yet it clearly only allows behaviour that agrees to its own terms. If you fail to interact exactly correctly, you will not make it through the digital gatekeeper, which – unlike the human gatekeeper – has no ability or desire to empathise or make a plan. It just says ‘ERROR’. . . . This is the world of algorithmic regulation, the subtle unaccountable violence of systems that feel no solidarity with the people who have to use it, the foundation for the perfect scaled bureaucracy.

John Danaher has even warned of the possible rise of “algocracy.” And Judy Wajcman argues that ““Futuristic visions based on how technology can speed up the world tend to be inherently conservative.” As new legal technology threatens to further entrench power imbalances between creditors and debtors, landlords and tenants, the types of feudalism Bruce Schneier sees in the security landscape threaten to overtake far more than the digital world.

(And one final note. Perhaps even old-school lawyers can join Paul Gowder’s praise for a “parking ticket fighting” app, as a way of democratizing advocacy. It reminds me a bit of TurboTax, which democratized access to tax preparation. But we should also be very aware of exactly how TurboTax used its profits when proposals to truly simplify the experience of tax prep emerged.)

Hat Tip: To Sarah T. Roberts, for alerting me to the eviction story.

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