Students making significant contribution this summer to new criminal law chatbot

Photo of Osgoode Hall Law School students Ryan Boros (left) and Elias Tung beside Osgoode sign
Ryan Boros (left) and Elias Tung.

When people ask 3L student Ryan Boros this fall how he spent his summer vacation, he’ll have a technological tale to tell.

The Port Colborne, Ont., native and 2L student Elias Tung have been working this summer on a new online chatbot designed to make information about criminal law more accessible to the general public. The free application, called Law Newbie, was developed by Toronto criminal lawyer Jordan Donich.

Recent JD graduate Camille Melo, who is currently articling with the Hamilton, Ont., criminal law firm Collett Read LLP, spent the summer of 2022 conducting the initial research for Law Newbie.

The encyclopedic resource enables users to access details about criminal code offences and potential defence strategies simply by asking the chatbot questions.

“The whole thing has been built with a lot of effort and it’s very intuitive,” said Boros.

“I feel like it’s given me a much stronger idea of the core concepts of criminal law and the finer points,” he added. “The other benefit for me going forward is it’s inspired me to take more technology focused courses next year.”

One of them will be Osgoode’s Engineering the Law course, which is taught by adjunct faculty member Al Hounsell, who serves as the Toronto-based director of strategic innovation and legal design for the multi-national law firm Norton Rose Fulbright LLP.

Among other things, the Osgoode course introduces students to how client needs have pushed the boundaries of legal service delivery to include elements of data, computer technology and artificial intelligence, according to the course description. It also gives students the practical skills to break down contracts and legislation into decision trees, to develop markups and workflows for contract development and negotiations, to attain basic experience with common legal technology applications, and to apply design thinking methodology to legal problems.

Tung, who is leaning towards a career in family law, said his work with Law Newbie has helped spark an interest in working at the intersection of family law and criminal law.

“We’re just trying to make the information as accessible as possible,” he said of the project. “There’s definitely a need for criminal law resources like this because a lot of people don’t understand the criminal code – and it’s also important to understand your rights.

“I feel very fortunate,” he added, “because not a lot of people have the opportunity to do this kind of work.”

Melo said the research and writing that she did for Law Newbie last summer gave her a more solid grounding in criminal law.

“I really liked the research component of it and it was good to know as an up and coming criminal lawyer,” she noted. “I really enjoyed working on an access-to-justice initiative like this, too.”

Donich said he is currently experimenting with integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into the chatbot, but is still determining its effectiveness.

“I am manually programming it now,” he said, “and Camille, Ryan and Elias’s brains have been irreplaceable. They’ve all said they wish they had had this experience with technology earlier in law school – and lawyers who are my age are saying the same thing.”

He said he is planning to hire another student to work on the project part-time beginning in the fall.

Along with his work in criminal law, civil litigation and professional regulation, Donich also specializes in cybersecurity and internet-related crime.

“Technology is changing the legal profession, faster than we have anticipated,” he said. “Lawyers and law students need to be part of the change to ensure any innovation improves our client experience and continues to serve the public interest.”