“It’s hard to describe how fast this is growing.” Samuel Dahan, Assistant Professor at Queen’s Law and head of its nascent Conflict Analytics Lab, is in his office, looking at his laptop, smartphone close by and periodically buzzing with incoming mail.
Conflict Analytics is taking off.
It’s a notion that began with Dahan before he joined the Queen’s faculty, and that has grown rapidly since then. “The idea of extracting data from negotiation settlements and cases, converting it to knowledge that is understandable and can be acted on, and using that to help people not only in legal practice is one I’ve been intrigued by since my time as a PhD student at Cambridge, and then while I was at the Court of Justice of the European Union,” he says. “It’s not just a question of creating information of use to lawyers, but also providing guidance for parties and organizations involved in a dispute, such as consumer or employment negotiation.”
Dahan took this idea to Queen’s when he joined the faculty in 2017, having already found collaborators, including Jonathan Touboul of the College de France; Aymeric De Moncuit of the Court of Justice of the European Union; Maxime Cohen of NYU Stern; Colin Rule, founder of eBay’s online dispute resolution platform; and David Restrepo Amariles of HEC Paris. While the idea behind the project has remained consistent, the list of collaborators has continued to grow. The Conflict Analytics Lab, the first of its kind, now has the largest consortium of experts on data analytics and dispute resolution.
Through a partnership with the Smith Scotiabank Centre for Customer Analytics and the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace, a team of more than 25 law students and data scientists is working feverishly on data entry and coding in order to develop an open source AI-tribunal for small claims in Ontario. This digital dispute-resolution platform would be aimed at providing predictive legal services and negotiation support for self-represented plaintiffs.
Professor Kevin Banks, Director of the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace, has played an important role in the project. “Professor Dahan is taking the Centre’s work in bold new directions,” says Banks. “He joined the faculty as a Centre affiliate, and the work he’s doing with the Lab will support our mandate to advance the thinking around workplace law, particularly rights adjudication, at a national and an international level.”
But what does it all mean?
“This is a project that quickly moves from academic work to something with real-world applications,” Dahan notes. “Key to this is our work on applied research – using the machine-learning system we’re building to create a dispute resolution service for people who cannot afford to be represented. There are several applications of the technology, for instance, dispute resolution, consumer complaints, contract negotiations and trademark analysis.”
“To take an example,” Dahan continues, “look at consumer disputes. Companies spend excessive amounts of money to solve customer disputes, and struggle to build consistent dispute-resolution processes. We are collaborating with several industries, including the hospitality and banking sectors, to develop a cutting-edge neural network system. We’re going to use it to analyze this vast volume of information so that we can start to provide guidance for customer services on what happens in some cases, as well as identifying best practices for resolving disputes.”
“What if,” he goes on, “there was a tool for customers that let them see what the history of similar disputes was? Or for businesses to see what the most likely result of a resolution would be? How would that change how the business responds to a customer who has a problem? And how much time and energy would it save, on a mass scale, if we could streamline these processes?”
These are big questions – and perhaps big solutions – that apply to all of the applications that the Conflict Analytics Lab is working on. “That’s the philosophy that also drives the idea of a tool for an open AI resolution tribunal, as well as a system to let us see whether Canadian, French and European case law are consistent,” Dahan points out.
On a smaller scale, the Lab is currently using cutting-edge text analytics to help one of the largest train builders in the world to improve their contract drafting and negotiation strategies. “This is a smaller project, but one that will really serve as a proof of result for the project,” Dahan notes. “We are taking past negotiations over contracts in this specific industry, building a database, and then moving on to analytics that will help administrators enter into contracts with a solid idea of what has resulted in success in the past.”
Beyond these direct applications, the Conflict Analytics Lab is also serving as an incubator, creating a home for legal technology entrepreneurs to foster and grow their own projects. “We’re excited to be creating an ecosystem for future projects,” Dahan says. “Mariella Montplaisir, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, is working with us on her Solvr project, an online dispute-resolution system, and we are looking forward to more partnerships like this in the future.”
All of this, of course, involves substantial research – and will generate some foundational work on data analysis and dispute resolution in the academic sphere. Dahan says, “As an academic, I’m excited at the potential here to produce substantial work that will extend the benefits of the project far beyond our collaborators and to an international audience of scholars dealing with both the issues surrounding labour law, and also how data and analysis can fuel a better understanding of our field.”
That, in turn, will fuel the final mandate of the Lab: education. “This brings us full circle,” Dahan says. “We’re creating practical tools for the legal and other industries, but are we informing them? This work can create powerful ways for people to understand and use data, but the education component of this is vital and cannot be overlooked. Beyond the tools, there are opportunities here to educate the next generation of lawyers, negotiators and mediators. At the end of the day, meaningful work is about change, and change is something that has to happen at the user level.”
The project is also creating opportunities for students: Maddy Sequeira, Law’21, and Shane Liquornik, Law’20, are two of Dahan’s first hires as research assistants for the project. “It’s exciting as students to have the opportunity to play a role in shaping the way in which technology and law can interact and advance the field of dispute resolution,” they say. “As next-generation lawyers, the lab has exposed us to the benefits of embracing innovations in the legal field.”
Bill Flanagan, Dean of Queen’s Law, is delighted with the Lab and its remarkable progress since Dahan’s arrival at Queen’s. “Samuel has taken a leadership role in creating a space where we are leveraging both technology and creative thinking in developing highly innovative and low-cost ways to deliver legal services,” he says. “The Lab is putting Queen’s Law on the forefront of thinking and research on the application of AI to dispute resolution, developments that hold major potential to address some of the chronic access-to-justice challenges in Canada and around the world.”
What’s next for the Lab? With multiple speaking engagements queued up, and interest growing among both academics and legal practitioners, Professor Dahan has a full plate. “The response to this project has been gratifying,” he says, “and I’m excited to see where we can go from here.
“We’re especially gratified to see the interest Queen’s Law alumni have shown in the Lab,” he concludes. “While the project list is growing, there’s room for more, and if our alumni have problems that they feel this unique combination of legal data and analysis can help solve, I’d be more than happy to discuss it with them.”
Learn more about the Conflict Analytics Lab.