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Cornell Law Students Use AI to Transform Legal Assistance to Upstate NY Tenants

During the spring semester, students and faculty in Cornell Law’s Tenants Advocacy Practicum investigated how new advances in technology can help more people access resources to solve their housing legal issues.

Teny, the chatbot

The main source of clients for the practicum is the Tenants Legal Hotline, a Law School pro bono project that allows tenants in upstate New York to get legal advice from Cornell Law students who are supervised by experienced landlord-tenant lawyers. Student-attorneys can assist tenants in recovering security deposits, defending against eviction, and handling other tenancy-related issues.

An important feature of the hotline website is Teny, a chatbot created in 2022, that covers all areas of the Tenants’ Rights guide. This spring, a group of six master’s students in Information Science interviewed diverse users in the Ithaca area to identify common issues to improve Teny. The team is also working to combine relevant information for people to see in one chunk, incorporating visual aids, and addressing user interface issues.

Simultaneously, a group of practicum students led by Eliza Hong ’24 created a generative AI program for internal use by students who are researching cases. This was done in collaboration with the legal technology company Josef, using its generative AI program called JosefQ. The AI draws from a “closed universe” knowledge base that is specifically about upstate New York tenants’ rights law. Law students can ask questions of the AI program and receive natural language answers from the knowledge base, similar to ChatGPT. Students are checking and moderating the answers for accuracy and easy-to-understand language and looking for other ways to improve the tool. They are also using legal research from actual practicum cases to add new information to the AI.

Teny began as Eliza Hong’s idea in the Social Entrepreneurship class at Cornell Law School. Since then, the chatbot was featured in the New York Statewide Civil Legal Aid Technology Conference and the AI was presented at the JURIX conference on Legal Knowledge and Information Systems, along with a working paper.

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