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AI Visionary Maria Earley is Motivated by Humanity and Fairness

Daniel Chapman

Over the course of her legal practice in the FinTech industry, Maria Earley has had a ringside view of technology’s power to create credit opportunities for unbanked populations. As a partner at Morrison & Foerster, Maria helps her FinTech clients navigate regulatory hurdles and ensure that their products are being used ethically and responsibly.

What were your interests early on and what drew you to the practice of law?

As a kid, I really liked reading and interior design—and still do. But my pursuit of law is rooted more in who I am. I grew up in San Francisco and I’m biracial. My parents—one is Asian, one is Black—they were very liberal, and we watched a lot of documentaries. I remember being eight years old and watching a documentary on the Holocaust. It was a pivotal moment; I could not understand how people could be so cruel. My parents didn’t hide the fact that as a woman, particularly a woman of color, I had to understand that human nature can be tough.

What I took away from the documentary was a strong sense of fairness and wanting to express my humanity. I felt that the law was a way for me to achieve that fairness.

Over the years, you’ve built the FinTech practice at your previous law firm, and currently work with Morrison & Foerster’s FinTech and FinServ clients—including advising clients on product development. How has your work—which lies at the intersection of law, compliance, and technology—shaped your view of technology? 

I think technology is very useful and, if deployed correctly, can create opportunities for progress. It speaks to my own mission as a lawyer to help foster an ecosystem where the maximum number of people can participate. Technology can really help us solve hard problems, but it’s up to us as the people who deploy that technology to control the inputs and use it responsibly. In my practice, I help clients build that sense of responsibility and fairness into the products.          

Both the legal and finance sectors have a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies, but you stand out as an early explorer of AI. What are some of the structural barriers that keep these sectors from adopting new technologies?

I think regulatory pushback may be a factor. For instance, if you look at the consumer finance and consumer protection world, many of the laws were written in the 1970s. While they have been updated overtime, the law typically doesn’t keep pace with innovation. As technology continues to move forward and change very rapidly, there are laws that don’t quite work. So there’s a fear of misstepping. The way that I navigate that uncertainty is by understanding the foundation of the laws—i.e. why the laws were written. Once we have an understanding of the intent behind these laws, technologies can be designed around that intent.           

At Text IQ, we feel very strongly about fostering diversity and, in particular, using AI to root out unconscious bias from the workplace. As a woman of color who has worked in the legal industry for over two decades, how can law firms foster more diversity in the workplace?

The problems extend beyond law firms and across corporate America, causing many workplaces to rethink the lens through which they view diversity, equity, and inclusion. When you have different viewpoints from different people with different experiences, that leads to better solutions. We all have blind spots. But if we have diverse teams, we can cover these blind spots by encouraging a diversity of opinions and perspectives. I think there is an opportunity for law firms to lead in this area.        

Can technology help in solving for these blind spots and fostering diversity?

Let’s consider the way we do credit scoring in this country, which looks at people in terms of who is “creditworthy” and not “creditable.” I personally know immigrants who do not trust the banking system, but they also pay the rent, never miss a bill, and make payments on time. They have no credit, so they are not creditworthy. But they are creditable, as demonstrated by years of timely payments. Technology can bring those folks into the financial system by looking at nontraditional items such as rent and utility payments, length at a particular residence, and employment history. Looking at segments of our society that have been overlooked and finding ways for them to be included into mainstream products—that is where technology and AI can play a big role.

What is the one piece of advice you would have for a law firm partner who is learning to use AI?  

AI is not some amorphous thing. If you are nervous about AI, make an attempt to understand it—how is it used, what are the inputs, what are we trying to solve for? It really helps to identify what the goals are and create the right benchmarks and processes to achieve those goals. It’s not a magic button that we push, but a tool that we actively need to manage.

AI is not some amorphous thing. If you are nervous about AI, make an attempt to understand it—how is it used, what are the inputs, what are we trying to solve for? It really helps to identify what the goals are and create the right benchmarks and processes to achieve those goals. It’s not a magic button that we push, but a tool that we actively need to manage.

In the course of your career, what are the wins and contributions you are most proud of?       

It was a pro bono case for an 89-year-old man who became ill, was unable to work, and was living on a fixed income that did not cover his basic expenses. He was facing foreclosure after missing several payments of his condo dues. I was engaged to stop the foreclosure in court. But I wanted to solve the broader problem: at his age, I didn’t want him to be back in a position where he would face losing his home again. After learning he was a war veteran, I helped apply for and obtain benefits. We stopped the foreclosure, and the extra income from the veteran’s benefits ensured that he could afford his home going forward. He’s currently in his condo and living a great life. And that is by far the most meaningful win in my legal career.     

What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?      

Gardening. There’s something very rewarding about going out into the yard and maintaining a garden.

Which person (living or deceased) do you most admire?

My great-grandparents came to the United States from the Philippines to work as farm laborers, first on the sugar plantations in Hawaii, then in California. While researching my family history, I learned of a man named Larry Itliong, a Filipino worker who organized other Filipino laborers during California’s grape workers strike to protest terrible working conditions. He was a firecracker who cared about people. I am inspired by his courage to fight for himself and others who were mistreated and marginalized. He truly embodied the sense of fairness and humanity I believe in so deeply.  

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

The ability to connect with people. At the core of what I do is advising people, not just about the law, but also more broadly. It’s a highly underrated skill, and we don’t talk about it enough in the legal profession. I owe a lot of my success to wanting to know and understand the people I work with. I think it’s a very important part of what it means to be a good lawyer.

Daniel Chapman is a strategic account executive at Relativity.

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