Redesigning the User Experience in Legal Aid

From The Practice September/October 2017
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

In November 2015, Seattle University School of Law student Miguel Willis organized the Seattle Social Justice Hackathon—a gathering of lawyers, law students, developers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of all types for the expressed purpose of innovating solutions to problems in access to justice. Contrary to what the name might suggest, there was no nefarious “hacking” involved. Rather, the hackathon brought together a diverse group of people to collaborate and experiment in a fast-pasted environment with the goal of solving core access problems. That meant exploring ways to increase and improve access to legal services where they are hardest to come by and needed the most—often rural and/or low-income communities.

Hackathons are becoming increasingly common, and those specializing in legal technology are far from unheard of. But while these hackathons tend to focus on potential disruptions in the legal marketplace—for instance, the use of AI and how that might disrupt traditional law firm models—the Seattle Social Justice Hackathon was primarily concerned with overcoming the barriers that vulnerable populations face in the justice system. The ideas presented by the winning teams exemplify this goal. One team came up with a smartphone app that allowed tenants to create records of rent payments sufficient to serve as evidence in case of legal disputes with their landlords. Another team came up with an app that allowed people to fill out cumbersome court documents through a voice-to-text function—a nod to the A2J Lab’s priority of making court forms more accessible (See the lead story of this issue, The Access to Justice Lab). Another team presented a webpage through which those in need could receive self-help materials directly from volunteer lawyers. These ideas were not designed to blow up the system but to address fixable problems that stood in the way of people accessing legal resources and services.

Aurora Martin, then director of the locally based nonprofit legal aid program Columbia Legal Services, was one of the judges at the Seattle Social Justice Hackathon. That experience of seeing what came out of these intense, multidisciplinary collaborations around legal aid services and tech innovation inspired her to pursue her own unique access idea. After a career working in legal aid services, Martin founded popUPjustice, a start-up dedicated to finding solutions to access-to-justice problems through projects “at the intersection of technology, social justice, the arts, and pop culture.” According to popUPjustice’s website, the start-up was founded in 2017 and offers consultation services, undertakes policy research and analysis, and holds events—such as social justice hackathons—all geared toward rethinking and improving access to justice. Among popUPjustice’s projects are its Rural American Digital Lab, a network of innovation incubators at rural colleges, and the Scholar Advocacy Matchup, an online forum that connects advocacy organizations with scholars who study related fields to collaborate on research and policy efforts.

Initiatives like the Seattle Social Justice Hackathon and popUPjustice are just the beginning. Across the legal industry, the search for innovative solutions to access problems has gained momentum. From law schools (Harvard Law School recently hired its inaugural Access to Justice Innovation Fellow) to law firms (Allen & Overy just launched its internal “Fuse” incubator, which is developing new tools to provide pro bono services to immigrants) to in-house legal departments (GE is at the forefront of developing LawyerCorps Connecticut, a consortium of legal aid programs across the state of Connecticut), the playing field is changing. Now that the future has arrived, can it bridge the access-to-justice gap?