WASHINGTON, D.C.—For all the negativity around legal education these days, it seems that some law students are having a little more fun than others, and are picking up a more diverse set of skills than previous generations of lawyers.
A prime example of this phenomenon is Georgetown Law’s semi-annual Iron Tech Lawyer competition, which was held on April 22 at the school’s campus in Washington, D.C. I was honored to be a judge, along with Rebecca Sandefur, assistant professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois; and William M. Treanor, executive vice president and dean of the Georgetown University Law Center. I came away a little envious of the new tools that today’s students have to work with, their opportunities to utilize technology, and the impact they can have on real legal problems with the help of legal tech and innovative ways of thinking about legal services.
The competition works like this: The students take a class called “Technology, Innovation and Legal Practice” during the school term. In the class, they learn how to build apps using software provided by Neota Logic. The Neota Logic platform allows non-programmers to build apps for expert applications in fields such as law, finance, and compliance. (You can read more about the Georgetown competition and the school’s Program in Legal Technologies; and a similar program is available at Vanderbilt University School of Law.)
This term, all the apps built by students had an “Access to Justice” Theme. The students partner with nonprofits and government agencies with public interest missions, and those “clients” often choose to deploy the apps for real clients and stakeholders.
Here are the apps from this most recent competition:
ADA2GO: The Americans with Disabilities Act Insider—This application serves as a resource for persons with disabilities and advocates in furthering the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Alaskan Native Child Welfare Assistance Application—This application is designed to help Alaskan non-lawyer tribal representatives in Indian Child Welfare Act cases.
Anti-Corruption Adviser—This application helps NGOs and social enterprises in developing countries to identify whether their structure and operations must comply with U.S. and/or UK anti-bribery and anti-corruption legislation.
California Legal Adviser—This application presents an alternative means of accessing information on LawHelpCA, an agency that provides information on obtaining legal assistance.
Disaster Assistance & Recovery Tool (DART)This application will help disaster victims determine what federal loan and grant assistance they are eligible for and how to receive assistance.
The Veterans Disability Benefits Application—This application will help identify potential disability benefits for veterans and refer them to the appropriate organizations that can assist them.
The student teams had eight minutes to present their apps, followed by five minutes of questions from the judges. In the end, the judges selected Disaster Assistance & Recovery Tool (DART) as the winner of the overall prize for Best Iron Tech Lawyer. The Excellence in Design prize went to California Legal Advisor. Online viewers watching the livestream selected ADA2GO as the online voting favorite.
All of the submissions were impressive, but a few criteria started to stand out as very important to me and the other judges:
- Up-front attention to the user of the app: A common phenomenon with this kind of exercise (or really any kind of product development in the legal space) is that the builders of the app tend to focus first on the regulation in play, and tend to build the app around structure and requirements of the regulation. We could quickly see that the best apps were those in which the students first developed a very good understanding of the target user’s situation. That’s not a bad approach for any lawyer—meeting the client where they are in terms of understanding of the problem and the options for a legal solution.
- Scope and ambition: A few of the apps were quite ambitious, covering more than one set of regulatory requirements. For example, the Disaster Legal Aid Eligibility Advisor had to integrate information about assistance for disaster relief from four different relief programs. That integration is hugely valuable and one of the chief virtues of this type of application, because this phenomenon is quite common in real life: consumers can often find relief from a confusing multiplicity of organizations and agencies, which often do not play well together or communicate well about other alternative solutions.
- Solution-centric rather than regulation-centric: Some apps do a good job of leading the user to a correct “answer” to the legal problem, by narrowing down the issue and pointing to the applicable regulation. We found that the more impressive apps led the user not just to an “answer,” but rather to a suggested set of next steps. Several of the apps left the users with a downloadable document outlining next steps. For example, one of the available outputs of the ADA2GO app was a downloadable document that a person with a disability could carry with them in order to explain the obligations of a building owner with respect to that person’s specific disability under the law. The Disaster Legal Aid Eligibility left the user with a downloadable table that included suggested next steps and links to various forms and tools for advancing through the process.
- The Holy Grail of full integration: This was mostly beyond the scope of what the students were asked to do, but the judges saw many opportunities for additional integration with other content or systems that could have improved the apps. For example, some of the apps required the user to fill in data that could, in some cases, have been pulled from public systems (for example discharge data in the Veterans Disability Benefits Application). Other opportunities for integration appeared on the back-end of some of the apps. For example, rather than leading the user to a list of next steps and a few links, some of the apps could eventually be built out by integrating forms for executing the suggested actions—applications for specific benefits, for example, so that the user wouldn’t have to actually leave the app in order to execute the specific solution suggested.
While these criteria are important for this kind of technology-based applications, it’s not a bad set of criteria for any lawyer’s work. Increasingly, these will be the skill sets and product-development approaches that will be transforming the legal industry over the next decade.
Note to law firm leaders, in-house GCs, and lawyers in government and the nonprofit sector: There is a small but growing group of law schools that are starting to turn out young graduates that have combined their legal education with some cross-disciplinary work in other fields such as computer science, engineering, or design. In addition to Georgetown and Vanderbilt, schools like Michigan State School of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Chicago-Kent Law School, and Stanford University Law School have programs and courses that have prepared students who are conversant with fields outside of law and comfortable with technology.
Actively recruiting those graduates will help firms and in-house law departments with their own challenges, but more importantly, it will do the industry a great service, by supporting a new, multidisciplinary view of legal education, as law schools try to position themselves positively in the face of falling law school applications.