We are at an access-to-justice tipping point in the United States. The justice gap continues to grow, particularly for women, immigrants, and minorities, and it now affects a staggering 86% of low-income individuals in need. Yet, we are also now building and consuming far more legal technology than ever before.
The dichotomy comes down to two things: people and processes. In order to build well-informed solutions and get them in the hands of the right users, it’s essential that founders — the creators of those solutions — be intimately familiar with, or come from, the communities they’re trying to serve. Unfortunately, the demographics that the justice gap most affects are also those least reflected in legal tech entrepreneurship: women make up only 14% of founders, and Black and Latinx entrepreneurs only 5%.
As a result of the lack of diversity in legal tech entrepreneurship, others’ biases end up guiding how teams identify, design, and implement new access to justice solutions. Without cultural context, it’s hard to know the right problem to be solving. “Poor communities of color have a proportionally higher number of unmet civil legal needs that affect individuals in different and profound ways,” says Miguel Willis, program director for the Access to Justice Tech Fellows. “Unless we are attentive to the wide range of unique needs of marginalized individuals and communities, we will undoubtedly leave many groups without viable and meaningful access to justice.”
In order to build well-informed solutions and get them in the hands of the right users, it’s essential that founders — the creators of those solutions — be intimately familiar with, or come from, the communities they’re trying to serve.
A community’s unaddressed issues can sometimes boil down to something as simple as language. During recent family separations at the US/Mexican border, for example, a number of organizations produced materials in Spanish, but excluded the Mayan languages of Mam, Q’eqchi’, and K’iche that more than 30% of Guatemalans speak. The difference in being culturally connected can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Identifying problems is the first step, but diverse viewpoints are required to build the best solution. “The entire goal is to make the law more understandable and accessible, and while a non-diverse team can empathize and test with users that are different from themselves, there is added value in having diversity on the team to catch things that others would miss,” explains Nicole Bradick, the founder & CEO of Theory and Principle. If a team can’t embed itself with the community it’s working to serve, then it needs to hire or collaborate with representatives from those groups in order to gain invaluable feedback.
Successful implementation requires a further understanding of where communities go for help — such as, churches, schools, and community centers — and how their users digest information. Tiffany Graves, pro bono counsel at Bradley, describes how this could affect assistance for pro se litigants. If teams don’t “consider the fact that some users will have literacy challenges, some will have disabilities that will inhibit their capacity to access forms virtually, some will speak languages other than English, etc.,” they might not understand how to use the tools, if they can even find them to begin with, Graves said. Even the most beautiful app won’t be useful if it’s written in complicated legalese or buried on a website unknown to users.
Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to increase diversity within legal tech to help correct for these biases. Bob Carlson, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), points out that because tech in general is “largely male-dominated and, until recently, may not have recognized the unconscious biases preventing those of different backgrounds from feeling welcome,” legal tech has also suffered. That discouragement has parlayed into a pipeline problem, which is exacerbated by diverse entrepreneurs’ general lack of access to networks, capital, and decision-makers to drive their solutions forward.
Until we address those challenges, there are tangible steps we can take to reduce design bias and foster diverse thinking internally, such as:
- Be self-aware. “Difference of opinion and viewpoint matter. It’s healthy skepticism to be wary of teams that look just like you.” — Bob Carlson
- Be proactive. “Actively and proactively recruit talent that doesn’t look like you. Diverse founders are out there; you have to be intentional about finding them and working with them.” — Tiffany Graves
- Be open-minded. “Take diverse founders seriously. We naturally seek out people who look and sound and act like ourselves. Hear out a diverse group of founders when looking for solutions and be willing to acknowledge the biases you’re bringing to the table.” — Nicole Bradick
- Listen. “So often we get the temptation to move straight towards a solution to address seemingly intractable problems. This solutionism approach can inevitably do more harm than good. My piece of advice would be to LISTEN. Cultivate relationships with diverse founders, take the time to listen to their unique needs, and let those voice drive future initiatives to support diverse founders.” — Miguel Willis
- Be an advocate. Use your influence to advocate for, promote, and involve diverse communities in your design process. Be vocal about including others and opening up your networks.
If we don’t guard against design bias, we risk making access to justice even less accessible. By being aware, proactive, and thoughtful, we can be better about incorporating diverse viewpoints that will meaningfully move the needle on access-to-justice solutions.