ABA Center for Innovation NextGen Fellow Athena Fan: How to be an Emerging Leader in the Legal Innovation Pipeline

Topics: Access to Justice, Alternative Legal Service Providers, American Bar Association, Data Analytics, Legal Education, Legal Technologists, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

Legal Geek

As part of our interview series with NextGen fellows with the ABA Center for Innovation, we feature Athena Fan, whose project will help litigants navigate local civil procedure and gain access to legal information through a data-driven, mobile-accessible artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot.

Legal Executive Institute: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came to be interested in going to law school, and what your plans were after you finished law school but before you started the fellowship?

Athena Fan: Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in Silicon Valley, my family and I definitely experienced several legal problems. This inspired me to go to UC-San Diego, which is a public interest-focused college, and to always volunteer for public interest-focused organizations in my community. After college, I volunteered for two years with Asian Law Alliance, which helps low-income people in Silicon Valley gain access to critical legal services. Volunteering there is what inspired me to go to law school, and I decided to attend the American University Washington College of Law because the school has a huge public-interest focus.

Can you talk a little bit about what an actual day looks like for you? Are you coding? Or using a technology platform to help potential users navigate to the information that they need? Can you describe more about what your role is?

I wear many different hats on a day-to-day basis. I am designer, product developer, and product manager. I am the person behind training the [Application Programming Interface] API platform to use logical Q&A statements. I am actually teaching a basic coding for lawyers as a CLE class with the ABA Young Lawyers Division at the 2018 ABA Annual Meeting.

Because of the nature of the fellowship and the short time frame, I spent about four months using design-thinking and conducting research to emphasize and define users’ problems. After that, I spent another three months ideating and iterating the prototype. Then, I focused on the API to properly display if-and-then statements. There were several iterations based on closed beta-testing feedback from users.

Now, I am in the final open beta-testing phase of the chatbot project, embedding it within the website, and making it accessible through social media. For example, a legal aid organization may use a Facebook page with the ability to use a chatbot to help them do a simple intake or to answer very frequently asked questions. This allows the legal aid organizations to better allocate their human resources to other areas versus using the people and time to answer repetitive questions.


Athena Fan

What have you learned during your fellowship journey, specifically in the areas around technology and innovation?

Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to create a data-driven and inclusive access-to-justice project. I have learned to leverage my network, especially people in it who have pertinent experience creating legal technology tools. They have been through the trenches; and learning from their experience, understanding the pitfalls they went through, and knowing what to avoid have been invaluable.

The other thing I have learned is that when you are creating a legal tech tool, don’t work in a silo and always be humble. When you enter a space where there are multiple stakeholders, be mindful of how you collaborate with others and keep an open mind about the constant need to learn.

I am especially grateful for the ABA Center for Innovation staff, the Center’s Governing Council, Advisory Council, and collaborators for their support and guidance. I am thankful for the folks from ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities, ABA Division for Legal Services, Stanford Legal Design Lab, Self-Represented Litigants Network, CALI, Illinois Legal Aid Online, Chicago Legal Hackers Community, Resolution Systems Institute, Chicago Legal Clinic, Chicago Bar Foundation staff, Justice Entrepreneurs Project leadership, Chicago Bar Association, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts Civil Justice Division, and the Institute of Design-IIT Chicago Kent for giving their time and energy in making my fellowship project a success.

How do you plan on incorporating your learnings around technology and innovation in your future career?

I plan to incorporate design-thinking in all my future projects. Design-thinking focuses on iterating the product based on data from users’ experience and from the user perspective. Focusing on designing from their perspective improves a project and brings a more positive impact on the user.

I definitely plan to be a part of the legal innovation diversity pipeline by creating inclusive and data-driven, access-to-justice tools. I have been fortunate to have several great mentors and people who have shared their valuable time and advice with me this year. I also plan to continue to be a NextGen leader in the legal innovation space and mentor future legal technologists.