Civ Tech: Digital Tools and Access to Justice
Case Study Lead(s)
Georgetown Law Center in collaboration with Mark O’Brien, co-founder and executive director of Pro Bono Net
Civ Tech: Digital Tools and Access to Justice
A Case Study of Teaching Public Interest Tech
Civ Tech: Digital Tools and Access to Justice is an experiential class offered at Georgetown Law Center in collaboration with Mark O’Brien, co-founder and executive director of Pro Bono Net. In the class, students work in teams with public interest organizations to build web-based apps to increase access to the civil justice system. Since the class was launched, students have built dozens of apps, including ones that help users navigate court processes, understand and act on their rights, and access the law in other ways. Other apps expand the scope and efficacy of services offered by public interest organizations. Many of the tools from the class have been developed further and deployed; others serve as demos.
The Civ Tech Course
The course has several important learning objectives connected with the adoption of technologies in the access to justice field. One theme, which runs through their work on individual projects and in class, is the potential and limitations of technologies to improve access. Guest speakers, who are experts in the field, supplement and deepen students’ understanding of the civil justice landscape. In addition, students are assigned short readings and brief reflection papers to ensure they are aware of the opportunities and challenges of integrating tech in the access to justice ecosystem.
In the course, students acquire basic technical skills by learning to use a software platform that allows them to engineer legal expert systems. They also acquire basic UX, human, and community design skills through in-class discussion and client collaboration. Among the more general skills they develop is professionalism, through supervised interactions with organizational clients, teamwork, and basic presentation skills.
The centerpiece of the class is team projects in which students collaborate with organizations to build technological tools to improve access to the civil justice system by helping users navigate court processes, understand and act on their rights, and access the law in other ways. Students devote most of their effort over the course of a semester to working on one project. By the end of the semester, we expect students to have created a working tool that is ready (or nearly ready) to be deployed.
As they work on their projects, students learn how the technologies they are developing support their organizational partner’s service delivery model. Students working on an expungement app with a public defender’s office, for example, will learn about how the tool will support the office’s other services. Similarly, students working on a legal diagnosis app for social workers serving the elderly will learn how the tool enhances coordination between social workers and lawyers to better assist clients with their legal needs.
We devote in-class time to teaching students about the broader context for their projects. Over the course of the semester, civil justice advocates speak to the class about the access to justice crisis and the role of technologies in ameliorating it. Students may learn, for example, about tools to assist tenants to bring housing conditions complaints, debtors to file for bankruptcy, and low-wage earners to address wage theft. Students also hear about the limitations of digital tools to lowering barriers to access to justice, including the difficulties for users with low literacy and those with limited access to the internet to find and use digital tools and the challenges of finding sustainable business models to maintain and scale access to justice technologies. To encourage critical thought about these issues, students are required to submit several brief reflection papers over the course of the semester.
Students who don’t code find the class appealing because it does not require a programming background. We use a software platform developed for lawyers by Neota Logic. The software allows non-programmers to create apps with customized interfaces, complex logic, automated document production, data collection and analysis, and other functions. All students master the platform within the first few weeks of the semester, and most are comfortable using its more complex functions by the end of the term. Building apps using Neota Logic requires embedding legal and nonlegal rules into a reasoning engine and instills an “engineering” mindset that differs from the legal analytic skills taught in law school. Students learn to develop solutions for categories of problems, rather than addressing each one separately, and they experience the satisfaction of building a tool that takes inputs and produces outputs.
Over the years, the class has worked with a range of organizations: civil legal aid providers—which specialize in intimate partner violence protection, immigration, landlord-tenant, and consumer rights, among other areas—public defender offices, nonlegal service providers, law school clinics, courts, and administrative agencies. The most important criterion for the selection of a legal tech project is that the organization have a vision of how the technology will complement or increase the efficacy of its services.
In addition, we consider the types of community needs the tool is intended to serve, whether the scope of the project is appropriate for the class, whether the functionalities requested are a good fit for the software we use, whether a very similar tool already exists in the organization’s ecosystem, and whether the organization has a deployment plan. Projects selected are either self-help tools, tools to be used by trusted intermediaries (such as social workers or tenant rights advocates), screening tools such as an eligibility and triage app that support an organization’s service delivery model, or some combination. Organizations are typically based in the United States or Canada, and teams have collaborated remotely with organizations in states as far flung as Texas, Hawaii, and Alaska.
To surface the most promising projects, we distribute a request for proposals (RFP) through civil justice networks, including the listservs of Legal Services Corporation grantees, Pro Bono Net, and the Self-Represented Litigation Network. In addition to setting forth application requirements, the RFP describes what the students will bring to the project and explains the expectations for the participating organization. Most importantly, the organization is expected to make a subject matter expert available to work with students on a weekly basis. In addition to making expectations clear from the outset, the RFP plays a forcing function, strengthening client motivation and commitment to the project.
When the course was first taught, we invited students to come up with projects themselves. A practical challenge we encountered was persuading organizations to adopt the tools students had built. More importantly, we wanted students to get away from the mindset, often associated with the tech world, that they could parachute into a setting, identify a problem, and fix it. Instead, consistent with the class’s goal to teach students about the civil justice system, we want students to appreciate that the organizations are the experts: They are embedded in an ecosystem of services and have a deep understanding of their clients’ needs.
Keys to Working with Client Organizations
- Designated subject matter expert + guarantee of at least one hour/week.
- Clearly defined need or problem to be addressed.
- Concrete plan for deployment of the app.
Scoping the Project
The students’ first challenge is to work with the client organization to determine the scope of the app. Some clients’ expectations are too high for what the students can accomplish or what the platform can do. Others’ expectations are too modest. During the course of developing the tool, students and clients engage in an iterative process during which the students educate the clients about the technical capabilities of the software and the design principles taught in class. At the same time, clients educate students about the people they serve, their service delivery model, and their role in the larger civil justice ecosystem. This give-and-take includes a discussion of what functions the app should perform—Should it give guidance? Produce certain documents? Collect data?—and how applicable law should be embedded in the app. At the same time, client organizations are teaching students about the needs, interests, and goals of their target populations. The project scoping process mirrors the process that legal technologists and subject matter experts engage in to produce a successful legal digital tool.
Key Scope and Scale Questions
- Intended user— or end user of the legal system, trusted intermediary, or organizational client.
- Desired output(s) of the app.
- Typical use case, including circumstances that will lead a user to the app.
- Jurisdiction(s) covered and variations in legal rules. Adding jurisdictions with different laws or rules on an issue is typically beyond the scope of a one-semester course.
- Sustainability, including frequency of change in the applicable law(s) For sustainability, app components dealing with an area of law that changes frequently may need to be minimized or eliminated.
UIX, Collaborative, and Community-Centered Design: Students design their apps using principles of human and community-centered design. In creating an app’s interface, students borrow concepts from UIX, including color theory and web page design, and work closely with the subject matter expert on questions of layout and flow. In general, the intended user is represented by the organization. To the extent feasible, students pilot their apps in collaboration with intended users.
Plain Language: One of the biggest challenges students face in the legal design process is translating applicable legal concepts and rules into plain language. We ask students to be mindful of the potentially limited language abilities and legal system familiarity of the intended users of their app and instruct students to use plain language that is easy to read and understand and that avoids technical or legal jargon. This turns out to be the biggest challenge for students (and many experts), who have difficulty communicating complex concepts in simple and clear terms. The technical language of law adds another level of difficulty. Many legal concepts are difficult to communicate in nonlegal terms, and legal services providers may be resistant to using simpler language for fear that important legal subtleties will be lost.
Prototyping and Testing: As soon as teams have a functioning app prototype, they work with their organizational client to test it with its intended users and make modifications based on the feedback they receive.
Decision-Making: During the course of the semester students are encouraged to propose ideas to their client organizations. Consistent with the model of the class, client organizations have final say about all aspects of the app, including the issues addressed, the design of interface, and the language used.