It may seem like there are plenty of lawyers around, but if you’re low income or living in a rural area, legal help is often unavailable or out of reach.
A new fellowship launched by students from Seattle University School of Law hopes to use technology to provide legal support to those in need. The effort joins a growing movement to bring legal aid to the masses, including the development of the DoNotPay “robot lawyer” that helps drivers in some cities fight parking tickets, and a new tool by the same developer to assist refugees seeking asylum.
The Access to Justice Technology Fellowship Program (ATJ Tech Fellows) doesn’t go as far as deploying robots to tackle legal issues, but provides first- and second-year law students from across the county with instruction from tech experts. It partners the students with law firms and legal organizations where they’ll be helping solve legal-tech challenges.
In Washington, more than three-quarters of low-income residents face civil legal problems without an attorney or other legal assistance, according to a recent judicial task force report. That can include disputes over housing, health care, financial services and family and domestic issues.
“We won’t ever have enough attorneys to service those needs,” said Miguel Willis, founder of the fellowship program and a third-year law student at Seattle University.
That’s where tech comes in.
“Technology and innovation can be used as vital tools in serving clients,” he said. Solutions include using artificial intelligence, document automation and providing better online self-help legal resources for the public.
With the fellowship, “we hope to create this ecosystem of innovators that will be the next wave of legal innovations to improve our justice system,” Willis said.
The first 11 ATJ Tech Fellows will be announced soon, he said. The fellowship spans 10 weeks this summer, with one Seattle-based fellow, and students spread nationally from Alaska to Hawaii to Virginia.
The new program is already earning praise.
“Starting when students are in law school and preparing them to enter a tech heavy environment, that is really important, that is something that more law schools should be moving on,” said Franklin Graves, a Nashville-based intellectual property and entertainment law attorney with technology expertise. “There is not enough in the profession currently.”
ATJ Tech Fellows received some of its initial support as a winner of Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition this past October. Other supporters are Starbucks, Microsoft Philanthropies and Lexblog, a legal self-publishing platform.
“Law is a human enterprise,” said Destinee Evers, a Seattle University law student and program coordinator for the fellowship.
“It’s a person analyzing issues, bringing their expertise to a situation,” she said. “The degree to which you can free up that person by using a tech application, it frees us up to do better work.”
The marriage of tech and law is also being embraced by big firms. Banking giant JPMorgan Chase & Co. recently announced that it was using software called COIN, for Contract Intelligence, that can interpret commercial-loan agreements. The program can quickly do a job that previously required 360,000 hours of work each year by lawyers and loan officers.
When it comes to adopting tech-driven efficiencies, “there are a lot of people in the legal community who are really pushing this and see the need,” Evers said.
As Willis explained, spreading the reach of legal help can forgo future disasters for people in need. And the demand is tremendous. The state task force found that more than 70 percent of low-income households in Washington experienced at least one civil legal problem each year.
“The problem is that when a minute legal issue doesn’t get handled, it can get compounded and spiral into a series of legal problems,” Willis said. If someone can’t pay a parking ticket, it doubles and then goes into collections. That racks up interest fees and the possibility that the driver’s license gets suspended. The driver could eventually land in jail — all because of that initially parking ticket.
“When you don’t get legal needs treated,” Willis said, “a series of unfortunate events could happen.”