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Vol. 42, No. 1

New faces in legal tech: ABA Center for Innovation introduces its first group of fellows

by Dan Kittay

The first group of ABA Center for Innovation fellows is about to hit the ground running to explore how technology can help the effort to deliver legal services to as wide an audience as possible.

Composed of a combination of new or recent law school graduates and those who have worked in the legal or technology field for several years or more, the fellows were scheduled to take part in a “Bootcamp” in late August, where they were to learn “people, process and technology skills,” says Geoff Burkhart, the center’s deputy director and counsel.

After the Bootcamp, most of the fellows will then spend their fellowship at the ABA’s Chicago headquarters working on their projects. Subjects include online portals, apps, and platforms that will allow others to collaborate on future projects that make it easier for those with legal needs to get them met.

The center grew out of the 2016 report of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, Burkhart says; the fellowship program is one of the ways it tries to put the report’s recommendations into action.

There are two designations of fellows: NextGen and Innovation. NextGen Fellows have graduated law school within the past five years, and will work full time for a year at the center, except for one who was sponsored by Microsoft and will work at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. NextGen Fellows will receive a salary and benefits and be treated as ABA employees, Burkhart says.

Innovation Fellows are already established in their professions, and will essentially be taking up to a 12-week sabbatical to work at the center. They will not receive salary or benefits.

The center hopes to create a “tech startup/incubator/laboratory” atmosphere, says Sarah Glassmeyer, the ABA project specialist manager who will oversee day-to-day operations. An attorney and law librarian who worked as a research fellow in the Harvard Law Library Innovation Lab, Glassmeyer wants to encourage fellows “to experiment, fail, pick themselves up and try something new, keep hacking away at a problem until they get to a solution.”

Below is a look at the fellows who will be attempting all of this.

Amanda Brown, NextGen Fellow

Brown graduated from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and spent her first year in practice as a disaster recovery fellow at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

Brown will be working in Redmond, Wash., on a Microsoft/Legal Services Corporation project that aims to develop online portals that will help low-income people find help with their legal issues.

“The goal is to have a single access point for people who may need an attorney or sources for resources and information,” Brown says.

While she does have some background in programming, Brown expects that much of her work as a fellow will be in providing help with the legal flow of logic that such a portal would have. Brown is looking to bring back what she learns to her work at SLLS when her fellowship ends.

Athena Fan, NextGen Fellow

Fan is a graduate of American University Washington College of Law, where she focused her legal studies on patent and cyber law.

Fan grew up in Silicon Valley and has long been interested in technology. She will be working to develop an app that will help pro se litigants deal with the vast amount of rules and regulations governing local civil procedures.

Fan hopes to first develop an Android version of the app, with an iOS version to follow.

“I imagine a lot of pro se litigants don’t have a lot of money, and Android phones are usually less expensive,” she explains, “so they probably have Android-based phones.”

In its developmental stage, the app will focus on dealing with the Chicago court system. Fan hopes it will eventually scale to cities nationwide. One crucial factor will be ensuring that the information in the app is accurate and up to date. Fan sees a possible role for bar associations in that effort, as they partner to keep the app current.

Tobias Franklin, NextGen Fellow

Franklin graduated from University of Maine School of Law, where he served as senior developer for the school's Apps for Justice Project. He has more than 10 years’ experience working in the tech industry.

Franklin will be working to build CHESTER (Chicago Expert System for Tenant Eviction Rights), a web-based project to provide help to Chicago residents facing eviction.

While he’s not sure what final form CHESTER will take, it will in some way “interview” those who use it, and offer suggestions on how to proceed, Franklin says. He compared it to tax software that recommends deductions to take based on the information you’ve entered.

Once developed, the technology could be useful to bars or other legal organizations that want an automated way to provide legal information, he adds.

Bryan Gossage, Innovation Fellow

Gossage’s fellowship is jointly sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association, The Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina, and the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. Gossage has a BA in sociology and a graduate-level fellowship in public administration from California State University.

Gossage says his goal for the fellowship is to “improve access to justice in North Carolina by researching and identifying innovative and best practices, especially involving technology.

“Specifically, I hope to evaluate technologies and methodologies related to case management strategies, court performance, and increased online availability of court and public records and information for pro se litigants and the general public.”

Reshma Kamath, NextGen Fellow

Kamath, a graduate of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, is focusing on how technology can be applied locally as well as internationally.

Kamath says she is interested in both the technological and legal sides of her work. During her fellowship, she will be working on how emerging technologies such as blockchain can help with the delivery of legal services. A blockchain is an ever-growing set of records that are linked together and kept secure via cryptography; one practical use is as the foundation for bitcoin transactions.

Kamath has done some programming but is not looking to do that as a full-time profession.

“I’d like to focus on the law and the value that it brings to people,” she says. “Technology is a tool for me. My goal is to use technology to make legal solutions that are easy for lay people to understand.”

Aurora Martin, Innovation Fellow

Martin has not taken a typical career path toward becoming someone who explores how technology can help deliver legal services. She worked in the Washington state legal services community for more than 20 years. Her interest in how technology and the law can work together began just two years ago, when she was asked to be a judge at the Seattle University School of Law's Social Justice Hackathon.

 “I was totally blown away by the innovation, ideas and the potential for digital innovation to level the playing field,” she recalls. “The context of the digital world that we now live in, and the implications for conflict resolution, and empowerment of the clients that we serve in legal aid, occurred to me at that moment.”

Martin decided to change her career focus to leveraging technology to better help provide legal services, and help develop a “startup culture” to explore new ideas. She founded popUPjustice, “a social justice startup that aims to serve as a collaborative entity with various independent creatives and experts across sectors,” according to its website.

During her fellowship, Martin will work on developing SAM (Scholar Advocacy Matchup), a virtual platform that matches scholars with advocacy groups to advance policy and research.

Irene Mo, NextGen Fellow

Mo graduated from Michigan State University College of Law. She has long been interested in data security and privacy, and wants to help spread awareness about those issues.

Mo plans to first work with low-income clients to better learn about their legal needs as they relate to privacy and data security. She then will develop educational materials such as brochures and web-based resources. After evaluating the success of those materials, she wants to develop a training program that can be used in other jurisdictions. She is hoping to reduce what she calls the “digital security divide.”

She explains, “Privacy is a luxury good, and it shouldn’t be that way. Everyone has the right to privacy.” Mo notes that higher end smartphones such as iPhones contain automatic encryption on communications, while lower-cost Android phones may need to be configured to provide that security.  

Android users may not be aware of that need, leaving them at greater risk, Mo adds.

Bryan Wilson, Innovation Fellow

Wilson’s interest in using technology came when he was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. “There’s a pretty large emphasis on leveraging technology to improve access to justice outcomes” at the school, he says.

Wilson developed a strong interest in working with organizations involved with exonerating innocent defendants. He currently works for RiskGenius, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze insurance policies. His fellowship will center on developing the DFENDR Project, which will use software to analyze data on cases and help to determine where there may have been bias or other factors that may have resulted in a wrongful conviction.