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September 2017

9 innovators share big ideas for expanding access to justice

Even in legal circles, innovation can come in different forms -- not merely technology. That was the message Saturday when a diverse group of legal innovators outlined their organizations’ recent initiatives in a Ted-talk style program called “Spotlight on Innovation: Micro-Presentations on the Cutting Edge of Legal Services.”

The two-hour program presented by the ABA Center for Innovation at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York provided a demonstration of the breadth and creativity of how new thinking has taken hold in the legal profession and justice system in areas that include education, technology and criminal and civil justice.

Consider what lawyers are doing in Cleveland. A legal aid clinic there brings a social worker to the legal team to work with low-income clients, and the results have been a “win-win” for the lawyers and the clients. Another example: using platform technology to communicate with defendants to make the court experience more convenient and efficient.

The sponsoring group, the ABA Center for Innovation, is a year-old initiative to accelerate the accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. legal services. The center developed out of the recommendations of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, a working group set up by then ABA President William Hubbard (2014-15) to expand access to justice, particularly for low- and moderate-income people.

Andrew Perlman, chair of the Center for Innovation and dean of Suffolk University Law School in Boston, observed that the program reflected a “tip of the iceberg,” which showed “many different kinds of solutions” to a diverse group of problems in the legal profession. The center is creating a web resource to spotlight the scores of legal initiatives that have been shown to bring more efficiency and improvement to the justice system.

The nine presenters were:

  • Andrew Arruda, co-founder of Ross Intelligence, whose slogan is to “supercharge lawyers with artificial intelligence.” Arruda discussed how technology offers a symbiotic relationship with humans and a way to help broaden who can be helped by the law.
  • Georges Clement, a co-founder of, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn that is building technology for improving housing in New York. He said 1 in 5 New Yorkers live with such conditions as pests, mold or no heat, and JustFix is a self-help, mobile tool to help tenants build a case against their landlords.
  • Jeannette Eicks, co-director of the Center for Innovation at Vermont Law School, talked about how computer games were introduced into the “classroom” to reinforce learning for law students. Vermont, for example, has added technology competency as a requirement and computer-oriented education helps foster lawyer-entrepreneurs.
  • J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan, recounted a story of how his own 25-mile drive and a four-hour wait to talk “10 seconds” with a prosecutor led to the creation of an online platform allowing citizens to resolve smaller legal matters without having to go to court.
  • Ezra Ritchin of the Bronx Freedom Fund talked about the formation of a fund to assist people arrested for minor crimes who cannot afford bail money. It costs, he says, $600 a night to incarcerate an individual in New York’s main jail, Rikers Island, and that too many people plead guilty just to get out of jail.
  • James Sandman, president of the federal Legal Services Corporation, discussed a pilot project with technology giant Microsoft to employ more technology to get better access to justice for legal aid clinics. The ABA center is participating in this project as well.
  • Matthew Stubenberg of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service told how his group helped automate filling out criminal conviction expungement forms. He said the time it took to complete this form dropped from 5 to 10 minutes to 3 seconds.
  • Anne Sweeney of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland outlined how lawyers have brought in social workers for their teams. She said adding a social worker can mean the difference between a “win and a loss” and that their familiarity with neighborhoods helps with clients who give legal aid lawyers “the most difficult time.”
  • Judge Trudy White of the East Baton Rouge Parish Criminal District Court in Louisiana discussed a re-entry program for offenders that includes two years of prison vocational training in a variety of areas and tighter monitoring upon parole. Recidivism is less than 10 percent for program participants, the judge said. 
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