Your Rebel, My Pioneer: Technology, Access to Justice and the ABA

Americans are emotionally attached to the notion of ‘rebels’. They want to see the tea floating in the harbour; the Harley-Davidson racing across the desert; Clint Eastwood taking an unconventional approach to law enforcement. The attraction may even account, more darkly, for Confederate nostalgia and President Trump support. The ABA Journal has just named its tenth cohort of ‘legal rebels’ with a strong inclination to technology and access to justice. 

The Journal stated its purpose: ‘We decided to recognize those lawyers who aren’t waiting for change, and honor the mavericks who are finding new ways to practice law, represent their clients, adjudicate cases and train the next generation of lawyers. Most are leveraging the power of the internet to help them work better, faster and differently. Others are looking at legal work with a fresh eye, changing or combining approaches to create new services for a new world of law practice.’

The original seven included Richard Granat, described as an ‘internet obsessive’. However, the seven had a wide range of interests ranging from paralegals to diversity. This year’s, tenth anniversary bunch, were selected in partnership with the ABA Center for Innovation so have a decidedly – though not comprehensively – technological bent. 

The awardees are worth noting in their own right but also as indicators of future developments relevant around the world. 

Rohan Pavuluri and Jonathan Petts were nominated for their work on Upsolve, a DIY insolvency programme which is written up in a previous post. This allows you to draw up the appropriate forms and then have them reviewed by a lawyer for free. Sam Stoddard, Brady Stoddard and Ayde Soto founded SimpleCitizen to ease immigration applications. Dorna Moini’s Documate helps legal aid groups and law firms automate users’ form-filling. A handy video on its website shows you how you can generate standard documents that are easy to populate and save time. It is free to legal aid organisations and for profits can pay. Professor Colin Starger of Baltimore University ‘had trouble mapping out the relevant cases and created a program to do it for him. Working with the Free Law Project, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, he created the SCOTUS Mapping Project, an online tool that allows users to inform their legal research by charting competing lines of U.S. Supreme Court majority and dissenting opinions.’ 

Kimball Dean Parker runs SixFifty, a technology subsidiary of a law firm, that develops automated tools: ‘SixFifty’s first project along those lines will be … aimed at compliance with the California Consumer Privacy Act, which will affect businesses across the U.S. when it goes into effect Jan. 1. After the CCPA tool, SixFity plans to turn its attention to pro bono … That project is Hello Landlord, which will automate the creation of forms for self-represented people facing eviction.’ Cynthia Conti-Cook is a staff attorney at the New York Legal Aid Society. She was the driving force behind the ‘Cop Accountability Project  [which holds] information on all NYPD officers, including 10,000 with a paper trail of alleged or proven misconduct. The data is collected from news sources, state and federal lawsuits, New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board and NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau investigations, social media and the office’s own experiences. The data has also had a systemic impact, leading to litigation that challenged the racially biased application of loitering laws by New York police against trans sex workers of color.’

Jonathan Pyle created Docassemble which is a ‘A free, open-source expert system for guided interviews and document assembly, based on Python, YAML, and Markdown.’ It provides the technological heavy lifting for Upsolve, Documate and the Boston-developed Massachusetts Defence for Eviction or  MADE programme, again documented in an earlier post.

You can see the sense in which people like this are rebels agains the conventional practice of law. But you would not lose much by simply transposing ‘pioneers’ for ‘rebels’ except a slight loss of drama. They are impressive bunch and if you add to them to similar pioneers like the winners of NESTA’s UK legal access challenge and the beneficiaries of LexisNexis Tech Accelerator programme, you begin to get a picture of the waves of new development that are likely to break soon. Interestingly, none of the rebels is actually pushing AI as their main attraction: that may be to come.


Image by Jürgen Hägele from Pixabay

Leave a Reply