ABA Center for Innovation: a new kid on the block struggling for space?

The ABA Center for Innovation, formed in 2016 as the result of report by the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, published its first annual report just before Christmas. This showcases its programs.

The center is reticent – that is to say silent – on the size of its budget. And the ABA itself is facing straightened times, announcing an $11m cut in its $100m operating budget for 2018. ABA Executive Director Jack Rives said in March last year that ‘the ABA is comprised of more than 3,500 entities, and “the unfortunate reality” is that the association doesn’t have enough resources to continue everything it is doing. “We have to prioritize; we have to make choices,”’ In a fashionable management mangling of language, the ABA presents its actions as ‘right-sizing’. Oh, for a time when a cut was just a cut. The major hit seems to have been the travel budget but this cannot have been an auspicious time for the birth of  a new center. Indeed, the new centre’s annual report records what appears to be a degree of creative recycling. Prayed in aid of an exciting first year is assistance to a general ABA promotion site, http://abastands4.org. The Lord giveth and, it appears, that the Lord taketh away – in the United States as rather too often in the United Kingdom.

In addition, the centre participates in a number of other external initiatives. These range from referral programmes for Louisiana flood victims to get assistance with proof of ownership of their damaged houses to help with an online legal checkup tool. Both of these seem worthy but the centre does not explain why it has selected them as worthy of national funding. The legal check up programme was already being devised by another ABA committee and,  indeed, 17 Community Legal Clinics in Ontario have been using the A2J software, emanating from Chicago’s  Centre for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, to do legal check ups since 2012. Both these projects seem worthy but not particularly innovative. One hopes that the ABA have called Toronto to see how they can build on what Ontario’s legal clinics have done.

A clearing house initiated by the centre will ‘catalog ongoing legal services innovations in the United States so that we can better understand existing projects, avoid duplicating efforts, and inform the Center’s decisions regarding new initiatives. In addition to conducting its own research, the Center has asked the public for help with identifying innovative projects and innovations.’

The center has created two types of fellows – ‘NextGen’ (people at the beginning of their careers) and ‘Innovation’ (mid career) fellowship programmes – currently with eight participants. These get support to develop skills and work on ideas. Successful applicants were succinctly described by LegalNews.Com and cover a variety of fields: ‘• Microsoft-NextGen Fellow Amanda Brown, who will be working with the Legal Services Corporation to develop web portals to guide low-income Americans to legal aid resources. She is a graduate from the Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans. • American University Washington College of Law NextGen Fellow Athena Fan, who is developing an app to help pro se litigants navigate local civil procedure. • NextGen Fellow Tobias Franklin, who is creating CHESTER (Chicago Expert System for Tenant Eviction Rights) to empower Chicago residents facing eviction. He is a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law.• Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law NextGen Fellow Reshma Kamath, who is exploring how blockchain technology can be leveraged in the insurance, compliance and human rights arenas. • Innovation Fellow Aurora Martin, who is developing SAM (Scholar Advocacy Matchup) to match scholars with advocacy groups to advance policy and research. She is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Law. • NextGen Fellow Irene Mo is developing tools and trainings to reduce privacy and data security risks for marginalized and low-income persons. She is a graduate of Michigan State University College of Law. • Innovation Fellow Bryan Gossage is exploring how to leverage technology to make court administration more efficient, effective and fair. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and his fellowship is sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association, North Carolina Supreme Court and North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. • Innovation Fellow Bryan Wilson, who is developing a tool for innocence projects to more easily share pleadings and data. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.’

The somewhat disappointing thing about the Center’s website, impressive though much of work might be, is that the Center’s focus seems somewhat unconnected to the strategic approach evident in much of the ABA’s other work on technology. For example, the ABA’s annual Techshow, held in Chicago in March last year, went out of its way to be full of practical tips and analysis of what is happening in a fast-moving tech scene. Many of the ABA’s members will not need any encouragement from their national body to keep abreast with developments. But, in the US as elsewhere, many will need help – particularly as, out there in the darkness lurk all sorts of unregulated practitioners just wishing to get a share of the action. Bar Associations and Law Societies from the ABA through England and Wales, Singapore and on to New South Wales have recently produced thoughtful analyses of, on the one hand, overall developments and, on the other, practical assistance on products or sorts of products that practitioners might need. The center’s engagement in these two areas of work might be lost in translation, present but invisible to outsiders, but there would seem considerable benefit in integrating the Centre within the ABA’s broader successful work. You would not, of course, want to be naive about the institutional difficulty for a new kid on the block seeking room to breath among its established elders.

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