Access to Justice Technology Fellows: students can be professional

Seattle University law student, Miguel Willis, has developed an innovative legal placement programme – Access to Justice Technology Fellows (A2J Tech Fellows) – that enters its second year with major endorsement from the Legal Services Corporation, (LSC). The LSC is giving $100,000 and will support 21 fellows within the legal services movement for which it delivers federal funding.  This massively increases the resourcing of the programme which started with much smaller donations such as $10,000 from Microsoft Philanthropies and $2,500 from the Starbucks Foundation.

The core of the fellowship is a 10 week paid placement with a partner organisations with a dedicated supervisor and a pre-placement training. The placements are largely with legal service providers like New Mexico Legal Aid or Legal Services of North Florida but also include legal tech company, Upsolve, and Pro Bono Net. The LSC participated in the inaugural training programme and its enlarged role in the forthcoming round of fellows has the enthusiastic backing of President Jim Sandman: ‘This collaboration places smart, creative, and entrepreneurial law students with legal aid programs that are developing new technologies to serve low-income people … It also exposes the law student fellows to the needs of people who cannot afford to pay for legal assistance and will help cultivate a new generation of access-to-justice advocates.’

Miguel Willis is clearly an outstanding organiser. He worked for six years at the Department of Justice in a variety of roles, including – handily – intern co-ordinator before studying at Seattle.  He obtained his first degree at Howard University, historically known as a champion of the education of black students.  And he clearly likes organising things. He was in charge of the first Social Justice Hackathon at Seattle University.  The National Jurist made him its law Student of the Year in 2016 even before his success with the A2J fellowship programme. It said, ‘In his first year of law school, he worked with a developer to create CaseBooker, an app that makes it easier to buy and sell used case books for students in need. Additionally, he is president of the Black Law Student Association and is involved with several youth mentorship programs. He has worked with the Admission department to recruit law students from historically black colleges and universities. He serves as marketing director for the National BLSA organization. In Seattle he’s an outspoken opponent of the city’s proposal to build a new juvenile jail.’ He blogs as Innovative Law Student. The operation has two other staff members.  His advisory council includes some heavy hitters including Richard Granat, long-time legal services pioneer.

The fellowship programme has an impressively professional website that adequately reflects its vision of ‘a future where equal access to justice is [not] only an ideal, but a tangible reality. [This] starts with a transformative learning approach. In a constantly changing legal profession, how can we equip the next set of leaders with the tools and skills to leverage innovation in addressing our widening access to justice gap? By creating a pipeline of future lawyers who are trained with the skills and competencies required in an increasingly technological society, we can accelerate the pace of future innovations in our justice system and gradually reduce those barriers standing in the way of equal access to justice for all.’ Of the 2017 nine fellows featured on the website, all but two are from visible ethnic minorities.

The program has published a review of its 2016-7 pilot year. This articulates the program’s underlying approach: ‘… we are entering the infant stages of what appears to be a new era in civil justice service delivery. This new era will integrate the technological legal innovation framework with the systems change approach regime to accelerate improvements in the delivery of legal services while reducing the barriers that prevent equal access to justice.’ As a result, ‘Future lawyers should be trained to be “legal engineers” – a hybrid of those who are design thinkers able to problem solve with sufficient tech capacit and who are also knowledgeable about the law and its relevance in the digital context — in order address the widening civil justice gap in America. Lawyers who can augment their core legal knowledge with an ability to harness technology, automation, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and a host of other skills that could be leveraged to provide increased access to effective legal services to low-income and disenfranchised communities.’

Miguel Willis and his team have done an incredibly professional job and the project’s website is worth consulting by all students as an inspiration for what they may do. Those seeking a 2018 fellowship need to hurry along. Applications close on February 9, 2018.

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