Iron Tech Lawyer Competition–Budding Legal Engineers Innovate To Improve Legal Services

8 May

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Post by Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer at Little Mendelson and member, ILTA KM Peer Group Steering Committee

To paraphrase William Gibson, the future of the legal profession has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed. And that was demonstrated for anyone present at Georgetown Law School the second week of April for the second annual Iron Tech Lawyer Competition, where the future of law was on display, but, alas, only in one classroom.

If you are not familiar with it, the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition is the culmination (or “final exam”) of the Technology, Innovation and Law Practice Practicum taught by Georgetown Law Professors Tanina Rostain and Roger Skalbeck. At the beginning of the semester, students are divided into two- or three-person teams, assigned to work with a legal services organization and given access to Neota Logic’s expert advisor software. Their assignment is to develop an “app” that will enable the legal services organizations to more efficiently provide legal services to their clients. At the actual Iron Tech Competition, the teams present their apps, explaining the problem or need they set out to address, the legal issues the clients face – and the resource limitations the organizations deal with – and how their app provides enhanced access to legal services. At the end of the competition, awards are handed out for Excellence in Presentation, Excellence in Design and the Best Iron Tech Lawyer. (Georgetown Law has published an informative video about the first competition).

I was honored to serve as one of four judges for the second competition (with Georgetown Law Professors Peter Edelman and Robin West, and Doug Leeds, the CEO of Ask.com). Watching team after team demonstrate innovative technology solutions that could efficiently solve legal problems showed me the promise and future of our profession. Readers of Richard Susskind’s many books should know about his concept of Legal Engineers – not IT people who have worked with lawyers or lawyers intrigued by technology, but individuals who truly understand, and have been trained in, both law and technology. Well, I got to spend the afternoon with 23 budding Legal Engineers.

Judging the competition was much harder than I expected; I wish I could have given each team an award. Some of the teams developed apps that could facilitate determining eligibility for legal services. One team developed an app that could enable low income individuals to determine their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”) – the judges overruled the competition guidelines by awarding this team an Honorable Mention prize. Another team developed an app that would enable individuals with old criminal records to determine whether they could expunge their records. Other teams developed apps that could provide outreach and information to communities that otherwise might not know there were legal services available to them. One team developed a terrific app they called “Stop Bullying Me; I’m LGBT, But Just Let Me Be Me.” This app enabled students who have experienced gender-based bullying or harassment to determine whether their schools had responded to their situations under Title IX requirements.

For someone who has developed legal products, it was so impressive to see law students focusing on “user interface” and “graphic design” in developing their apps. One team developed an app to assist Medicaid recipients understand the community services available to them. Using user-friendly language and excellent graphics made me wonder whether these students were really law students (do you remember thinking about making the law accessible when you were in law school?)

The winner of the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition was a team (Jon Czas, Kyle George and Jung Hwa Song) that developed an app called “Could Bankruptcy Be My Lifeline?” This app – developed with the DC Bar Pro Bono Program – was designed for the up to one million Americans who could not afford to file bankruptcy during the Great Recession because they could not afford the filing and lawyers’ fees. Their app – developed in both English and Spanish – enabled individuals to understand the bankruptcy process, evaluate their financial situation and determine whether they should file for bankruptcy. Their software design was eloquent, intuitive and yet complex (the students had no prior experience with bankruptcy law). And, in my mind, they deserved bonus points for using Prezi for their presentation instead of PowerPoint.

I cannot thank Professors Rostain and Skalbeck – and the Georgetown Law School – enough for creating this class and using this format. It brought to mind the trial practice class of my legal education when, after one theoretical class after another, I finally got a chance to put theory into practice and put everything I could – including many all-nighters – into the class. As much as we once needed more trial lawyers, now we need Legal Engineers, lawyers who can make the provision of legal services more accessible and more efficient.

Kudos to John Lord and Michael Mills of Neota Logic for providing a grant – and their fabulous software – to make this competition possible. And, enormous kudos to Kevin Mulcahy of Neota Logic who taught the students how to use the software and worked tirelessly – and probably sleeplessly – with the individual teams to help them perfect their apps. The students were tremendously grateful for his knowledge, patience and enthusiasm. He is a terrific teacher and mentor.

Maybe, soon, other law schools will emulate the terrific program Georgetown has developed and the promise of innovation in the practice of law will be more evenly distributed.

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