The Legal Beat
Law School’s New A2J Design Lab Will Put Students In Shoes Of Entrepreneurs
Posted on Monday June 19, 2017
In Utah, as in much of the country, going to court without a lawyer has become the norm for many litigants. In debt-collection cases, for example, only 1 percent of defendants are represented by lawyers. In eviction cases, just 2 percent of tenants have lawyers.
This fall, a half-dozen or so second- and third-year students at BYU Law School in Provo will step into the role of entrepreneur to design a way to help Utah’s self-represented litigants respond when they are served with a lawsuit. The students will be participants in the inaugural class of LawX, a legal design lab the law school is launching to create products and other solutions to address Utah’s critical gap in access to legal services.
Each semester, the LawX class will take on the goal of solving one legal challenge relating to access to justice. The course will be structured as a design-thinking process, in which students will have fast-paced deadlines and responsibilities similar to those they’d have working in a startup. For the students, the course will be an immersive, hands-on experience that will involve collaboration with students and professors in other departments at BYU.
“We already had a clinic for students to represent entrepreneurs, but what excites me about this is that they’ll be in the shoes of the entrepreneur,” said Kimball D. Parker, the lawyer and entrepreneur who will direct the lab and teach the corresponding course.
LawX is the brainchild of Parker and D. Gordon Smith, dean of BYU Law School. Smith, in his roles both as dean and as a member of the Utah State Bar Commission, had been considering how the law school could help address the state’s A2J problem. One day last year, he sat in on a talk by Margaret Hagan about the Legal Design Lab she runs as an interdisciplinary program of Stanford Law School and the Stanford Institute of Design.
“That resonated with me,” Smith told me during a recent phone call with him and Parker. After visiting Hagan’s lab in Palo Alto to learn more, Smith connected with Parker, who is a practicing lawyer and the founder of CO/COUNSEL, a legal education and crowdsourcing site, and they began to plan the framework for creating a design lab at BYU.
“In Utah, we’ve got a legal community that’s really interested in doing something about access to justice,” Smith said. On top of that, Utah has a booming technology industry bringing a lot of tech talent to the state, and BYU has strong programs in computer science and design, with which LawX plans to collaborate.
Each semester, LawX will address one problem in the law. “We will brainstorm a solution, test it and implement it, all within one semester,” Parker said. “If the solution is to build a product, we will try to do that.”
The first course in the fall will focus on helping unrepresented litigants answer a complaint. The project will be directed at helping people who do not understand how to respond to a lawsuit and might not have the resources to hire an attorney. Future projects have yet to be decided.
From a product-design standpoint, LawX will be uniquely positioned to develop simple and practical products because it won’t be constrained by the profit motive, Parker suggested.
“The economic incentives are not always set up so that startups address people who cannot afford legal services,” Parker said. “Because we’re associated with a university, we don’t have the same revenue pressure. There is low-hanging fruit here that will help people that companies don’t have the incentives to address.”
“A legal design lab embedded within a law school is an ideal platform for addressing these issues,” said Smith. “LawX will use design thinking to address these problems, and when appropriate, to create products to solve them.”
Parker said he has a broad vision for what LawX can become. For now, you can follow its progress at the LawX blog or by following @LawXLab on Twitter. Once the class kicks off in the fall, Parker hopes to have the blog become a forum for students to post about their experiences.
Both Parker and Smith agree that if LawX students come up with solutions to legal problems in Utah, those solutions are likely to apply in other states as well, since access-to-justice issues across the states tend to be similar, at least by type, if not always by degree.
Smith is clearly proud that his law school will be tackling some of the most pressing issues facing the legal system. But he also sees another payoff, he says – an academic one. “We’re interested in how to make law school interesting and relevant.”
For the students starting this class in the fall, I suspect they will find it both interesting and relevant. All the better, they might just make a difference in the lives of self-represented litigants not just in Utah, but across the country. Not bad for a law school class.
Robert Ambrogi is a Massachusetts lawyer and journalist who has been covering legal technology and the web for more than 20 years, primarily through his blog LawSites.com. Former editor-in-chief of several legal newspapers, he is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural Fastcase 50 honoree. He can be reached by email at [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAmbrogi).