Hackcess to Justice Showcases New Legal Applications

BY Kristen Friend



Applications developed for attorneys, by attorneys.

Technology is spreading its roots in the legal industry. Every day, firms take advantage of advancements in practice management, document management, litigation support and information sharing to enhance client service and business development.

The American Bar Association continues to play a role in encouraging attorneys to understand and embrace technology. In 2012, the ABA updated its Model Rules of Professional Conduct to include a statement about legal tech. The comments to Model Rule 1.1, which covers attorney competence, now give attorneys an affirmative responsibility to stay abreast of relevant technology as part of their continuing education.

In August of this year, the ABA Journal continued the push, sponsoring the second-ever legal hackathon. Attorneys, students and developers gathered to generate ideas about how to harness technology to improve access to justice for underserved communities.

"Hacking," in its current usage, no longer has a negative connotation. Hacking is about understanding the challenges of people who need help and using creativity and collaboration to solve problems in new ways.

Hackathons: Not Just for Code Geeks

A hackathon is an event at which a group of people (traditionally programmers, designers and project managers) gather to collaborate on software development projects. Hackathons last anywhere from a day to a week, but the focus is always on developing new solutions and applications quickly.

Hackathons became famous with images of programmers up all night, subsisting on energy drinks and pizza, buried deep in code-based challenges. But hackathons are now much more ubiquitous, and although they still have a technological component, they are not strictly limited to a group of hard-core coders developing the next breakthrough app or software program. The term "hackathon" has been co-opted by any number of industries,

Future Food Tech sponsored the Future of Food Hackathon + Forum in February, aimed at finding solutions to help sustain and improve the food ecosystem. Teachers gathered for three days at Chenango Forks Hackathon in Binghamton, NY in August to create electronic textbooks using Apple’s iBook program. Even Congress is hacking. In 2012, the House of Representatives sponsored #inHackwetrust, a public discussion about improving Congressional transparency through technology.

Lawyers Are Hackers, Too

The Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy (BLIP) Clinic sponsored the first legal hackathon at Brooklyn Law School in 2012. The competition piece of the event, #HacktheAct, was narrowly tailored toward intellectual property law. Participants experimented with what organizers dubbed the new process of democratic legal drafting, using collaborative software to propose solutions to dilemmas such as trademark enforcement online and fair use in an age of easy information sharing. Participants also worked to draft alternatives to the then-hotly-debated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Hackcess to Justice

The most recent legal hackathon, Hackcess to Justice, was hosted by Suffolk University Law School in Boston and sponsored by the ABA Journal. For two days in August, more than 50 people met to discuss how technology could be used to give all citizens access to essential legal services. At the beginning of the conference, all participants gathered for a brainstorming session, then divided into teams to prepare their hacks. Teams had 32 hours to develop proposals for real products that help meet unfilled legal needs.

The Challenge

The official challenge of the event was to “Create a technology-enabled solution to address one of the five points raised in the Legal Service Corporation of America’s 2013 report on the use of technology to expand access to justice.”

Over the past two years, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has held two national summit sessions, one in June of 2012 and one in January of 2013.

The mission of the summits was to explore how to use technology to provide legal services to 100 percent of those who need help with essential civil legal needs. Many people cannot afford an attorney and are unable to obtain critical assistance. According to the LSC report, only 20 percent of low-income individuals who need representation are able to afford access to justice.

Participants at those summits identified five components that should come together to create a comprehensive, fully accessible justice system.

1. Statewide Legal Portals
Currently, every jurisdiction within every state has multiple online resources providing information about courts, laws and legal services. Participants recommended eliminating all of the confusing and overlapping information and creating one portal for each state that combines resources into a single access point. By using technology to analyze visitors' answers to a series of questions, the site could make intelligent recommendations, pairing users with appropriate available services.

2. Document Assembly
The summit also envisioned a way to give everyone access to common legal documents. The document assembly component would use intelligent forms to ask a series of questions that would then be used to prepare all commonly used legal and court forms. Users answer questions, and the technology produces the correct document for review.

3. Mobile Technologies
Participants saw mobile technology as a key to unlocking access. Suggested innovations included courthouse map apps, document checklists for meetings and court appearances, mobile access to court schedules and automated translation capabilities.

4. Business Process Analysis
Participants envisioned implementing business process analysis to help those involved in the legal field better understand their work, simplify processes and identify new ways of practicing that can better case handling abilities.

5. Expert Systems and Intelligent Checklists
Intelligent checklists would guide clients or their advocates through necessary steps in a variety of legal procedures, such as determining benefits eligibility or responding to court actions.

The Solutions

Teams at Hackcess to Justice submitted six project proposals, and judges picked three winners.

An app called PaperHealth took first place. PaperHealth allows users to quickly assign a Health Care Proxy and create a Living Will. According to PaperHealth's creator, a Massachusetts attorney, the tool is built for those with no advance planning for medical emergencies. It could help bring down healthcare costs by simplifying document preparation and decision making.

With PaperHealth, users can produce a legally binding Health Care Proxy and a non-binding Living Will. PaperHealth also provides information about what Living Wills and Health Care Proxies are and what functions they serve. The app takes users through a series of statements, like, “If my heart stops, I do not want it to be restarted.” If the user agrees with the statement, he or she can use a touch-screen device, like a phone or tablet, to place initials in a large box next to the statement.

Once documents are completed and signed, they can be saved, converted to pdf files and shared with appropriate relatives or partners. Individuals could use the app to assign a Health Care Proxy, and doctors and hospitals could use the app to gather critical information to share with a patient's family.

PaperHealth's creator plans to release it for free on Apple's App Store in the coming weeks.

The second place hack, disastr, was created by a two-person team from New York. Unforeseen circumstances can always arise, and disastr aims to provide information, resources and legal assistance during an emergency when it is needed quickly. The software can run as a web application or a native app on iOS and Android systems.

The disastr app includes information on disaster planning and recovery and resources to help victims who need to learn about food stamps, unemployment, FEMA benefits or insurance. It also contains videos on emergency preparation and shares Red Cross and FEMA emergency alerts. Users can also locate attorneys quickly with a disaster legal assistance map. The app is currently available for free on Google's Play Store and at Amazon.com.

Third place was awarded to a tool called Due Processor, created by a three-person team from Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Due Processor calculates likely indigency status according to Massachusetts law for both criminal and civil proceedings. It also calculates jail credit days, estimates a timeline for parole eligibility and determines possible sentencing in accordance with Massachussetts guidelines.

Other suggestions included legal aptitude tests to determine the appropriateness of self-representation, an app to help reduce recidivism rates by keeping those who have been incarcerated connected to support services, and a website to help explain and simplify the divorce process.

Kristen Friend

Kristen Friend is a staff contributor for Bigger Law Firm Magazine. She has covered political stories on radio stations like WMNF in Florida and has had her work broadcast by Free Speech Radio News (FSNR). As an Award Winning Art Director, Kristen has been recognized by the WebAwards, Davey's Award, W3 Awards, Webby Awards, and others for her work with law firms.


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