Friday, September 6, 2013
A new article on teaching law students to build apps that address clients' need for cost-effective legal advice has been published by Georgetown Professors Tanina Rostain and Roger Skalbeck and Kevin Mulcahy of Neota Logic, Inc. It is entitled "Thinking like a lawyer, designing like an architect: preparing students for the 21st century practice," and can be found at 88 Chi.-Kent. L. Rev. 743 (2013). From the introduction:
In 2012, a team of students in our class on “Technology, Innovation and Law Practice” built a web-based application (app) called “Same-Sex Marriage Adviser.” The app, which covered fifty states and the District of Columbia, used an automated interview to help users determine whether they could get married or enter into a domestic partnership in their home state and, if so, how such a relationship might affect their other legal rights. The app described available state law benefits, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights, possible disadvantages, such as the requirement to register, and limits on any federal benefits available as a consequence of the Defense of Marriage Act. After going through the interview, which usually took about three minutes, the user received a brief overall assessment statement. The user could also view a customized full report that described the information the user had provided and set forth more specific detailed guidance based on this information. At the start of the interview, the app asked the user to acknowledge that she understood that the app was not providing legal advice. In the final report, the app also advised the user to contact an attorney if she had further questions about the effects of entering a formal relationship on the user's rights.
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While the potential of apps to address unmet legal needs is becoming recognized, the pedagogic value of building apps in the law school setting is only now beginning to be explored. Contrary to what law professors might expect, teaching students to design legal apps furthers many of the teaching goals associated with the more traditional law school curriculum and, in particular, clinical legal education. In the application-design process--which involves legal analysis, the specification of relevant factual scenarios, and communicating in plain language--students learn to “think like a lawyer” and develop skills relevant to the practice of law.
By building expert systems, moreover, students are learning to think like 21st century lawyers. To be helpful to their intended users, apps have to be specific and complete. They need to address the circumstances of their anticipated users with sufficient granularity to provide meaningful guidance; they also have to anticipate the range of concerns a typical user might have about his or her legal issue and the options available to address it. Equally important, legal apps have to be able to be validated and sustainable over time. Validation requires that lawyers with subject matter expertise are able to confirm that an app reflects the current state of the law. In addition, because the law changes constantly, the app has to be designed and built so that new authors can easily edit and update it. These last two requirements translate into principles of simplicity and transparent design. Content experts need to be able to look “under the hood”--that is review the app in the authoring environment--and be able to understand and assess its underlying logic. Through the exercise of creating apps, students learn to think about legal regimes as systems, intended to further specific aims and confer particular powers, rights, and obligations. They also learn to design systems that, by incorporating legal rules, permit users to more easily access the law to fulfill their goals.