Designing legal expert systems: Interview with Katie Sykes
Innovation can be a driver of improved access to justice. But our profession is not noted for being at the forefront of innovation. And so it is encouraging to see signs that innovation is front and centre in the training of the next generation of lawyers. That is what I saw on a visit to Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law in Kamloops, B.C., and in particular in a course created and taught by professor Katie Sykes.
She is an associate professor who developed a course, Designing Legal Expert Systems, in which law students design legal apps using software created by Neota Logic, a software company started by a group of tech-savvy lawyers. Students in the apps course design and build apps for non-profit legal organizations to use in-house or make available to clients, aiming to provide simple, user-friendly paths to legal solutions and better access to justice.
Professor Sykes agreed to answer a few questions for me and here is what I learned.
TC: Describe a little about your background and training and what led you to teach an access to justice seminar at TRU.
KS: The first course I taught with a focus on access to justice issues was Lawyering in the Twenty-First Century. The central idea of the course was the mismatch between an apparent oversupply of lawyers and, at the same time, the drastic lack of legal services for so many people. How can it be that there are (in some sense) too many lawyers and not enough lawyers both at once, what’s gone wrong with the business model and structure of the legal profession for that to happen, and what creative solutions can the new generation of lawyers come up with?
Lawyering in the Twenty-First Century led to teaching a course on designing legal apps. Many of the L21C students thought about using technology as a tool to bridge the A2J gap. One team actually designed a scheduling app for interlocutory matters — motions and other non-trial court business that can use up a lot of time in a pretty inefficient way — that was brilliant and simple. They had some help from a contact of one of the people on the team, who could code, to build a prototype of the app. This whole experience left me, and I think the students, thinking it would be great if we had more ability to build systems like that ourselves.
That’s why I was very excited to find out that there is this opportunity to use Neota Logic’s platform to build expert systems (basically, applications that automate legal expertise), and that they have created an excellent educational framework that focuses on apps for pro bono organizations. The software enables us to build solutions without any coding knowledge.
TC: Tell me about the assignment you gave your students to design and build and access to justice apps.
KS: In the initial offering of the course, the students, collaborating in groups, worked on four apps ranging from a court form filler for RISE Women’s Legal Centre, which consolidates the process of completing about a dozen different court forms for family law matters, to an app to assist self-represented litigants looking to work with professionals who are open to providing unbundled or limited scope services, for the National Self-Represented Litigants Project.
This fall, we added two more apps: a document “genie” for TRU’s own Community Legal Clinic, which will help clinic staff and volunteers to complete commonly requested documents; and an app to assist mobile telecom customers who are looking at filing complaints under the Wireless Code of Conduct, for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (Canada).
TC: Were there any projects resulting from this that could actually help improve access to justice in the real world?
KS: The goal is that all the projects will help A2J in the real world — either by making repetitive jobs that pro bono lawyers and staff do quicker, easier and more accurate, or by providing information and tools directly to members of the public. We haven’t got to the point yet with any of our apps that they’re ready to go live, but we are hoping to do so in the near future.
TC: You obviously want to foster innovation among law students and get them engaged with the access to justice problem. How did the students react?
KS: They are amazing. They come into the course with absolutely zero knowledge of the Neota platform. Within about 4-5 weeks they are building a simple app as a training exercise, and within just three months they have to design, build and present real apps addressing a real-world problem. They definitely use their skills of thinking like a lawyer, analyzing and solving problems and communicating well. But they use those skills in a completely unfamiliar way, and it is a steep learning curve.
On top of that, they have to work effectively in a team and they have to do a great job with the organizations they’re building the apps for — in effect, their clients.
TC: Are there bigger lessons here about how the profession should be approaching its response to the A2J problem?
KS: Smart, innovative people will keep on coming up with ways to do get legal work done faster, better and cheaper, not just in the pro bono area but at all levels of the legal marketplace, and overall that seems likely to be good for enhancing access to justice. I’d love to see that kind of innovation encouraged and enabled by the profession, rather than viewed with suspicion. I think that change of heart is starting to happen in some small pockets, but only slowly and in a limited way.