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Increasing Access to Justice

July 19, 2022

World book and copyrights day and international legal rights concept with old book in library with judge gavel on open law textbook in co...
World book and copyrights day and international legal rights concept with old book in library with judge gavel on open law textbook in court archive text collection study room

The Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program mobilizes law students across the country to generate pathbreaking ways to increase access to justice for the most vulnerable communities.

In recent years, entrepreneurs across countless industries have leveraged technology in ways that expand our capabilities, networks, and opportunities. Among them is Miguel Willis, Innovator in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Future of the Profession Initiative, who is dedicated to using the power of technology to ensure that everyone — regardless of their socio-economic status — can access their rights under America’s justice system.

Building an Impactful Community

Willis first envisioned what would eventually become the Access to Justice Tech (A2J) Fellowship Program while he was studying law at Seattle University School of Law. As a student, he attended conferences on technology in the legal space, where he first saw the potential benefits of bringing together those committed to using technology to increase access to justice for communities who often face significant barriers to pursuing their legal rights. Unfortunately, he also observed that many conference speakers operated within a limited bubble.

Innovator in Residence Miguel Willis Innovator in Residence Miguel Willis“Schools like Stanford and Harvard had built out programs around technology, law, and various other intersections that Seattle University, where I went to law school, didn’t have,” Willis said. “So, I wanted to build that, and I wanted to build it for everyone. Penn is the home of the Fellowship, because Penn understood and supported that vision: building something for all law students.”

By his second year of law school, Willis had created the idea for the Fellowship and, with the support of several key partners, was able to launch the program and begin to pursue the mission of connecting people dedicated to using innovative ideas to expand access to the justice system.

To ensure that the program remained truly inclusive and diverse, Willis has prioritized building relationships with law student affinity groups at different schools across the country. Having personally served on the board for the National Black Law Students Association, Willis knows the value of those personal connections and prioritizes promoting equity within the access to justice technology space.

“The goal really is to try to build community around this group of innovators who will address these structural issues within our legal system to really improve services for the most vulnerable populations and communities,” Willis said. “There’s always more work to be done, but I’m really proud of the changemakers who have come through the program and who are really making a name for themselves and working on important impact work.”

The Fellowship in Action

In its present form, the A2J Fellowship Program primarily revolves around supporting 10-week paid summer fellowships for 1L and 2L law students dedicated to engaging in meaningful work using technology to expand access to justice for various communities across the country.

To date, over 120 Fellows have contributed over 36,000 hours of work to the A2J project.

Elizabeth Shackney L'24 Elizabeth Shackney L'24Lizzie Shackney L’24 is one of this summer’s 17 A2J Fellows — and one of a few who attend Penn Carey Law. With a background that mixes data analysis and non-profit work, Shackney specifically sought out the A2J program to widen her network within the access to justice technology space. Moreover, Shackney prioritized securing internship work that involved learning from attorneys who serve clients directly.

“I came to law school to integrate the research and analysis within legal aid organizations I had already been doing with direct client service experience,” Shackney said. “Witnessing the processes that attorneys and paralegals are using to serve their clients has been the inspiration for projects, which is in line with my theory of how these sorts of projects should come about.”

As an A2J Fellow, Shackney is spending her summer working in the Home Ownership and Consumer Rights unit of Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia. One of her major projects involves building a system that will allow CLS attorneys to streamline the procedures of assisting clients through the complicated legal process that ensues after a person inherits the house of a deceased relative. To do this, Shackney is building a tool she described as a “Turbo Tax, but for Pennsylvania inheritance tax” that is meant to cut down the time lawyers spend filling out forms, instead giving them more time to focus on working directly with their clients. In another project, Shackney is analyzing data related to wholesale homebuyers — data she hopes can be used to protect homeowners by cutting down on the wholesale homebuyers’ predatory practices.

“Some people are programmers who then realize they want to code for the common good — but I was the opposite,” Shackney said. “I wanted to do social justice work, and then I took a class toward the end of college where I used GIS to make maps for my thesis, and I had so much fun. I love using my brain this way.”

Ronni Mok L'24, WG'24 Ronni Mok L’24, WG'24Shackney’s classmate Ronni Mok L’24, WG’24 is also engaging in A2J work this summer. At Legal Services Corporation, Mok is drawing on her past experience as a statistician to examine eviction-related data and how records of that data impact tenants — even after cases are closed. For Mok, one of the most impactful elements of her experience participating in A2J work has been the opportunity to imagine the ways in which cross-disciplinary thinking can yield highly effective solutions to important and complicated problems.

“Getting to work with the Office of Data Governance in this capacity and getting to think about how the law should impact the way we do certain things — like run data scraping — has been interesting,” Mok said. “Statistics and law seemed like separate fields to me, but it is interesting to think about what protections we can put in data and what flags we can use when we run this kind of analysis to inform the way we protect, for example, tenant confidentiality.”

The Future of the Profession and Encouraging Workplace Wellness

“The future of the profession requires us to be interdisciplinary. It requires us to be diverse and to really change a lot of the norms and status quo posts that the profession has held for so long,” Willis said. “The Future of the Profession Initiative aims to learn and teach leading professionals about these issues. We couldn’t see ourselves in a better place to be aligned with that vision.”

In addition to encouraging Fellows to pursue innovative, pathbreaking ways to propel the legal industry, A2J supplements its programming with a variety of means of support for the Fellows themselves.

Each A2J Tech Fellow is paired with a mentor they meet with several times throughout the program. The intention behind this pairing is to encourage one-on-one connections that enable Fellows to delve more deeply into specific areas of legal innovation that interest them. Additionally, several alums of the A2J Tech Fellowship have returned to the program in educational capacities, leading workshops on a variety of topics meant to enrich the Fellows’ summer experience.

Moreover, Willis and his team built the A2J Tech Fellowship with careful attention to and prioritization of well-being within the industry — a focus of the Future of the Profession Initiative. The program provides Fellows with resources to encourage and empower them to think critically about the role technology plays, not only in their legal work but also in their own lives.

For Willis, the incorporation of technology into the legal profession involves a nuanced understanding of the ways in which technology can be used for good, bad, and neutral purposes within the workplace and within the justice system more broadly.

“We’re in a society where technology is becoming increasingly more pervasive in our lives. Finding time to shut it off and to create boundaries and a healthy relationship with it is hard,” Willis said. “We want to build a healthy — but also critical and integrated — framework for our Fellows to think about how technology is currently being used in a not-so-good way. We, the designers of said technology have the capacities and tools to make it better. We need the courage to really challenge and stand up to some of the biggest threats that are increasingly harming communities — particularly communities of color.”

Learn more about Future of the Profession Initiative at Penn Carey Law.