Last June, I reported on the plan by BYU Law School to launch LawX, a legal design lab in which second- and third-year law students would take on the ambitious goal of solving one access-to-justice challenge in a semester. Subsequently, in November, I wrote here about the opportunity I had to sit in on the lab. At the time, I got to see a working prototype of that inaugural lab group’s first application, but I promised not to reveal it until the school was ready.
Today is that day. BYU Law School is announcing the release of SoloSuit, an online tool to help Utahns who cannot afford legal services respond to debt collection lawsuits. Using the app, debt-collection defendants are able to respond to a complaint by following a quick and simple response form with online prompts. Their finished answers are then available to download and print for submission to the courts.
The need in Utah for such a tool is huge. Of defendants in debt collection cases there, 98.5 percent do not have an attorney. The rate of default in these cases fluctuates between 65 and 80 percent, and 87 percent of all defaults in Utah are in debt collection cases. In the last five years, Utah had 330,000 debt collection cases, making up 65 percent of all new filings in the state.
“There are no resources to help people answer a complaint in Utah,” LawX cofounder and instructor Kimball Dean Parker told me. “These people have no idea what to do, they feel completely hopeless.”
As I explained in my prior post about my visit to the lab, the nine students went through an intensive process of researching the problem, interviewing stakeholders, learning about design thinking, and then creating the application. Remarkably, they did all this in the span of a single semester.
The application they designed is intended to make it easier for defendants to answer debt collection complaints. It walks them through a four-step process:
- Gather information. This step asks for basic information such as the name of the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s lawyer, the court, and the case number. Images accompanying each question help explain where to find each piece of information.
- Respond to what is said about you. This step helps the defendant respond to each of the numbered allegations in the complaint. Parker says the students tested a number of variations on the language to use here, and finally settled on three possible responses: “I’m not sure,” “I disagree,” and “I agree.” Users understood these words better than the standard “admit” and “deny.”
- Tell your story. In this part, SoloSuit collects information that can be used as affirmative defenses, such as whether the person has paid any part of the debt, the creditor failed to keep its end of the bargain, or the debt was for unpaid rent. It also has check boxes for less-common issues that could be raised as affirmative defenses, such as that the defendant is in active military duty or the contract was cancelled. This step also asks if there are any people who can support the user’s side of the story. The question originally asked whether there were any witnesses who could support the defendant’s side of the story, but testing found that users did not understand the concept of witnesses.
- Generate your response. Based on the information provided, SoloSuit generates an answer in PDF format that the defendant can download and mail. It also provides instructions for where, how and when to mail it.
One anomaly of Utah law is that debt collection plaintiffs can file their complaints electronically, but unrepresented defendants must file their answers by mail. For some, this can be a major obstacle to filing an answer, because they may not even have a printer or transportation to a post office.
For this reason, Parker has been lobbying the court system to change the rule and allow these defendants to file their answers by email. If that change comes about, then SoloSuit will be revised to allow the response to be sent directly from the application.
The LawX students designed SoloSuit with an eye to making it easily adaptable in other states and even other areas of the law, and that is already happening. The Alaska court system will pilot the software for debt collection cases later this year, and LawX is currently in discussions with Step Up to Justice, a non-profit organization in Arizona, to adopt the software to eviction cases there.
Meanwhile, SoloSuit has been transferred to LawY, an independent entity that will maintain and operate the service, while LawX moves on to its next challenge. The process will repeat every year, Parker told me, with the lab developing a solution during the fall semester, releasing it early in the second term, and then beginning once again to set up the problem for the next year’s lab.
LawX was 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 when we first spoke last spring. 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 the design lab at BYU.
In a prior post, I listed the students who took part in the lab. In addition to them, an industrial design student at BYU, Keltson Howell, participated by designing the SoloSuit website. The SoloSuit software was engineered by Lincoln Porter, a BYU alumnus and owner of Starting Point Software.
“The amount of student work that went into this was incredible,” Parker said. “The students were so amazing and just scrappy — knocking on doors, calling people, trying to get ahold of debtors. And then the testing and retesting and tweaking has been incredible. I’ve guided this effort, but the laboring oar has come from the students.”