Law students at BYU Law School’s year-old LawX Legal Design Lab and the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law’s newly launched Innovation for Justice program will join forces this year to explore ways to reduce evictions in their home states of Utah and Arizona and beyond.

Both the LawX and Innovation for Justice programs offer classes focused on improving access to justice through the application of design thinking, systems thinking, technology and interdisciplinary collaboration. I have written several posts about LawX, which I visited last year and which in January released its first project, SoloSuit,

In 2016, Utah averaged 7.61 evictions per day and Pima County, Ariz., where the UA is located, averaged 22.01 evictions per day, according to information provided by the two programs. Less than 20 percent of tenants served with an eviction notice come to court, meaning viable legal defenses often go unheard.

With the goal of developing strategies and solutions to tackle this problem, six LawX students and 12 Innovation for Justice students will collaborate during the fall semester. The two groups of students will check in with each other using videoconferencing and will use collaboration tools such as Google Docs and Slack to share work and research.

Depending on whether their research reveals shared issues regarding evictions in their respective states, they will either develop a combined project jointly or separate projects that address regional issues.

The LawX program is led by Kimball D. Parker, a lawyer at Parsons Behle & Latimer and president of Parsons Behle Lab, his firm’s innovation subsidiary. The Innovation for Justice program is led by Stacy Butler, professor of practice at UA law school and founder of Step Up to Justice, a pro bono legal aid provider in Pima County.

“Given the sheer volume of evictions in America, we believe this is the right issue for LawX to tackle in its second year, and we welcome collaboration with the University of Arizona Law School,” Gordon Smith, dean of BYU Law School, said in a statement.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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 first LawX lab, with instructor Parker at left.

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.”

From left around table: Erika Nash, LawX director Kimball Parker, Cami Schiel, Ryan Lewis, Tayler Tanner, Nick Hafen, John Iler, Alan Hickey (partly visible), Brock Foley and George Simons. Far right is industrial design professor Bryan Howell.

Last summer, I reported on plans for LawX, a legal design lab that BYU Law School planned to launch at the start of the school year. The concept was to have a small group of second- and third-year law students step into the role of entrepreneur to design and build a solution to an access-to-justice problem in Utah.

Last week, during a visit to BYU Law in Provo to speak as part of its Future of Law series, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit in on the lab, meet the students and faculty involved with it, and hear about their progress so far. Given that it was still early November, I was impressed by how much they had already accomplished.

LawX was the brainchild of Kimball D. Parker, the lawyer and entrepreneur who directs the lab, 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.

Each semester, LawX will address one problem involving access to justice. “We will brainstorm a solution, test it and implement it, all within one semester,” Parker had told me last spring. “If the solution is to build a product, we will try to do that.”

When the students realized they couldn’t leave up their sticky notes between lab sessions, they put them on a virtual whiteboard.

For this first course, Parker decided to focus on helping unrepresented litigants answer a complaint. Early in the semester, the nine students who are enrolled in the lab set about gathering court statistics to determine the scope and nature of the problem. They quickly zeroed in on debt collection cases as an area of critical need, finding:

• 87 percent of defaults in Utah civil courts are in debt collection cases.
• There have been over 330,000 debt collection cases in Utah over the last five years.
• Only one in 1,000 debt collection defendants hire an attorney.
• 75 percent of debt collection cases default.

Having identified the problem to tackle, they started the semester with a crash course in design thinking given by IBM designers Chris Hammond and Russell Parrish. They also brought in Bryan Howell, an industrial design professor at BYU, as a co-professor for the lab.

Their next step – which they describe as “building empathy” – was to identify and interview stakeholders. Through both phone calls and live visits, the students interviewed actual debtors who had been through the debt-collection process, court administrators, and debt-collection attorneys. Out of that process, they created three debtor personas:

• The professional, debtors who knew they were putting themselves in default but who effectively worked the system.
• The newbie, someone who had not previously faced a debt collection matter.
• The snowball, the debtor whose indebtedness was only going to get worse, perhaps as the result of a major health event.

Dean Gordon Smith came up with idea for the lab then brought in Kimball Parker to help bring it to fruition.

The majority of debtors were either newbies or snowballs who were in good faith trying to get out of their debt, the students found, so they decided to focus on those two personas.

Next in the design process, the students mapped the experience of debtors to identify the issues that caused them to default. The found five:

• Bad service.
• Unclear summons.
• Confusing complaint language.
• Inaccessible rules for how to respond.
• Difficult filing process.

At this point, it was time for the students to begin thinking about a solution. That meant that they would design, build and test a prototype. The students broke into three teams and each team mocked out a prototype. From those three, they integrated the ideas into a single concept, and went to work building the actual solution.

One again, they divided into three teams to tackle different aspects of building the solution:

• Onboarding team, including marketing and PR to build awareness of the solution.
• Content team, to build out the content related to the solution.
• Offboarding team, to look at next steps and sustainability.

So what solution did they come up with? Unfortunately, my lips are sealed, at least for now. As a condition of sitting in on the lab, I agreed not to reveal what they designed until various issues can be worked out relating to intellectual property and other matters. Kimball is tentatively targeting sometime in January to make a formal announcement of the solution.

I can tell you, however, that they have already built a working prototype and that it is almost ready to go. I can also say that the solution is something that could eventually be adapted in other states and for other kinds of cases.

By the way, the students in this inaugural LawX lab are:

  • Brock Foley.
  • Nick Hafen.
  • Alan Hickey.
  • John Iler.
  • Ryan Lewis.
  • Erika Nash.
  • Cami Schiel.
  • George Simons.
  • Tayler Tanner

It is extremely impressive that in the span of roughly 10 weeks, these students have identified the problem, researched the problem, designed a solution, and built a solution. Imagine how much progress could be made in tackling the justice gap if more schools had similar teams.

 

Kimball Parker and D. Gordon Smith

This fall, BYU Law School in Provo, Utah, will launch an innovative design lab, called LawX, in which second- and third-year law students will step into the role of entrepreneur to design apps and other solutions to help address Utah’s critical gap in access to legal services

Six-to-eight law students will participate in the inaugural LawX class this fall, with the mission of designing a way to help self-represented litigants respond when they are served with a lawsuit. Each semester thereafter, the class will focus on coming up with a product or solution to address one problem in law.

LawX is the brainchild of the law school’s dean, D. Gordon Smith, and Kimball D. Parker, a lawyer and the founder of CO/COUNSEL, a legal education and crowdsourcing site.

I have a full report on the new design lab in my column this week at Above the Law: Law School’s New A2J Design Lab Will Put Students in Shoes of Entrepreneurs.