IIT Chicago-Kent Access to Justice Initiative expanding nationally

Law students in clinical courses learn to develop web application to assist low-income people

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Students in Professor Ronald W. Staudt's Justice & Technology Practicum at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law meet every Thursday to discuss the intersection of law and technology and its impact on the practice of law in the not so distant future. They learn how to use software tools that will soon become standard in the rapidly-changing legal market, while developing self-help resources that assist low-income people who cannot afford an attorney start a lawsuit, file for divorce, or petition for an order of protection.

"Eighty percent of the legal needs that low-income people face go unmet each year," explained Professor Staudt. "My students develop tools that will be used by statewide legal aid websites in Nebraska, North Carolina and Illinois to lower the barriers to justice self-represented litigants face."

According to Staudt, who is also the director of the Center for Access to Justice and Technology at IIT Chicago-Kent, there are only a handful of other law schools around the country that offer similar programs, but he has a plan to fix the problems he sees.

"The legal services market is rapidly changing. Experience with document automation and document assembly tools is going to be vital for new attorneys, but very few law schools offer courses that provide hands-on experience using these tools," said Staudt. "We've addressed that gap in the legal education system in a way that will also allow us help mitigate the access-to-justice problem."

The Center for Access to Justice and Technology has partnered with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI®) and Idaho Legal Aid Services to launch the Access to Justice Clinical Course (A2J Clinic) Project, which will work to expand courses like Prof. Staudt's into the more than 200 law schools that are members of CALI.

"We have always worked as an innovative force to push legal education to change for the better," said CALI executive director John Mayer. "Previously, we've done that by developing computerized lessons to supplement in-class instruction and e-Langdell coursebooks, but the A2J Clinic Project will develop course kits that our member schools can incorporate into their clinical curriculum."

In this first phase, the A2J Clinic Project is looking for three to five law schools to serve as pilot schools. Selected faculty from these schools will create a new clinical course or modify a current one that teaches A2JAuthor® or other software tools to develop self-help resources for legal aid organizations. A2JAuthor® is a software tool developed by CALI that uses a web-based user interface to walk self-represented litigants though a legal process by asking a series of questions to create a document that can be filed with the court.

The A2J Clinic Project plans to announce selected faculty members in January and work with that group throughout the Spring 2013 semester to develop course kits. The plan is that those course kits would then be taught by the faculty members in the Fall 2013 semester.

Defining exactly what will be included in each participant's Course Kit will be determined as part of the Project. At a minimum, the course kits are likely to include a syllabus, assignments and a work plan for the student performances, as well as any tools developed by the faculty member to help track their students'performance. Faculty also will develop teacher's manuals, evaluate the use of the software tools in clinical settings and provide feedback. Each course will develop A2J Guided Interviews®, tying classroom learning to a legal practice application while lowering the barriers to justice for low-income people by creating locally-relevant A2J Guided Interviews®.

CALI® will accept proposals from interested law schools and faculty members until November 15. More information on submitting a proposal and a sample course kit can be found at a2jclinic.classcaster.net.

IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law is the law school of Illinois Institute of Technology, a private, Ph.D.-granting institution with programs in engineering, psychology, architecture, business, design and law. The Center for Access to Justice & Technology was established at IIT Chicago-Kent to make justice more accessible to the public by promoting the use of the Internet in the teaching, practice, and public access to the law. The Center conducts research, builds software tools, teaches classes and supports faculty, staff and student projects on access to justice and technology.

CALI®, the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, is a nonprofit consortium of law schools whose mission includes promoting "access to justice through the use of computer technology."

Editor's note: Professor Ronald Staudt, CALI's John Mayer, and students from IIT Chicago-Kent's Justice & Technology Practicum are available for media interviews.