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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Brown

With threats to defund legal aid, how can hackathons help tackle America’s ‘justice gap’?

Originally published February 19, 2018 on Medium.

ABA Fellow and Seattle GLH organizer Amanda Brown discusses how she’s tackling America’s justice gap with tech, the consequences of defunding legal aid, and what it’s like to plan a legal hackathon

The US President’s recent proposal to defund the country’s largest provider of legal aid has made improving access to justice and increasing efficiency in the legal sector all the more salient. It has also encouraged more conversation around who gets left out when it comes to legal services.

This exclusion is the justice gap, explains ABA Center for Innovation-Microsoft NextGen Fellow Amanda Brown, who is working with the Legal Services Corporation to help increase people’s access to legal aid resources. She has also been busy planning a legal hackathon in Seattle, WA, hosted by Davis Wright Tremaine and Microsoft on February 23–25, as part of the Global Legal Hackathon.

We spoke to Brown about how she is working to address America’s justice gap, the consequences of defunding legal aid, and how she hopes the upcoming hackathon will improve access to justice and legal services. Here’s what she had to say.

As a Microsoft-NextGen Fellow, you’re working with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to develop web portals for legal aid resources. Can you tell me a little bit about your work and the problem it aims to solve?

Working on the LSC Portal project has been a really eye-opening and rewarding experience. Having come from a legal aid background, I knew access to justice and legal resources was a huge problem in America.

The Legal Services Corporation completed a study last year and found that 86% of civil legal needs were inadequately or completely unmet. The primary reasons for this is 1) oftentimes, people don’t think the issues they have are legal, and 2) there’s a severe lack of resources available — legal services groups just can’t serve enough people, so they have to restrict their client bases to severely marginalized populations. This means that people who can’t afford to pay a private attorney but who also do not qualify for legal services are left to figure it out on their own. This is known as the “justice gap.”

The portal hopes to address that gap by serving as a single access point for not just legal information, self-help resources, and referrals but also localized community resources.

How is development on these web portals progressing so far?

So far, we’ve proven that the model can work! Our prototype can successfully use natural language processing through a chat function to understand what type of legal issue a user is experiencing for four different areas of law. After confirming the user’s specific scenario, the portal catalyst can serve up curated information including easily navigable court process steps, forms, and community and situational resources. Now it’s time to build out a scalable solution.

The US President has again proposed eliminating LSC’s funding. What kind of impact would this have?

Even a small reduction in LSC funding would have crippling effects, much less full-scale elimination. The Legal Services Corporation serves over an estimated 1.5 million individuals each year with a massive return on investment (sometimes up to 10–11x return for every dollar invested!). These organizations work tirelessly to make sure individuals with domestic violence, child custody, employment, and housing issues (and much, much more) have stability in their lives as they face these issues.

I’ll take this chance to remind everyone that Congress still has to work through and approve the budget, so contact your representatives. Thankfully, LSC has broad bi-partisan support, but amplifying LSC’s voice by contacting your lawmakers to oppose elimination really makes a difference.

In addition to working with the LSC, you’ve been hard at work organizing the GLH event hosted by Microsoft in Seattle, a city known for its tech prowess. Specifically, can you speak to what makes Seattle a prime spot to host a legal hackathon?

This one is easy. Seattle is crawling with some of the most innovative people, businesses, and law firms in the world! There’s also an incredible start-up culture here. The people are brilliant, driven, and constantly looking for ways to push their respective industries to the limits. It only made sense to be sure Seattle was on the map for the first-ever Global Legal Hackathon.

“I suspect that we’re going to seriously educate people on the possibilities tech brings to the legal space, which will inspire large-scale creativity and innovation beyond the now.” — Amanda Brown, ABA Center for Innovation-Microsoft NextGen Fellow and GLH organizer, Seattle

What has been the most exciting and, perhaps, challenging aspects of organizing a Global Legal Hackathon event, and what are you looking forward to most about next week’s event?

The most challenging piece for me was getting everything ready to go in such a short amount of time. I can only imagine how the global organizers feel! Most hackathons have months of lead time, and we only had a few weeks to make sure this event was all it could be. Challenging, yes — impossible, no! Seeing the community feedback, excitement, and energy made it that much easier.

I’m most excited to see the long-term impact this event is going to have on the legal community. I suspect that we’re going to seriously educate people on the possibilities tech brings to the legal space, which will inspire large-scale creativity and innovation beyond the now.

What are the specific justice and/or legal industry issues you’d like to see tackled at the upcoming hackathon in Seattle — or on a global scale?

On the public benefit side, I’d love to see how we can bridge the civil legal services gap. This can be done in many different ways — from attorney-matching platforms to self-help tools, chatbots, and more; and no area of law is too big or too small.

Given the timeliness of the event, maybe we will see some innovations in the immigration space.

As for the private benefit work-stream, I’d love to see people bring machine learning and data-driven decision making to law practice and case management.

Though not really a specific “issue,” I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I was really looking forward to seeing the creative blockchain applications that come out of this event as well.

On February 23–25, 2018, Davis Wright Tremaine and Microsoft will join companies across the globe in hosting Global Legal Hackathon events to improve services in the legal industry and access to justice. Register for the Seattle locationhere.

You can follow Amanda Brown on Twitter @BDashAmBrow, and learn more about the ABA Center for Innovation Fellows at

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