Technology can provide powerful tools to solve difficult problems in the law, particularly access to justice issues. There is a huge amount of scope for lawyers, clients, courts and the community to benefit from applying technology to legal problems, and law students are leading the way.
Law students participating in the inaugural UWA Legal Hackathon presented a range of ideas illustrating how technology could help solve difficult issues in the law. The winning idea was Lawra - a digital assistant that could quickly direct people to the CLC that best suited their legal needs. Almost one year on, Lawra is well on its way to becoming a reality.
LawCPD co-founder, Sarah Mateljan, sat down with the Lawra team (Georgina Due, Astrid Sweeny and Linda Mulenda) to gain insight into their journey from initial concept to viable technical solution. You can read the full transcript below, or watch the video to learn more.
[Sarah] Thank you for being here today and congratulations on winning last year’s inaugural UWA hackathon. Can you tell us a bit about your idea, Lawra, and what inspired you to create it?
[Georgina]: I might just touch on this. The inspiration came from a few of us in our team had worked at community legal centres before. And we found that a lot of the time we were there, calls were spent referring to other clients. So someone would call up, speak to us for about 20 minutes about their story and everything that had happened to them, and we realised we couldn’t help them at our community legal centre and we had to refer them on somewhere else. We noticed that this was spending a lot of time that could have been spent actually giving advice to people and helping people. So, our idea LawRa was developed just to help, hopefully, fix that problem by triaging clients before they call up the website through a little pop-up chat box that they end up answering questions to figure out what the best CLC to help them is. And then they can get given their contact details.
[Sarah] How has LawRa developed since the Hackathon?
[Linda]: We initially got in touch with Kate Offer, (add role description) and she suggested we do this as a formal unit. So the three of us did the unit. We contacted all the relevant CLC’s and they said they’d be happy to come on board. We spent semester 1 doing up our decision trees, and right now we are working with coders on bringing the ideas to life and create an actual prototype.
[Sarah] That’s excellent. And when you say decision trees, you mean the type of questions you would ask clients to bring them through to the correct CLC?
[Sarah] How have you found the process of turning your idea into a technical application? What has it been like for you?
[Astrid] We definitely had some issues going through. I think we all knew that it was going to be quite a big project but, especially having to use free resources, the decision trees kept crashing excel and they were just getting bigger and bigger... So at the moment, we have just decided to split them into separate decision trees and that’s working well.
[Sarah] So you have been using some free software, what kind of software?
[Georgina] Excel’s the big one! It’s been a lot of work, trying to work within the restraints of Excel.
[Sarah] It is great that you have been able to achieve this with something that everyone has on their computer.
[Georgina] I think this was the idea. We needed it to be something we could all access it for free, we just didn’t have the resources for anything else.
[Sarah] What surprises or challenges have you encountered along the way in terms of building this into a product?
[Linda] Maybe working with CLC’s, who are really time-poor. Sometimes getting in contact with them can be quite difficult because they obviously have to help their clients but also deal with us as well. But they’ve all been very receptive and given us a lot of their time - which has been really good to receive. But yes, initially it was really hard to get in contact or get responses back
[Sarah] I guess, in the long term it will help them to save time, but it must be so hard for them to do now because they are so busy. Did the three of you know much about legal innovation before you took part in the Hackathon?
[Astrid] I didn’t know anything about legal innovation. I just decided on a whim to do the hackathon. And I just went from there as I wasn’t exposed to that kind of side of the legal sector.
[Georgina] I think I had known a little bit about it, but I decided to delve a little bit more into it. I was so glad that I did, and now I’m kind of obsessed with it.
[Linda] I was the same, I knew a little bit about it. I had watched a few artificial intelligence movies and thought it was cool. Then I did the hackathon on a whim, and I thought, “let’s just do it”. I also did a legal APPtitude unit as well which really helped, which really helped and built my understanding.
Note: a Legal APPtitude is a unit where students spend the semester building something useful for a community legal centre.
[Sarah] What do you hope will happen with Lawra in future?
[Georgina] Hopefully it will go on to help a lot of people. Our goal is to get it distributed throughout WA first. If that works well then take it to a national scale and work with CLC’s across Australia. Obviously, that's quite a bit in the future and we just need to keep working on what we are doing at the moment, make sure it’s really good in WA.
[Sarah] What’s next for you? Has participated in the hackathon and working on Lawra together had an impact on your future career plans?
[Linda] I think now it's opened my mind to legal tech. I definitely think whenever I’m looking at companies or firms, I do ask these questions: “what are you doing in artificial intelligence? legal tech?”. I definitely think I’m more open to asking those questions and actually see what they do.
[Georgina] In terms of an employment perspective, if they are not doing anything about it, then it becomes a bit of a concern for me.
[Astrid] I am very much the same. I really love innovation and changing things and seeing what you can do or how you can disrupt the legal sector. I’d like to go into a career that allows me to keep doing projects like this.
[Sarah] What tips and advice do you have for law students thinking about taking part in this year’s Hackathon?
[Georgina] Firstly, it's great that they are doing it because they should definitely do it!
[Astrid] For me, the biggest one was: when we were thinking about things to do, the referral system idea seemed kind of a simple at first. I thought “we will never win”. But as we started to do it we realised how good of an idea it actually was. So I think the best piece of advice is to throw out as many ideas as you can and even if it seems simple just go with it.
[Georgina] And I also think, find a problem and solve the problem. Don’t go “this would be nice to have, it’s a good idea”. Be like, what’s the problem we have now, what is something we can solve tomorrow. Because I think the feedback we got from the judges was that was the reason we won. Because it was something we could roll out tomorrow.
[Linda] I think my advice is to believe in yourself. I went into the weekend thinking I didn’t know anything, and we came out of the weekend really empowered actually, we do know stuff. Also, get involved, ask lots of questions. If you don’t immerse yourself in the experience, you won’t get a lot out of it. So immerse yourself in the experience. Ask questions. Work with your teammates. Spit out lots of ideas, even if they sound crazy... At one point we came up with robot judges.
[Sarah] It’s not the worst idea, some countries are passing legislation to stop robot judges. That’s really good advice: jumping in, getting involved no and no idea silly idea, it's all about solving problems.
Thank you so much for your coming in today, and congratulations on winning last year. I hope you get to speak at this year’s hackathon and inspire this year’s student to come up with some really great ideas to help people.
Register for the 2019 UWA Legal Hackathon here.
Or learn more about the 2018 UWA Legal Hackathon here.
You can also learn more about legal innovation for lawyers and law firms here.