ABA Center for Innovation Explored

There has been much gnashing of teeth over the failure of the legal profession to embrace technological innovation as a way to increase the efficiency and affordability of legal services. In the 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States, dedicated to the estimated 80% of people of limited means “without meaningful access to our justice system,” the American Bar Association (ABA) acknowledged that efforts to address the access to justice crisis have been hampered by resistance to technological changes and innovations. It was further noted that the legal profession has failed to keep pace with industries such as medicine and personal finance which have invested in technologies to improve service and client relationships. In an effort to catch up, Recommendation 6 of the Report was to establish an ABA Center for Innovation.

The Center was established in 2016 with the mission to “Encourage and accelerate innovations that improve the affordability, effectiveness, efficiency, and accessibility of legal services.” It operates by encouraging and supporting partnerships and initiatives and by funding fellowships.

According to the website, on rare occasions, the Center will initiate and lead a project such as it has done with the Louisiana Flood App project. The Center partnered with Stanford University and LSU law schools to create the app that helped 2016 Louisiana flood victims qualify for FEMA disaster assistance. The app is called Flood Proof: La. Legal Help and is accessible on the Web and available for download in the Google Play and iTunes stores.

The Center also joins collaborative efforts and is currently working on two projects. One involves partnering with other ABA divisions to help the New York State Unified Court System develop an online dispute resolution system to resolve consumer debt cases more efficiently. The Center is also part of an ABA effort to create a free online legal checkup tool to help the public identify legal problems and find resources to solve them.

Funding fellowships is a large part of the Center’s approach to encouraging innovation. They offer two types of fellowships – NextGen Fellows who are recently graduated attorneys who are paid a $45,000 stipend to spend one year at the ABA headquarters in Chicago or at a legal organization and Innovation Fellows who aren’t required to be attorneys who take a 9 to 12 week sabbatical from their jobs to work at the ABA headquarters in Chicago. There is no stipend for Innovation Fellows.

There are currently eight fellows, two Innovation and six NextGen. And what are some of them up to?

Amanda Brown, Microsoft NextGen Fellow, is working with Microsoft, Pro Bono Net, and the Legal Services Corporation to create an online portal to help people navigate the civil justice system.

Innovation Fellow Bryan Wilson is working on the DFENDR Project which involves using data, technology, and a network of experts to identify possibly wrongfully convicted people.

Irene Mo is a NextGen Fellow who is creating tools to help low-income and marginalized people to better understand the privacy and data security risks of the Internet.

As you can see, the Center is involved in a lot of interesting projects. Check out the Center’s website and blog for more information on their activities.


Reference Librarian and Professor of Practice at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.