By Alexander Rabanal, Access to Justice Fellow at Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice & Technology
This fall marks the fifth year of Professor Ronald Staudt’s Justice & Technology Practicum, a groundbreaking course at IIT Chicago-Kent that teaches students how to create A2J Guided Interviews® and document assembly templates for use by self-represented litigants. A2J Guided Interviews are graphical interfaces that walk a person through a legal process and can also be used to generate a completed legal form. Since 2005, over 2.6 million A2J Guided Interviews have been run, producing over 1.5 million documents. With legal aid organizations typically burdened by limited resources and funding, Professor Staudt’s students make a critical contribution to closing the justice gap by creating powerful online self-help tools that scale up the delivery of legal assistance to those who cannot afford a private attorney or who are ineligible for legal aid.
The Practicum is a hybrid classroom and clinical course. Students receive classroom instruction on the uses of technology to meet the legal needs of the poor and engage in lively discussions about the increasing role technology plays in both legal services delivery and private practice. Students are then paired with a legal aid attorney to address a justice problem and conduct critical legal research and fieldwork as the foundation for developing an interactive A2J Guided Interview and document assembly template for a legal aid organization. Over the past five years, Professor Staudt’s students have created interactive tools for legal aid organizations across the country, from California to North Carolina. Among other fieldwork activities, students may volunteer at the Self-Help Web Center at the Daley Center, where they help pro se litigants use A2J Guided Interviews and online legal self-help resources, such as those found on Illinois Legal Aid Online.
Students in the Practicum develop core competencies that are crucial in today’s legal practice environment. In addition to traditional legal research and writing skills, students learn principles of systems design, using logical reasoning to account for multiple conditions in a self-represented litigant’s user experience. Students also learn client-focused skills like using plain language and conveying empathy in the A2J Guided Interviews they design. They must also learn to anticipate when additional contextual information is needed in order for self-represented users to make more informed decisions. All of those skills are developed through active engagement with legal technology, which is vital for students to learn as they enter into a field that is increasingly technology-driven.
And while students work with impactful technology in the course, they do not need to have any computer programming or technical background beyond basic word processing to enroll. Students create A2J Guided Interviews using A2J Author®, which was developed by Chicago-Kent and the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). A2J Author is intuitive and user-friendly, making it easy to learn. Additionally, students receive ample instruction in both A2J Author and HotDocs, the software program used for document assembly in the course.
Professor Staudt’s Practicum has also garnered national visibility. 3L Hanna Kaufman recently spoke at the White House about her experience in the course, specifically her rewarding work in the Practicum to create an A2J Guided Interview and document assembly template addressing modifications of child support for the California Administrative Office of the Court’s Center for Families, Children & the Courts. Hanna also spoke about how the Practicum has influenced the development of similar courses in law schools across the country through the A2J Author Course Project, an initiative funded by the Legal Services Corporation that has reached over a dozen law schools in just three years.
The Justice & Technology Practicum is a recommended course in the Certificate for Public Interest Law Program.