The first conference I attended in 2020 was the Innovations in Technology Conference hosted by the Legal Services Corporation in Portland, Oregon, last month. Initially I thought that having a conference in January was highly eccentric, then I booked my hotel room and saw the rates for staying in Portland in January, and I immediately saw how brilliant it is.
For those of you who don’t know, it’s the national conference on technology aimed at a legal aid audience, most of whom are grantees of the Legal Services Corporation. One of the themes of the conference that I was particularly interested in was legal apps, partly because people have been asking for a CanLII app for so long. Now it seems that the fashion for apps has abated somewhat, and we can pretend we were being prescient in not developing one.
Canadian audiences will get a sense of the tone from knowing that Shannon Salter of the Civil Resolution Tribunal in BC, gave the keynote. She opened the conference by making a call for striving for quality in substantive legal software. She said that research has found that every time there’s a requirement to load an app a system loses people, because of the extra steps to download and set it up that a website doesn’t have. That said many users only access the internet on a smart phone, and mobile accessibility is very important.
There is obviously much investment going into app development in legal aid organizations around the United States, and the Legal Services Corporation sees it as a priority for funding. It’s desirable to be able to have ways to help more people, and individual legal assistance isn’t easily scalable. Online systems have the potential to increase organizations’ reach and the impact of available funds. This led to much of the conference being about app strategy and development, with a particular focus on calling for rigourous quality in design, development, and testing of applications.
The reason for this focus, beyond the desirability of making an app that will increase an organization’s reach, is that apps have the potential to be particularly problematic from an access to justice perspective. They represent real risks to people, especially where users input information and get a customized answer, or one that appears to be customized. In these situations apps create an aura of anthropomorphization leading to perceptions of authority that traditional sources of legal information such as books and static websites don’t.
Because of this element of potential harm, there is significant organizational risk in making an app available. A bad legal app may hurt people, and, if the harm is great enough, it could also invite additional limiting regulations that may stop innovations in the space. This leads to concern about the risk to the sector as a whole, and a desire to raise the quality of all applications being provided to the public.
We need to stop thinking about the development of apps as technical projects. They are full projects, and the most likely point of failure is not in the technology. It’s in the design, roll out, maintenance, and other human related elements. Apps should be designed in a way that empowers and informs users. They shouldn’t be, as one of the speakers put it, “black boxes of magic” that give answers that can’t be queried. We were told that some reports are saying that peak of apps’ popularity is over, and that designing for websites that can be accessed using any web browser is more strategic for access to justice projects going forward.
I was so impressed at the rigour and integrity the attendees and presenters brought to developing legal technology tools that really meet the needs of users. I hope that more better apps will be developed to further the goal of access to justice because it has the potential to help many more people while freeing the time of people to do the work that can’t be automated.