Innovation Labs Provide Space for Access to Justice Solutions

June 15, 2023

"cityscape at twilight"Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) recently announced it will launch the Innovation Lab, which will explore and implement innovative solutions to the state’s justice gap. LANC is making history as the first legal service organization in the country to launch such a lab. 

The Lab’s goal is to “bring together clients, community partners, law schools, staff, and justice tech experts to pursue projects that integrate technology and design best practices into legal service delivery that improves access to justice.” Scheree Gilchrist has been appointed LANC’s Chief Innovation Officer, and the Lab will operate under her leadership alongside an advisory board, chaired by Jeff Kelly, an emerging tech partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP.

The Innovation Lab’s objectives include: 

  • Serving as the in-house hub for improving access to justice through better processes, technologies, and designs;
  • Bringing together interdisciplinary teams to collaborate, develop, and test ideas for more efficient and scalable legal service delivery;
  • Collecting high-quality data on legal needs in North Carolina and using this data to improve LANC’s services, particularly in rural areas;
  • Ensuring innovations are guided by equity;
  • Creating a space where other legal service organizations can learn from the Lab’s work and apply it to their own communities; and
  • Collaborating with people, organizations, and law schools across the state and beyond. 

One of the Lab’s inaugural projects focuses on improving LANC’s Helpline, which provides free help for civil legal problems. “The Helpline is the starting point for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians’ legal challenges each year, but the demand for legal help is so high that many calls go unanswered,” Kelly said. “I’m excited to work with LANC to reimagine its intake and dramatically improve our ability to pair our communities with the legal information and help that they desperately need.” 

The Lab plans to focus on improving entry points to the Helpline, modernizing call-center technology, strengthening ties with other legal service organizations, and establishing the Helpline as a hub for the Lab’s scalable solutions and new projects. 

Building on Best Practices in Innovation

Innovation labs, and related entities like incubators and accelerators, provide a space within which organizations can experiment and iterate on new ideas and projects. They’re seen frequently in corporate organizations and are increasingly part of the landscape of higher education. The number of innovation labs, incubators, and accelerators within the legal sector is rapidly increasing—some of them specifically focused on increasing access to justice in the PeopleLaw sector. 

  • The Duke Law Tech Lab, housed at the Duke Center on Law & Tech at Duke University School of Law, is a ten-week accelerator that is focused exclusively on startups with a mission to increase access to justice. (The Duke Center on Law & Tech is also an early supporter of the Lab.)
  • At the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Professor Lois Lupica’s Law & Innovation Lab (recently featured in the latest edition of the University of Denver Magazine) provides students with hands-on learning about technology’s potential for improving the delivery of legal services.
  • The Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School studies and builds new technologies, services, and policies that facilitate access to justice. 

These and the many other legal innovation labs are facilitating the launch and maturation of new solutions to assist those who need access to legal services. It is an exciting development to see these programs spread to legal aid and other organizations that serve low-income individuals and communities. 

The Innovation Lab Model Accelerated: Legal Regulatory Sandboxes 

In the U.S., these labs and similar programs stop short of facilitating more structural, transformative innovations—for example, changes to who can provide legal services (unauthorized practice of law reform) and to the organizational structures in which providers can deliver those services (Rule 5.4’s fee-sharing and co-ownership). This is where the legal regulatory sandbox movement picks up. 

Regulatory sandboxes are an approach to professional regulation that allow for innovation and experimentation with new providers, products, and services that otherwise would not be authorized under existing rules of professional conduct. The new models that operate in the sandbox do so within the confines of a risk-based, data-driven, and heavily regulated environment. 

At the time of writing, Utah’s regulatory sandbox is the first in the nation, and a sandbox proposal based on Utah’s model is currently under consideration in Washington. Recent research from Stanford Law’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession demonstrates that regulatory innovation programs in Utah and Arizona are yielding significant innovation in the delivery of legal services—without producing a boost in consumer complaints. 

Conceptually, regulatory sandboxes and innovation labs are designed to foster a similar environment: one that prioritizes out-of-the-box thinking and the testing of new technology tools, products, services, and pipelines for legal service delivery. Both sandboxes and innovation labs encourage (or mandate) the collection of data and the evaluation of the new approaches being tested. In this way, both ecosystems spin out evidence-based innovations. And because the innovations within these programs are closely monitored, the quality of service delivery to the public is front and center. 

Legal Aid Innovation Labs Have Entered the Chat

Of course, there is a considerable difference between the authority and purview of the Utah sandbox and the LANC Innovation Lab. But if recent national developments are a sign of a broader movement, then we may soon see labs connected to legal aid providers that are experimenting with regulatory innovations. In fact, Jeff Kelly is chairing the Lab’s advisory board after serving as an advisor to the North Carolina State Bar on regulatory sandboxes; his subcommittee’s work led to the formation of a Standing Committee on Access to Justice in 2022.

Newly enacted Alaska Bar Rule 43.5 provides a waiver to engage in the limited practice of law for professionals who are not attorneys but who are trained and supervised by the Alaska Legal Services Corporation. A similar proposal has been submitted to the North Carolina General Assembly on behalf of the North Carolina Justice for All Project. Relatedly, Delaware now permits tenants to be represented by providers who are not lawyers, under the supervision of legal aid agencies. These new experiments with innovative providers are ripe territory for innovation labs that can maximize the efficacy of these providers and their services while providing important structure and oversight.

LANC’s Innovation Lab marks a growing trend toward transformative approaches in the legal sector—ones that emphasize evidence-based innovations and enhanced service delivery. These developments signal an exciting future for legal aid providers and innovative solutions to increase access to justice.

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