Legal Tools of the Future: Transitioning from Student to Innovator
Nicole Siino, a Suffolk alum, recently completed a NextGen fellowship with the American Bar Association Center for Innovation. Combining her unique perspective from experience as an editor on the Journal of High Technology Law while at Suffolk, a student attorney in the Juvenile Defender Clinic, and a Legal Innovation & Technology clinical fellow, Nicole explains a tool she created using a spreadsheet app called Airtable to provide a comprehensive list of youth programs and resources in the greater Boston area, and how as an ABA fellow she has navigated expansion of the tool to include adult criminal justice resources and make larger inroads to help bridge the access to justice gap in Massachusetts – and hopefully beyond.
Law students are taught to participate, listen, and think like a lawyer. This includes researching case law and statutes to influence legal outcomes. Students are rarely given the opportunity to flex their creativity muscle when it comes to solving problems in the legal field. Other professions use techniques such as Design Thinking  or Kata Process Improvement  to solve everyday annoyances or complex, systemic problems. The legal industry has been stagnant in this area for far too long. Suffolk Law recognizes this gap and teaches students new ways of tackling legal problems. By the time I graduated in May 2018, I learned not only how to think like a lawyer, but also as an innovator.
During my final year at Suffolk Law, I was given the opportunity to become a Legal Innovation & Technology (LIT) Fellow within the Juvenile Defender Clinic. LIT Fellows have reduced clinic case load in order to create a process improvement or technology project to advance the clinic in some way. I had no technology or coding experience so the thought of creating a tool to improve the clinic seemed extremely daunting. The LIT fellowship also required me to take one legal tech class per semester. I took both Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines and 21st Century Lawyer. It was through those classes I learned how to innovatively approach a problem plaguing the legal industry and come up with a solution.
I learned that generally the first step behind innovating is getting to know the people you are trying to help. My goal was to help my clinic & juvenile defense lawyers work more effectively and efficiently. I spoke with my clinic supervisors and clinic colleagues and figured out a reoccurring problem within the juvenile court system. When attorneys were tasked with finding informal diversion programs for clients, there was no master list of programs to choose from. The attorneys would have to contact social workers to see if they knew of any resources or they would have to research and find a program themselves. More often than not, clients’ participation in these programs determined whether their case would be dismissed prior to arraignment. It was crucial that the attorney moved quickly so that the charges did not go on their client’s criminal record. I thought if I could create a tool that held all the programs and resources for juveniles then it would cut down on attorneys’ research time.
The second step behind innovating is to see if the problem identified can be solved by implementing a process improvement technique or type of technology. Based on the problem I found, I decided to create a website application that houses a comprehensive list of juvenile resources in and around the Boston area so that attorneys could quickly find programs on their phone in court or on a computer at their office. I spent all of my 3L year learning how to code a website from scratch and inputting juvenile resources into an Airtable.  I then linked the Airtable data to HTML code. I relied heavily on my clinic colleagues and supervisors to give me lists of resources. David Colarusso, Director of the Legal Innovation and Technology Lab & Clinical Fellow, became instrumental in teaching me how to code a website application.
The third step in innovation is to get as much user feedback as possible and continuously integrating feedback into the tool. After I built the app, I asked my clinic colleagues, supervisors, and even attorneys I had met in the juvenile court system to use the app and give me feedback. This is a recursive process because things can always be improved.
Each step of the innovative process comes with challenges. Prior to becoming a LIT Fellow, I had no experience coding but with the support of colleagues and professors at Suffolk I was successful. The great thing about the innovative process is that it can be applied to any area of the law. Many legal technologists have gone through the same steps outlined above to create document automation tools, streamlined client intake forms, and more. Anyone can use any iteration of innovative thinking to solve most problems they’re facing.
My experience building the juvenile app led to me to apply to the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Innovation’s NextGen Fellowship.  In this one-year fellowship, I am expanding the juvenile app to include juvenile resources throughout Massachusetts and to include adult criminal justice resources. To ensure the legitimacy of such resources in the app, I am asking legal aid organizations across Massachusetts to contribute lists of resources in their area to my master list. Most organizations have already compiled lists of their favorite resources so why not share that information with everyone? All these organizations have to do is add their resources into the Airtable spreadsheets.
So what next? The unique and exciting part of the updated app is that it will be self-sustaining. Many legal tech projects fail because after they are built, no one is left to maintain them. I am trying to combat this problem by building an infrastructure that requires very little to no maintenance once my ABA fellowship ends in August 2019. Organizations that wish to contribute can also take over a regional spreadsheet. They will be responsible for updating that list of resources on an annual basis but they can add whatever content is helpful to them. Updating the resources can be a simple task for a summer intern or new attorney trying to learn the resources themselves.
My experience as a NextGen Fellow imbedded in such an important organization in the legal profession in the United States has been very similar to my experience as a LIT Fellow in law school. I am constantly going back to those innovative design techniques to advance my app. The skills I learned at Suffolk Law have helped me shape my career in the legal technology field. Suffolk will continue to teach newer generations of lawyers how to approach problems and solutions differently, and I’m honored to help pave the way.
 Rikke Dam & Teo Siang, 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process, Interaction Design Foundation March 2019, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process.
 What is Kata Process Improvement?, Six
Sigma March 3, 2017, https://www.6sigma.us/six-sigma-articles/what-is-kata-process-improvement/.
 Airtable, https://airtable.com.
 New Class of ABA Innovation Fellows Will Tackle Diverse Group of Access to Justice Projects, September 27, 2018, https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2018/09/new-class-of-aba-innovation-fellows-will-tackle-diverse-group-of/.
About the Author Nicole Siino is a former American Bar Association NextGen Fellow and 2018 graduate of Suffolk University Law School. She’s currently a Consultant at Fireman & Company.