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BYU brings design innovation to bear on legal issues with new LawX program

PROVO — It's a perfect storm of intimidation.

You've received a notice that someone is suing you, what to do next isn't clear, you can't afford a lawyer and, if you don't respond within three weeks, a default judgment will be levied against you.

In Utah, that scenario plays out in an alarming number of cases for people without professional legal assistance, including debt collections, where only about 1 percent of defendants retain a lawyer and landlord-tenant disputes, where a mere 2 percent are able to retain legal counsel.

And that's a problem that students will tackle in the first semester of LawX, a novel program at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School set to launch this fall with a mission to level the playing field when it comes to accessing the legal process.

"There's a crisis in law right now and it's that legal services are very expensive," said LawX program director Kimball Parker. "(Utah) Supreme Court Justice Constandinos Himonas has pointed out that a massive number of defendants who get sued in our state don't respond."

Taking on this problem, and the approach that will be embraced to identify a solution, is at the heart of what will make LawX so unique. It will be among just a handful of programs across the country that are carving out new territory at the intersection of law and technology. The dean of BYU's law school, D. Gordon Smith, said old approaches in training for the legal profession are due for an overhaul.

"One of the things we've thought a lot about is how to prepare our students for changes in legal practice because of technology," Smith said. "Rather than just sitting in your office and crafting a solution and presenting it to a judge, you're looking at problems that have solutions that would benefit from a design process ... from experimentation, focus groups, prototyping and trial-and-error.

"I wouldn't say it's going to be entirely foreign, but it will be quite a departure from our normal way of working through legal problems."

Smith said LawX will be modeled after a successful program that launched three years ago at Stanford University. Professor Margaret Hagan, the founder and director of Stanford's Legal Design Lab, said the inspiration for bringing an entrepreneurial design approach to tackling legal issues was seeded when she was still a student of law.

"I wanted to be a different kind of lawyer," Hagan said. "I was interested in finding out what you can pollinate in bringing design approaches to law."

Hagan got the opportunity to do just that when she secured a one-year fellowship at Stanford to run experiments, design projects and find out if the approach could be useful and effective.

"What I found was there is a huge appetite for new ways of doing things and new approaches to the problems," Hagan said.

Hagan's fellowship project was so successful, it became a permanent program at Stanford.

The tenet of building equitable access to legal services and the process of law is at the heart of Hagan's Legal Design Lab and the focus has also been adopted by Smith and Parker for the LawX program.

Salt Lake City attorney Nathan Alder has been practicing for over 20 years and is a past president of the Utah State Bar Association, currently serves on the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission as well as the Governing Council for the American Bar Association's Center for Innovation. He said LawX is addressing a critical need in its choice of an issue to focus on in its debut this fall.

"The default rate on these cases has been a matter of concern for many, many years," Alder said. "Consumers can find themselves without paddles in the legal system and facing anxiety and fears about handling things right, particularly those who are pro se (representing themselves) because of cost issues.

"What Dean Smith and BYU are taking on with LawX is just fantastic."

Parker explained that LawX students will work on one issue each semester, with the plan to apply design thinking to get to a solution by the end of the term. And, Parker said, by solution they mean an actual and practical response to the problem, not just a theoretical proposal.

"We won't just be thinking of ways to solve these problems, we'll be building and implementing complete solutions," Parker said. "We'll do whatever we need to do."

LawX will begin as a relatively small program, available to second- and third-year law students, with the initial class size likely coming in under a dozen. Parker and Smith said they are taking a page from a design lab in BYU's engineering department, which has had great success tackling semester projects with a smaller group of students.

As for attracting students to a program that may appear outside the normal realm of the study of law, Smith and Parker feel there will be sufficient interest and that the start-up/entrepreneurial aspect of the lab will resonate with a student body that has shown a strong penchant for DIY projects in many other areas of study.

If the Stanford model is any measure, LawX will be much more likely to be facing the challenges of popularity rather than apathy.

Hagan said many of the classes that have been offered through the Legal Design Lab have been over-subscribed and the program itself may be headed for expansion. Past projects by Hagan's students include a guardianship navigator, re-thinking the best ways to make lay people aware of their legal rights, working to make the immigration system user-friendly and how to make it easy for individuals to put together a legal end-of-life plan.

Stanford's Legal Design Lab and BYU's LawX will also become academic siblings in the effort to expand and rethink the work of training new lawyers. Hagan said while just a handful of schools are entering the realm, she believes a wider adoption of the design approach to law may be in the offing.

"I think it's in the air right now," Hagan said. "There are a lot of discussions going on with deans and faculty members about justice innovation programs. And not just for innovation's sake, but to better serve communities."

Alder noted that LawX's format of combining a high-tech approach with a goal centered on building fairness in the law was both timely and noble.

"Our field is really long overdue for accepting and adopting technology and innovation," Alder said. "And it's a tribute to Dean Smith for being a visionary, being very public-minded and being very concerned about our legal institutions and the administration of justice.

"Helping consumers, everyday people, who are just trying to get through our legal system is incredibly admirable."