U of A course shows future lawyers how to be coders

Popular course teaches law students to build automated guides that help people fill out legal paperwork.


Law 589: Coding the Law, taught by law instructor Jason Morris, gives the tools to build online software to guide people through the process of filling out legal paperwork.

University of Alberta law students are taking the law into their own hands, or at least fingertips, as they learn how to tap out computer code in a popular class that shows participants how to build a real-world automated service that widens access to the legal system.

Law 589: Coding the Law, an upper-year law course developed and taught by Jason Morris, teaches students how to use Docassemble, which is open-source software written Jonathon Pyle—a lawyer who works in the pro bono sector in the United States—designed to help build online interviews to guide people through filling out legal paperwork.

“This course asks students to take themselves out of the mindset of litigation attorneys who are arguing appeals at a court and, instead, put themselves into the mindset of a volunteer at a nonprofit trying to help someone get their rent deposit back,” said Morris.

“When you look at it from that other perspective and you start to ask questions about how we can use technology to help, the perspective changes.”

In the first year of the class last year, Morris said five students built a landlord-tenant dispute resolution service.

A programmer and database analyst himself, Morris explained the software takes users through an interview process for situations where tenants believe their landlord is treating them unfairly, whether by refusing to fix the sink or evicting them.

“Volunteers at the Edmonton Community Legal Centre spend a lot of time helping people fill out these forms in order to make applications and get relief,” said Morris. “If they were to employ this tool or a tool like it, the ECLC volunteer or staff person could be taken out of the equation, which means you can deal with a lot more of these kinds of problems at the same time.”

And while any tool used to automate legal help for people needs to follow the rigorous product development pathway, that isn’t possible in a four-month class.

“The students are developing a prototype of a tool that an organization could potentially deploy in the future,” said Morris.

Not knowing what to expect in 2020, Morris said he was pleasantly surprised when the class tripled in size.

“There is a contingent in the class who have technology experience prior to going into law who are aghast at how technologically backward the legal system is and want to help change that,” he said.

“The other category of students are people who understand that technology is going to be a bigger part of how they do their job in the future.

“That ability to learn technology is a transferable skill.”

While the scope of the final projects this term are not completely nailed down, Morris said one group anticipates automating the do-your-own-divorce service offered by Student Legal Services (SLS). Another is looking at automating intake in the SLS criminal law section, and the third will work on building a tool to help people report problematic police behaviour in Calgary.

And while there’s a sense of inevitability that technology is going to play a bigger role in how law firms function now and in the future, Morris said there is currently a strong drive toward efficiency in the pro bono legal sector.

“Those sorts of organizations are already trying to figure out how they can deal with increasing demand with decreasing resources,” he explained.

“If you want to be working in that sector, there's already a demand for people who have these skills in those kinds of organizations.”

The pace at which technology is being adopted into the wider legal system is based partly on structural problems, which is a key component of the other half of the class.

“If you're doing Court of Appeal work, you're going to be very worried about getting the law exactly right,” said Morris. “If you're trying to help someone get their deposit back, you're not so much worried about whether your encoding is exhaustive and legally perfect. You're asking, what is the low-hanging fruit? Where can I make a difference by automating something with a limited amount of effort?

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