We have been teaching again, and learning.
Who’s Doing What
Students in Georgetown Law’s Technology Innovation and Law Practice course are creating Neota Logic applications rather than writing seminar papers or moot court briefs.
This semester’s course, taught by Professors Tanina Rostain and Victoria Nourse, focused on federal administrative agencies—the practical realities of agency work, not the doctrinal issues of administrative law.
Teams of students paired up with agencies or organizations, first, to identify significant challenges in the agency’s realm—for example, homeowners’ uncertainty about their rights in foreclosure, veterans’ risks to their benefits, agency officers’ inconsistency in decision-making—and, second, to design and build online applications addressing those challenges.
On December 4th, the teams presented their applications to a panel of judges drawn from corporate legal departments, law firms, academia and government. Giving a tech twist to moot court tradition, the teams compete for the Iron Tech Lawyer Award. The competition was streamed live, and the recording can be watched here.
Building apps is hard work, and most of the work is law, not technology.
Statutes and regulations are often long, complex, interlinked (part X of this reg under this statute depends on part Y of that reg over there under a different statute), interpreted by case law and agency practice, and, yes, occasionally badly constructed and administered.
Good lawyers are good at answering specific questions, rapidly filtering out everything irrelevant to the client’s immediate fact pattern. By contrast, building an app to deal with hundreds or thousands of fact patterns in order to give fact- and situation-specific answers to questions from many clients in many situations requires the opposite intellectual effort—identifying all the possibilities and defining all the answers.
Metaphorically, lawyers in practice prune the analytic tree fast with a sharp axe, lopping off branches to get to the one that matters, while lawyers building apps must start at the trunk and imagine the tree with all its branches, then map a clear, safe routes for users to climb from the ground to the top.
What do students learn from building apps that they don’t from writing papers?
- Comprehensive, deep analysis of a topic.
- Rigorous thinking—expert systems can’t be fooled by footnotes to fudge the main text. Everything must be thought through to resolution, even if the resolution is uncertainty.
- Seeing problems from a client’s perspective—apps have real users with real problems, and no matter how erudite the analysis, it’s useless if the presentation is not accessible to its users.
- Writing in plain English—ditto.
We call this Legal Knowledge Engineering, and that’s the heart of the Technology Innovation and Law Practice course. Our Director of Education, Kevin Mulcahy, is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law and collaborates with Professor Rostain and other faculty on these courses.
What The Students Created
This semester’s applications are:
Military Service Pre-Discharge Counselor—Advises active service members on the impact of in-service misconduct on the terms of their discharge and their post-service benefits. Client: Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Team: Lindsey Bohl, Kyle George, Thomas Orsak.
California Mortgage Distress Advisor—Advises borrowers on how new consumer protection regulations apply to them, based on the type of mortgage they have. Client: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with assistance from California Rural Legal Assistance and Visionary Home Builders. Team: Shahzadi Ahmed, Johnny Wong, Mike Milea, Angela Omiyi.
Short and Happy Guide to Health Care Coverage—Guides users through the qualitative and quantitative benefits of the ACA, and helps them identify the source of coverage that fits their needs and budget. Client: Enroll America. Team: Gerald Leverich, Jessi Nyman, Will Morrison, Amanda Krause.
Clean Water Act: Section 404 Permit Advisor—Advises homeowners, home builders, construction companies, and agricultural businesses about whether they need to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act when dredge or fill material may be discharged into a water of the US, including wetlands. Team: Stan Adams, Ernest Pysher, Sara Atsbaha.
Military Impact of Discharge Assessment System (MIDAS)—Advises military judges on service members’ eligibility for VA benefits. Client: Major Evan Seamone, Judge Advocate USA, in his personal capacity. Team: Lindsey Bohl, Kyle George, Thomas Orsak.
This year’s Iron Tech Lawyer judges were: Andrew Baker, Global Director of Legal Technology Innovations, Seyfarth Shaw; Mark Chandler, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Cisco Systems; Laura Donohue, Director of the Center on National Security and the Law, and Professor, Georgetown Law; Donna McLean, Former Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs, Chief Financial Officer, Department of Transportation.
Before awarding prizes (“a very tight race … indicative of the strength of the work”) the judges each spoke about the course and the students’ work.
Mr. Chandler: “The work all of you did is extremely relevant as a practitioner. As the legal world evolves, the ability to break down legal problems, add efficiency to legal process, and help people get the information they need is very relevant for future careers.”
Mr. Baker: “The methodology and process that you went through is exactly what my group [at Seyfarth] does for the firm’s clients. Every presentation was stellar, and showed a lot of creativity and research.”
Ms. McLean: “The biggest lesson you’ve learned is the ability to take something very complex and simplify it. That’s incredibly marketable. These applications are about information sharing and simplifying, making advice accessible, and not making someone pay a lawyer for what they could do themselves.”
Professor Donohue: “I was particularly impressed that you were able within just 10 weeks to do such extensive research, master a complex area of the law and build an application.”
IronTech Lawyer—Military Impact of Discharge Assessment System (MIDAS). “This team tackled an enormous and growing problem for veterans. The topic is complex, with more than 300 million possible permutations of facts. The app addressed real-world problems with sophisticated, logical solutions.”
Excellence in Design—California Foreclosure Advisor.
Honorable Mention—Short and Happy Guide to Health Care Coverage.
Why—from Neota Logic’s Perspective?
One of our marketing tag lines is “the future of professional advice.” At Georgetown, we see that future—lawyers unencumbered by traditional views of what “real lawyers” do or by standard business models, lawyers focused on the practical needs of their clients, lawyers unafraid of technology and collaboration with other professionals.
We’re helping to create that future—by building state-of-the-art software, the Neota Logic Server (NLS), with which creative lawyers like the Georgetown students can radically transform the delivery of legal services.
Just as the students learn by building applications, we learn by working with the students. Our software is designed to enable people who are not programmers to build powerful, user-friendly applications very quickly. In every release, we simplify so authors can learn and work more efficiently, and extend so they can build ever more useful applications.
Students are terrific users—adept, engaged, and exploratory; conversant with technology; but also busy (semesters are short, they have other courses), purposeful (deadlines loom), and vocal. So we hear from them, promptly and with precision, when the software slows them down or limits what they can do. Scores and scores of software improvements have emerged from their questions and suggestions. We are very appreciative of all their input. And extra thanks to the Teaching Assistants, Bill Cheng, Kara Emery and Jung Hwa Song, and Professor Rostain’s Research Assistant, Zach Hutchinson.
Finally, we admire the students’ commitment to making a difference. As the students’ presentations show (watch the video here), each of this semester’s apps, like those created in the two earlier Georgetown courses that utilized NLS, addresses real problems faced by many thousands of people, and does so more effectively and efficiently than traditional methods. Neota Logic will again be working with the teams and their clients to move these applications into widespread use.