Illustration by Katie McBride
Illustration by Katie McBride

When Matthew Donovan, L’20, started law school, he already had under his belt a year of working at GitLab, an open-source collaboration platform. For the uninitiated, Git allows coders to track all revisions made to code.

It didn’t take long for Donovan to see applications for Git in legal work. “You can make minor modifications to a contract over and over again, or have a centralized hub of all laws and regulations where modifications to the legal code could be done using an open-source software model,” he said. “If you decided that a change doesn’t work, you can go back to any version that’s ever been made and isolate whatever changes you want to fix.”

By spring semester, Donovan’s initial impulse had organically sparked a four-credit course with the Virginia Poverty Law Center “to use technology to try and solve a problem in access to justice,” said professor Roger Skalbeck, associate dean of library and information resources, who co-taught the course with professor Paul Birch, computer services librarian.

“Initially, the team was two students, then three, and we grew to seven because the more people found out about it, the more they wanted to participate in something related to innovation in legal services,” Skalbeck said.

The end result? A Git-based information hub called NetWit that tears down barriers between self-represented litigants, who file the vast majority of cases in civil court, and the scattered universe of Virginia’s often challenging legal forms.

We want new uses of technology to make our students more effective lawyers and better advocates.

The student collaborators, most of whom learned to code on the run for this project and ended up working together via Zoom due to COVID-19, started with housing law, imagining a resident embroiled in a tenant-landlord dispute. Adding common-sense navigation to existing legal information, the team created pathways in five languages geared to how a layperson would likely try to get their chronically broken water heater fixed or avoid eviction. Making it open-source, of course, meant that everyone on the team — or for that matter, eventually anyone in the world — could improve upon the project through iterations.

Later in the semester, the NetWit team became one of 10 taking part in Georgetown University’s first open Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, competing against teams from schools such as the University of Hong Kong, University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown itself. Richmond made it to the final round, and the University of Hong Kong took the top prize.

The technological expertise that the NetWit team afforded the Virginia Poverty Law Center is another part of this success story. As part of vetting new digital platforms for its web content, the center is now seriously looking at an open-source model like Git. “We were really impressed with what the students created for the competition,” said Valerie L’Herrou, L’06, the center’s family advocacy lawyer. Open-source software has the advantage of making it “much easier to both update the content to respond to changes in the law and to make it relevant and understandable to users,” she said.

As lawyers in general continue to be late adopters of technology, the end-all and be-all of projects like this, said Skalbeck, is simple. “We want new uses of technology to make our students more effective lawyers and better advocates.”

It dovetails with what legal tech entrepreneur Valentin Pivovarov expressed in a 2019 Forbes article titled “Future Law School: What Does It Look Like?”

“We are at the beginning of a gigantic world trend in law schools investing major resources in technological solutions to ensure that future lawyers will exhibit competitiveness and a high level of training,” he wrote. “Law students need to learn programming skills to understand how technologies can optimize their work and make the process of providing services easier.”

Jessica Erickson, associate dean for faculty development, sees it even more broadly. “Law school has been teaching a traditional and somewhat narrow toolbox for a long time,” she said. “We teach students legal doctrine and skills. We teach legal analysis; we teach them legal writing. And we do a pretty good job at that. But not enough lawyers understand how to actually design a practice that serves their clients, the profession, and their own vision for what it means to be an effective lawyer.”

An illustration showing a silhouette of a lawyer walking towards a courthouse, surrounded by data clouds in different colorsOne way to ensure that the newest Richmond graduates are better equipped for success is a partnership with the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP, pronounced I-flip), a nonprofit that invited Richmond and Erickson, as its faculty supervisor, to participate at its inception in 2019. IFLP’s helping-hand structure means that its 18 law school partners, like Richmond, run three-week summer modern practice boot camps for their students on topics ranging from project management and artificial intelligence to technology tools such as HotDocs, which automates legal document creation, and Intapp, the legal modernization cloud. After that, law firm and corporate legal department partners, such as Cisco and DHL, offer 10-week or seven-month paid internships, which often function as a talent pipeline.

The law school is taking innovation a step further, not by concentrating solely on specific tools, per se, but by teaching students how to evaluate technologies. “We want students to be able to ask what tools would be helpful in their practice design and then evaluate them to figure out which ones would be the best for the particular objective they have,” Erickson said.

The through line from that goal to achieving it? “The Legal Innovation and Entrepreneurship program that we’re launching this fall,” Erickson said. The new signature program will be directed by Joshua Kubicki, former chief strategy officer at Seyfarth Shaw and owner of a business design studio. “He will be working with our students on broader questions around practice design and innovation” that range from design thinking and finance to data analytics and project management.

For Kubicki, the program is essential. “Now, more than ever, law students must understand the real business impacts and pressures within the legal economy,” he said. “They must learn to operate and design legal business and service models, regardless of whether they are in private practice, government, legal aid, or in-house.”

A second, related signature program also begins this fall: the Professional Identity Formation program, designed to develop the habits of mind and character associated with excellence in the field of law. Janice Craft will direct the new initiative on the heels of leading legal services at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

The program’s thrust is straightforward. “It’s about helping students understand their own values and be client-centered in their representation, as well as helping them to develop those critical interpersonal skills,” Erickson said.

Richmond’s tandem approach to growing a lawyer’s toolkit is unique. “There are a few schools with a legal innovation program and a few that have started to experiment with professional identity formation, but I’m not aware of any schools that have both,” Erickson said. “We don’t believe that either program on its own is sufficient. We’re trying to educate the whole lawyer.