UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Amanda Brown of Lagniappe Law Lab
Access to justice at scale. That’s the goal behind Lagniappe Law Lab, Amanda Brown’s mission-centered legal tech nonprofit. The Law Lab’s goal is to bring access to justice to a broader and broader cross section of the community while integrating all parts of the Louisiana justice system. Ultimately, the organization’s goal is to break down silos and provide a wealth of resources to various civil legal technology projects – in other words, to build systems that ensure the efficient delivery of legal services to the most underserved communities.
We enjoyed sitting down with Amanda to learn more about her background, her motivation for launching Lagniappe Law Lab, and her take on what 2021 has in store for the access to justice movement.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Amanda Brown: Growing up in poverty in rural Louisiana, becoming a lawyer wasn’t really on my radar. In fact, one of those high school career/aptitude tests said I would make a great secretary… (maybe they meant Secretary of State?). It wasn’t until someone vandalized my grandfather’s property during my Sophomore Year of high school that I thought lawyering could be an option for me. I remember being so upset that someone would do such a thing and wishing that person could be held accountable. Expressing this to my grandfather, he said plainly, “you know, that’s what lawyers do.” And so began my love affair with justice.
Like many college students (especially ones that were told they’d be better off as a secretary), I struggled to figure out what I wanted to major in. I first studied engineering, but became intimidated by the sheer volume of math left to be learned after the first year. A switch to the business college felt right, so I studied marketing for a bit before finally settling down and graduating in economics. Despite my undergraduate commitment issues, I always knew in the back of my mind that to do right by 15-year-old me, I had to go to law school.
After graduation, I had a fairly routine law school experience until my last semester of law school, where (after much inner turmoil about whether it would be “useful” for my legal career) I participated in a legal technology clinic. That experience really taught me core concepts of technology and solution design in the law. I put those new skills to use in my first year of practice as a disaster recovery lawyer by supporting the design/development of the ABA’s “Flood Proof” app. Soon after, I found myself in Seattle as the ABA Center for Innovation’s Microsoft NextGen Fellow, where I worked on the Legal Navigator Portal project. After a post-fellowship stint as a consultant, I started up Lagniappe Law Lab and the rest is history!
Looking back, I’m realizing my rocky college experience had a massive impact on my ability to operate in the squishy world of legal technology. The disciplines I studied are the perfect confluence of everything I love about being in this space: design, data, and understanding plus reaching your market.
UC: What is Lagniappe Law Lab? What is its mission?
AB: Incorporated in 2019, Lagniappe Law Lab is an independent 501(c)(3) funded by the Louisiana Bar Foundation that serves the greater civil justice system here in Louisiana. We work closely with legal aid programs, pro bono projects, various committees, courts, law schools, and the Louisiana Access to Justice Commission to bring technology, data, and design to the equation, helping our network scale its ability to meet the public’s needs.
UC: What motivated you to start Lagniappe Law Lab? What gap does it fill or problem does it address?
AB: I was motivated to start Lagniappe Law Lab after consulting with the Louisiana Bar Foundation on some legal technology projects. During that time, I realized while we had a great appetite for legal technology amongst our stakeholders, there wasn’t enough human capital to go around to plan, execute, and – most importantly – sustain and govern these efforts. I also found that because we had separate, independently run legal services programs, projects being carried out internally sometimes overlapped with work other programs were already doing.
Taking a page from Joyce Raby’s book, I modeled Lagniappe Law Lab after the Florida Justice Technology Center (FJTC), hoping to establish a centralized, statewide center that could break down silos and provide dedicated resources to carrying out civil legal technology projects. This model gives us a unique, global view on the state of legal technology in Louisiana and allows us to influence technology adoption at the system level, rather than on an individual project basis. I often feel like I’m actually in the business of building systems rather than products.
UC: What do you think 2021 has in store for the Access to Justice movement?
AB: I truly think 2021 has the capacity to be one of the biggest years for access to justice yet. COVID-19 exposed the deficiencies in our system’s technology abilities, and a scramble to implement technology exposed the deficiencies in the system overall. This brought a lot of players to the table that previously played the role of active impeder or tacit endorser of access to justice efforts. It seems like we may finally have an audience that’s not just willing to listen to what we have to say, but also help us execute.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the biggest victory of 2021 wouldn’t be more technology, more service innovations, or even more regulatory reform experiments across the country. Instead, the real prize is a truly collaborative justice system. From there, I have confidence that things that are genuinely in the best interest of justice will have a fighting chance.
UC: What are some of your favorite resources for learning about A2J?
AB: I’m really digging into podcasts these days. Andrea Perry Petersen’s Reimagining Justice podcast is a great source for all things legal innovation and human-centered design. It’s really nice to get perspectives and insights from people outside the U.S., and her podcast lineup is pretty diverse in that respect.
If you want to drink from the well, so to speak, the Legal Services Corporation has recently launched its Talk Justice podcast and it’s truly an excellent synopsis of what’s currently happening in access to justice. The range it covers is a great reminder that not all legal innovation is rooted in technology. It’s also about partnership building, advocacy, regulatory reform, and really understanding who it is you’re trying to serve.
I also can’t walk away from this question without my obligatory “Twitter is the best” comment. Seeing what other access to justice advocates and innovators are doing (or thinking) is a great window into what’s happening now or what’s to come.
UC: What advice would you give other women in law who want to start their own nonprofit or company?
AB: At the highest level, I would have to say stay focused. Your business should be mission-driven, and it’s really important to keep those promises to your organization and yourself. The mission will keep you moving in down times and help you make stronger decisions if/when distractions come along.
Pragmatically, the most important thing you can do is be customer-obsessed (or more eloquently, human-centered). Whether you’re building a service business or product, it’s critical that you do the research to understand who your customers are and what they want or need. An important aspect to this is recognizing that who they are or what they want/need is subject to change at any moment. Ensure systems are in place to assess how you’re meeting their needs and be ready to pivot when necessary.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? What are some real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
AB: One that I try hard to embrace is “don’t talk about it; be about it.” This is mostly about the value of the prototype or starting small. It’s so easy to get hung up in the details or how big the problem is that you look back and realize you haven’t actually made any progress.
Bringing tech to the law has its inherent risks (risk to the consumer… risk to yourself…) but I’ve seen first-hand the impact of a prototype or proof of concept. This type of asset has incredible power to influence change because it precipitates a real, tangible thing from a simple concept. With that thing, it’s so much easier to get input about the next iteration, all while getting stakeholders invested in and becoming champions for its success.
UC: What are your goals for 2021? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech or A2J spaces we should be aware of?
AB: My goals for 2021 are to continue building out the Louisiana Civil Legal Navigator both in breadth and depth. For starters, we’re working on adding triage interviews for more legal topics. At the same time, we’re also looking for ways to deepen what is currently a purely informational experience by building pathways to real action – whether that’s assembling court forms or facilitating a warm handoff to a lawyer or legal services program. In a nutshell, I’m hoping we can make meaningful strides toward building out the public-facing digital infrastructure for civil justice in Louisiana.
I’m also keenly aware of the digital poverty that exists in Louisiana. So, to support the work we’re doing to build out online experiences, we’re also looking to bring hardware and internet to areas with very little access, plus supporting digital skills in the community where possible. It’s definitely one of those “big hairy audacious” goals.
Some events I’m looking forward to this year include:
- HiiL Innovating Justice Forum
- ABA Techshow
- ABA/NLADA Equal Justice Conference
- CodeX FutureLaw 2021
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
AB: You can find me on Twitter at @accesstowhat!
Narrowing the Access to Justice Gap
Lawyers, entrepreneurs, and legal tech pioneers like Amanda are finding ways to take what exists and scale it: in other words, to not necessarily disrupt the legal system, but to scale and expand it so that it reaches more consumers. We are excited to watch Amanda and her colleagues as they continue to work to close the access to justice gap and look forward to seeing what marks they will make in 2021 and beyond.