UniCourt Influencer Q&A with April Dawson of NCCU Law

on Topics: Future Law | Influencer Q&A | Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with April Dawson of NCCU Law

April Dawson is an accomplished technology attorney at the forefront of the legal tech movement. As the Associate Dean of Technology and Innovation at North Carolina Central University School of Law, April works to bring legal technology education and experience to future attorneys. The culmination of her work in the legal tech space, the NCCU Technology Law & Policy Center, debuts this fall.

It was great speaking with April about legal technology, tech education for law students, and the future of the legal industry. We hope you find April’s insights as exciting as we did!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

April Dawson: I was born and raised in Southern California and lived most of my school-aged years in Lake Elsinore, CA, which is located between Los Angeles and San Diego. 

My mom was a high school teacher for more than two decades, and I attended the high school where she taught. Around 1982, teachers at my high school, including my mom, were given Apple computers to take home to learn how to use. I learned to code on that computer.

I decided to major in computer science and earned my undergraduate degree from Bennett College in 1988. I was a computer programmer in Los Alamos, NM, for two years before attending law school. I started law school at Howard University School of Law in 1991. Because of my background in computer science, I was encouraged to consider a career in patent law. However, patent law at the time did not interest me, and I wanted to be a litigator. I graduated from Howard Law in 1994 and joined the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice through its Attorney General’s Honors Program. While at the Department of Justice, I argued cases before the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits.

In 1996, I served as a law clerk to the Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Following my clerkship, I worked as a litigation associate at a Washington, D.C. firm. 

While at the firm, I had my first opportunity to teach and was an adjunct legal writing professor at the George Washington University School of Law.

I relocated to North Carolina in 1999 to start a private law practice dedicated to the representation of employees in cases involving sexual harassment, discrimination, and other employment-related disputes. I had enjoyed teaching while I was practicing in Washington, D.C., and decided to teach again as an adjunct. I was an adjunct legal writing professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law in 2005, and joined NCCU Law as a full-time faculty member in 2006.

I have taught a wide range of subjects, including Constitutional Law, Supreme Court Practice, Administrative Law, Voting Rights, and several law and technology courses.

I regularly speak on the use of technology in legal education and the need for law schools to better prepare students for the tech-influenced practice of law. I am the current Chair of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) Section on Technology, Law and Legal Education, and I was the recipient of the 2021 AALS Technology, Law and Legal Education Section Award. I was a presenter at the 2020, 2021, and 2022 ABA Techshows.

UC: Tell us about your role at North Carolina Central University School of Law as the Associate Dean of Technology and Innovation, and how NCCU’s Technology Law and Policy Center is preparing law students for the future of law.

AD: In February 2021, NCCU entered into a social equity partnership with Intel, which includes a gift of $5 million over the next five years. This funding paved the way for the creation of the NCCU Technology Law & Policy Center.

As the inaugural Associate Dean of Technology and Innovation, I am leading the NCCU Technology Law & Policy Center’s team as we establish and grow the Center. North Carolina Central University School of Law was founded to provide opportunities for African Americans to become lawyers. The mission of the NCCU Technology Law and Policy Center is to produce technology-conscious lawyers who will use technology in alignment with the Law School’s mission. It is also the mission of the Center to produce diverse technology law experts to serve the changing needs of those seeking legal advice and representation. Finally, it is the mission of the Center to facilitate the engagement in meaningful technology-related policy discussions to ensure that technology law, regulations, and implementation do not result in the further marginalization of the African American and other communities of color but rather are used to create a more just society.

NCCU Law is strongly committed to preparing students for the increasingly technology-driven legal industry and, in support of that goal, has established the NCCU Law & Technology Certificate Program. The Law & Technology Certificate recognizes a student’s successful completion of a focused course of technology and law study. Students who earn this Certificate will have completed classes and assignments that will ensure that the student has (1) studied a broad range of law of technology and technology law subjects, (2) engaged in an in-depth study in one or more technology law subjects, and (3) developed competence in the area of law practice technology.

UC: Why is it important for law students to learn about legal technology? How do you think law schools should approach the need to teach students about ongoing advancements in legal tech?

AD: Technology is impacting all aspects of society. Not surprisingly, technology is disrupting, influencing, and impacting the way lawyers practice and what lawyers practice. Accordingly, there are several factors driving lawyers to more readily embrace and become educated about technology. Factors include, inter alia:

  • Ethical tech competency requirements for lawyers
  • Client demand for more efficient and cost-effective lawyer work
  • Digitalization of legal services
  • Emerging tech-related issues in traditional legal fields
  • New and emerging technology requiring legal advice and expertise
  • Use of technology by the courts and government agencies

As a result, law schools need to more rapidly adjust law school curricula to ensure law students receive the necessary legal tech training to ensure they are adequately prepared to practice, advise, and counsel in the heavily tech-influenced practice of law. If there had been hesitancy on the part of law schools to offer legal tech courses, the push of technology upon both the legal industry and the legal academy by the global pandemic has made it abundantly clear that law schools must provide legal tech instruction for their students to adequately prepare them for the practice of law.

Law schools need to offer Law Practice Technology and Law of Technology courses. While there may be some areas of overlap between the categories, Law Practice Technology classes teach students to use technology applications to facilitate the efficient, effective and ethical practice of law. Law of Technology classes, in contrast, typically focus on specific emerging technologies, like AI or blockchain.

UC: How has your experience working as a computer programmer impacted the way you look at the use of technology and data in the legal profession?

AD: I have always loved technology, computers, and coding. I have always used technology in my classroom to facilitate student engagement and learning. Because of my love and use of technology, I am comfortable in “tech environments” and discussing and learning about technology-related issues. That provides me with a comfort level that many lawyers and legal educators do not have. However, one does not need to have a background in tech to become well-versed and excel in legal tech-related spaces. Curiosity, initiative, and drive are all that are needed.

UC: What are some of your top pieces of advice for law students and lawyers interested in learning more about legal technology?

AD: Fortunately, there is no shortage of resources related to law and technology. I would encourage law students to find out what law and technology resources are available at their law schools. If one takes even a cursory glance at law schools’ websites, they will see a plethora of law tech courses of one kind or another included in the school’s curriculum. While some law schools have fully developed law tech centers, institutes, and certificate programs, others are in the early stages of planning and development. If students want more law tech-related offerings and support, they should make it known to their law school faculty and administration.

Regardless of the offerings at specific law schools, students should take the initiative and seek out information in the legal professional space. Lawyers should do the same. Students and lawyers should join professional organizations like the ABA and state bar associations and join the tech-related sections. Students and lawyers should also attend the law tech-related events and begin networking with professionals in the field the student is interested in. Students and lawyers should also ask for informational interviews with legal professionals working in the legal tech space or role of interest.

Twitter and LinkedIn are social media platforms where legal tech professionals frequently engage. Students and lawyers should follow legal professionals on these platforms and search them regularly for legal tech-related content and events.

UC: How can legal technology be used to improve access to justice and close the widening justice gap in the United States?

AD: Numerous surveys and reports have concluded that the vast majority of individual civil legal needs go unmet. The World Justice Project reported in Global Insights on Access to Justice 2018 that 77 percent of legal problems in the United States received no legal help whatsoever. The National Center for State Courts’ 2015 report The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts indicated that 76 percent of litigants represent themselves. The Legal Services Corporation’s 2017 The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans reports that “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.” And it was reported in 2017 in Access to Justice: Mitigating the Justice Gap, ABA Litigation Section, that forty to sixty percent of the middle-class’ legal needs go unmet.

It bears noting that these survey and report numbers are pre-COVID and that individual legal needs have increased. The access to legal services gap has most likely widened due to the devastating economic impact the pandemic has had on many. Additionally, while there are few detailed reports on small businesses, those that research in this area recognize small businesses have unmet legal needs as well and that they “probably center[] around financial and employment issues and contract disputes, as well as taxes and real and intellectual property.” Rebecca L. Sandefur et. al., Seconds to Impact?: Regulatory Reform, New Kinds of Legal Services, and Increased Access to Justice, Law & Contemp. Probs., 2021, at 69.

According to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) report, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans (June 2017), common civil legal problems among low-income households relate to issues of health, finances, rental housing, children, and custody, education, income maintenance, and disability. Although the LSC report focuses on low-income households, middle-class households struggle to secure legal advice and representation in many of these same areas.

The LSC report and many other studies reveal that there is a significant and growing under-consumption of legal services in the United States. Lawyers need to reexamine their business model and consider how they can leverage technology to help address the critical access to justice gap. Lawyers can use technology to work more efficiently and employ scalable legal services solutions allowing them to serve more individuals and businesses with unmet legal needs.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

AD: Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The current lawyer marketplace underscores the truth of that statement. It does not take a crystal ball to see where the delivery of legal services is going and how technology will continue to have a significant impact on the practice of law. The need for tech-savvy lawyers continues to increase. I encourage law students and young lawyers especially to learn about the intersection of law and technology. Opportunities in the legal tech space are and will continue to come knocking.

UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?

AD: Our goal is to have the tech center fully staffed by the end of the summer. In addition to providing robust law and technology course offerings and employment support to our students, our Center will engage with NCCU Law alumni already working in or interested in moving into the legal tech space. We also plan to have community-focused tech policy discussions to ensure that technology law, regulations, and implementation do not result in further harm to marginalized communities. Finally, we will have a formal NCCU Technology Law & Policy Center launch in the fall.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

AD: People can learn more about the NCCU Technology Law & Policy Center and Center activities by visiting the Center’s webpage. People can find information about me on my webpage and follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Bringing Legal Technology to the Front Lines of Legal Education

April Dawson is bringing legal technology and technology law to the vanguard of legal education. Through NCCU’s Technology Law & Policy Center, April is helping to shape the next generation of tech-forward attorneys. We can’t wait to see what she does next!