UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Natalie Anne Knowlton of IAALS

on Topics: Future Law | Interviews | Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Natalie Anne Knowlton of IAALS

For someone who admittedly once wanted “nothing to do with the law,” Natalie Anne Knowlton is a passionate leader and disruptor in the legal profession. A staunch human rights advocate and A2J evangelist, Natalie currently works as the Director of Special Projects for IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, an initiative out of the University of Denver. Through IAALS, Natalie and others are working to create awareness of serious gaps in the American legal system and explore creative, practical solutions.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Natalie to learn about her career path, her work for IAALS, and how she believes we can all be efficacious change agents in the A2J movement.

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

Natalie Anne Knowlton: I’d start by noting that I did not grow up compelled to attend law school. My dad’s side of the family is lawyer-heavy, and when I was younger, I wanted nothing to do with the law. In college, I studied international affairs, and one semester I took a course on the Holocaust. Everything kind of shifted for me from there. It doesn’t make sense to say that I loved it, but something about human rights gripped me and never really let go. I knew I wanted to study these issues in graduate school, but at that point I couldn’t reconcile getting a Master’s degree without also getting a JD. It was fundamentally the enforcement end of human rights and humanitarian law that I was drawn to. So I did both.

In law school at the University of Denver, I fell into an externship program run by a law professor assisting the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals (ICTR) for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. I worked at this externship for years, until the ICTR needed someone to come on site and review closed-trial transcripts. I bailed on a fall semester of law school to head to Arusha, Tanzania (where the ICTR was based), and lived out of the back room of a Chinese restaurant for several weeks analyzing incredibly sensitive testimony in a genocide case. That shaped me.

When I graduated law school, I fell into a legal reform institute at the University of Denver run by a former Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court—Rebecca Love Kourlis. Becky sang a case for civil justice reform that really resonated with me. I joined her just after she opened IAALS in 2006, and I have more or less been there ever since. My recent work has focused on the self-represented litigant experience, developing court simplification solutions to help the millions of people who can’t afford a lawyer or choose not to have one. I’m also involved in our regulatory reform work, assisting state leaders who are interested in bringing the practice of law into this generation.

UC: What is IAALS? What is its mission?

NAK: “IAALS” is the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System which is housed at the University of Denver. It’s a mouthful; you can see why we use the acronym. The formal answer is that we’re a national, independent research center devoted to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system. The mission is to forge innovative and practical solutions to problems within the American legal system. The short answer is that we’re a “think and do tank.”    

UC: Who (and what) are some of your favorite resources for learning more about what’s happening in the access to justice space and legal regulatory reform?

NAK: My go-to picks on the access to justice front are, not surprisingly, Rebecca Sandefur, Tanina Rostain, Margaret Hagan, Lois Lupica, Jim Sandman, and so many others I’m sure I left off. Since I hail from a university think tank, I’m a huge fangirl of A2J labs: NuLawLab at Northeastern University, Stanford Legal Design Lab, Harvard Access to Justice Lab, Duke Legal Tech Lab, and others.

In the regulatory space, I have to plug my organization, IAALS, for our repository of regulatory reform around the country. ABA Center for Innovation is also a great resource here. Because I think it’s easy for reform advocates to get ahead of our skis when it comes to the progress we’ve made, I take to heart the perspectives shared by Crispin Passmore (of Passmore Consulting). It’s important that we keep ourselves honest.

Finally, last but certainly not least, I follow legal startups. These are the entities on the ground, reaching out to consumers, developing services and products, and pushing the boundaries of the regulatory space. We can conduct and consult empirical research all day, but the B2C and B2B2C legal startups are the ones that take the A2J conversation from concept to reality. I think as a community we don’t lean on these resources enough, and I intend to change that.

UC: What are some of the top reasons why consumers lack access to legal resources? How do you think these issues can be remedied?

NAK: At the risk of waxing poetic about American history, I’d suggest that the system is working for the consumers for whom it was initially built—that’s just not most of the country today. I recently published a piece through IAALS’ Blog, where I talk about the reality that the system was erected when African Americans were considered property and women had few rights. I don’t think it’s possible to divorce this historical reality from the contours of our current access to justice crisis. The system just wasn’t built for many of the people who need it today. And while the justice system is fair and impartial in theory, we know these ideals have yet to be enforced in practice. I raise all this to suggest that we have some serious systemic issues to grapple with if we are going to meaningfully address the A2J gap, including radical system redesign involving far more diverse leaders than we have in the industry now.

But looking at the problem more immediately, I would reframe the question. There are incredible amounts of legal resources available today—what consumers really lack are the diagnostic tools to help them figure out what to make of all those resources. Information only goes so far; consumers need to know how to act on that information. For me, this is where the discussion on regulatory innovation comes in. We need new providers offering new services if we are really going to make a dent in this gap. And I’m not talking about just more of the same services offered by more of the same providers. I’m talking about new ways of educating people about their rights and obligations, and new tools to assist people with process and strategy. The reason these tools don’t exist now is because attorney organizations would rush to shut them down, but I want to see them brought to life—and quickly.

UC: What can individual legal professionals do to improve access to justice in their practice areas or local communities?

NAK: I’d start by saying “get mad.” The foundational disconnect between our attorney-gatekeeper system and the reality of self-representation should be just as offensive to attorneys as it is to members of the public. Can you imagine a law school brochure pumping up the value of a legal education but also informing you that 75% of consumers will think you’re irrelevant before you graduate, because the service price point dictated by your debt isn’t accessible to them? We’re bleeding generations of law students dry on a lie that our justice system still involves two attorneys in a case. So, get mad because you were sold an education that neither aligns with the needs of the market nor teaches the skills to pivot quickly.

After you get mad, I’d say get scrappy, get creative—think of innovative ways to capture untapped segments of the market. The access to justice gap is not just a market of low- or no-income consumers. The un- or underserved legal market is full of startups, small businesses, and middle-income consumers with spending power. Think about how to take what you do best and make it of value to people—and then scale it. Another lie that came out of law schools is the notion that an attorney can only help one client at a time. That’s simply untrue for some issues and case types, and more and more attorneys and legal startups are figuring out how to serve at scale.

Finally, let the public know you see them, and acknowledge the access to justice gap in which many are living. Volunteer your time and expertise. Speak on or write about these issues. Get your voice out there. There are huge shifts coming in our industry, and the attorneys that find themselves on the right side of history are going to be those that maintain the trust and confidence of the people they are meant to serve.

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

NAK: “Slap an interface on it.”

This comes from a book by Golden Krishna, Head of Design Strategy, Platforms & Ecosystems at Google titled “The Best Interface is No Interface.” He uses this saying to jokingly (and negatively) refer to the common practice of putting a digital interface on an existing product or service and call it improved. All industries are guilty of doing this, but when I read his book so much of it resonated with what we see in legal and court services. My concern with ODR is related to this issue—and that is the concern that we’ll just digitize an inefficient and clunky practice without first simplifying the process. I’ve written about that in more detail here.

At the risk of getting personal, another of my favorites is “life is short.” I breathe this every day. Live it up while you can. Be bold. 

UC: What are your goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on? Are there any upcoming events in the legal tech space we should be aware of?

NAK: That’s a tough one. My experience over the last two years has proved that planning and setting expectations is always disrupted by life. And the pandemic has certainly caused a shift in much of our work. I can say, though, that next year is going to bring big things for me personally. Watch out.

As far as events you should have on your radar, here are some I’m attending this year:

  • Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, Reimagining Legal Services for All People—Lessons from Pioneers around the World: October 27, 2020
  • American Bar Association, Closing Plenary: ABA National Meeting of State Access to Justice Commission Chairs: October 29
  • CodeX, Racial Disparities in Automated Speech Recognition: November 5
  • Legal Services Corporation, Innovations in Technology Virtual Conference: January 12-14, 2021
  • American Bar Association, ABA TECHSHOW: March 8-12, 2021

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

NAK: If you’d like to learn about me and my work through IAALS, check out here. I also write on these issues independent of my organization, here. And, as many know, I’m fairly active on Twitter through @natalalleycat. Always happy to connect with like-minded change agents.

Learn. Share. Advocate.

Natalie’s passion for the access to justice movement is contagious, and her admonition is clear: we all have untapped potential ready to serve an untapped market. Whether through sweeping initiatives or by serving one client at a time, it will take a concerted effort within the profession to make lasting change. We are all fortunate to have passionate leaders like Natalie at the helm.