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Columbia Law School Students Are Turning Into Legal Tech Developers

Jerome Greene Hall, the primary home of Columbia Law School. (Courtesy photo)

Columbia Law School students are using a software program to create apps to help various legal organizations’ clients automate the drafting of legal documents. The project came after Columbia Law School Legal Technology Association, a student-led association seeking to expose members to the broad scope of legal technology, and HelpSelf Legal teamed up in the spring 2018 semester to offer HelpSelf’s document automation builder software for worthy causes.

These Columbia students join a growing group of law students across the U.S. using their burgeoning legal knowledge to create user-friendly apps to help automatize services for legal aid organizations' clients.

HelpSelf’s document automation builder software allows users to create form-based interviews, which clients fill out with necessary information directly on a site. The clients' answers merge into a specified document and automatically generate “execution-ready documents.”

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HelpSelf Legal is the brainchild of former Sidley Austin associate Dorna Moini. Moini told The Recorder in January that she left Big Law after six years to focus on creating a “system that will allow people to have much greater success than they would if they were going it on their own.”

Columbia law students will use HelpSelf's automated document software to help potential litigants with their legal document preparation.

Cecilia Plaza, a second-year law student at Columbia Law School, said she and others have teamed up with the New York City Housing Court to create a mobile- and desktop-accessible app to help tenants. Tenants answer questions created by the students, and their answers will generate a legal document. A legal aid attorney will be available to review and provide pro bono, explained HelpSelf Legal's Moini.

After signing up for the project in April, Plaza explained, her group contacted legal aid organizations and nonprofits for feedback on where they thought clients would most benefit. They found that housing matters, such as tenants having to respond to a landlord's allegations of nonpayment, was a pressing legal matter, Plaza said.

Plaza said in the near future her team will begin drafting all the potential questions and answers tenants may give or face to provide legal guidance without having a lawyer present. Their app won’t just present a blank form to users but instead will autopopulate some answers, such as their name, after they’ve answered previous sections.

“It’s programmed to try to figure out what your particular issue is,” Plaza explained. After that phase is complete, they’ll program the app for use by litigants in New York City Housing Court.

Beyond New York, a group of Columbia LL.M. students also is creating an app for low-income individuals in the nation of Colombia.

“The idea is for us to start with a small pilot with the HelpSelf platform to help low-income families or people to solve any legal topics or perils they have, which are pretty simple but they may think it’s impossible for them to learn," said Tatiana Segura Rey, an LL.M. Columbia Law student.

The group is in the planning and fieldwork stage of the project, reaching out to organizations to decide what legal matter is most important to low-wage Colombians. Ideally, Rey said, the app would be programmed and ready to use by next summer.

Although such a project and its deadlines adds more work to a student’s plate, Rey said it offers a way to provide needed legal assistance. Plaza said her project also offers a lesson in an emerging aspect of legal services: legal technology.

“I think technology is becoming increasingly important. We use it in a lot of different ways. It’s not a replacement for a lawyer, but it’s useful for clients that can’t afford a lawyer” or don’t require a lawyer present.

Plaza added that building an app for clients can serve as a great reminder for law students planning to practice client-facing work. “It’s a great reminder of what you are here for, what your end goal is.”

Columbia is no stranger to legal technology. A recent MBA program launched at the school offers a course examining a legal startup's artificial intelligence ability in the business world.

Other schools have also pushed their law students to become tech developers. Cornell University, for example, recently launched where law students develop apps to solve legal issues facing three specific legal aid societies.

J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University and the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law also recently partnered to offer parallel courses where students find develop legal tech to reduce evictions in Utah, Arizona and beyond.