Today we are talking to a rising young leader in legal technology. Her name is Amanda Brown and she's finding new ways that technology can make legal services more efficient, personable, and accessible.
Amanda's the Founder and Executive Director of the Lagniappe Law Lab, a co-chair of the Louisiana Access to Justice Commission's Technology Subcommittee, and she's active in the ABA's Young Lawyer Division, where she serves as the Vice Director of the Disaster Legal Services Team. Join the conversation and find out why Amanda is excited about the future of legal technology and what drives her passion for increasing access to justice.
Katie Wolf: Welcome to the Filevine Fireside. This is Katie Wolf. Today, we're talking to a rising young leader in legal technology. Her name is Amanda Brown, and she's finding ways that technology can make legal services more efficient, personable, and accessible. </br Amanda is the founder and executive director of the Lagniappe Lagniappe Law Lab, the co-chair of the Louisiana Access to Justice Commissions Technology Subcommittee. And she's active in the ABA Young Lawyers Division, where she serves as the vice director of the Disaster Legal Services Team. Amanda, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. Amanda Brown: Of course. Thanks for having me. Katie Wolf: So you're... I first have to ask, your law lab is named for one of the favorite new words that I've learned. Can you tell us what Lagniappe is and why you chose that name? Amanda Brown: Yeah, of course. So there are, I guess, a couple different versions of the definition, but the one I've settled on is, Lagniappe is really the magic of something extra. And I would like to think that our organization uses that as kind of a mindset, whenever we try and bring services to the public or to our clients is, really what does that kind of intangible, little extra that we're providing? So that we're really effectively meeting our overall mission, which is to increase access to justice. Katie Wolf: Beautiful. So before we dive deeper into that access to justice mission that you've got, I want to talk a little bit about legal tech. You're a self-described, legal tech geek. So let's talk about the state of legal technology right now. What are the tools and the techniques that most get you excited right now? Amanda Brown: This one's... It's really hard. There's so much going on, as you all know. I think there's been a lot going on for several years now. But I would be remiss if I didn't say that the power of document automation and no code tools, is what gets me kind of going in the mornings. And I think I really enjoy that because, I am a lawyer by trade. I only learned about legal technology in law school. But finding these kinds of tools has really allowed me to use my creativity and actually execute in ways that I'd never would know how to, from a technical standpoint. I'm not a developer, by any stretch of the imagination, so these tools that are really open-source and freely available to people, are extremely powerful. And my experience, knowing that I have whatever ideas I have in my brain, floating around, I know everyone else has those ideas. So, I feel like these tools are really powerful and allow us to prototype and just get things into the world to see what works and move the needle forward. Katie Wolf: What does moving the needle forward look like to you? Amanda Brown: I think it really is, kind of going back to what I alluded to, just trying things and just seeing what works, whether it is pushing new technology tools that inform people, or they actually connect them to different services. It's really just about, first of all, I think recognizing that we have deficiencies in the legal space. And then doing little things as much as... as big or as small as we can to try and address those gaps- Katie Wolf: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Amanda Brown: ... if that makes sense. Katie Wolf: Absolutely. Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that gap has looked like in your practice? Why access to justice is an issue that you've zeroed in on? Amanda Brown: Absolutely. So, I went to a very public service oriented law school. You know the whole story, pro bono, working in the clinic and really seeing the power that lawyers have to impact, just everyday people's lives. I think we go into, at least I did, go into law school thinking, "Oh, I'm going to be a property lawyer. I'm going to do whatever transactions." And then, having those experiences in law school led me to realize, those are equally valuable and important points. But I myself, have the ability to impact a person's life in an extremely meaningful way by performing these types of services. And then getting into that work, as a former legal aid attorney, really kind of exposed the gaps that are there. And that a lot of people don't qualify for services, but they're still not falling... or they still can't afford to hire a full service attorney. And then of course, as economic inequality becomes more and more prevalent, so this gap widens. And I think that technology does have a pretty important role in how we, as kind of individual people, amplify our efforts in a way that's actually scalable and can... But still have that kind of human element of impacting someone very tangibly in their life. Katie Wolf: Yeah. I want to drill down more on the specifics of this gap that you're talking about. So, when someone has an issue where they could qualify for legal services, but they can't afford a lawyer, how do you think that that shapes our society? Amanda Brown: I think that it's really kind of foundational in our society. As sort of humans, we've created these systems and these processes govern what we do and how we interact with each other. And with that comes a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork, and dispute and ergo lawyers. So, I just think that a lot of the things that we're focused on in access to justice are those things that are simply required to exist in the society that we've created for ourselves, as humans. And sadly, there's maybe not a lot of money to be made in that, for that very reason. So, the gap is kind of, not just based on money, but also even lawyer's attention. Typically, lawyers aren't... If there's not kind of a viable economic incentive to do this type of work, a lot of people get left behind. Katie Wolf: Yeah. So, you've gone sort of full-blown into providing these services, finding ways others can provide these services. Do you think... What do you want other lawyers to do, who are listening to this? Do you want them to also go full-blown, start their own non-profits, partner with you? Or are there smaller things that they could do to improve access to justice, on a society-wide level? Amanda Brown: Well, I mean, in a perfectly utopian society, that would be wonderful. I would love to have everybody join in on this kind of mission, but that's just not realistic. Again, going back to the society that we've created and those incentives, I don't think that's realistic. And I also don't think it's necessary. I do feel that there are other ways that attorneys can get involved with this type of work. I mean the first, most glaringly obvious one, is just do your pro bono. The ABA and your local and your state bar's recommend that you do pro bono. Although, I have other kind of thoughts on... We're not going to, as someone said, we're not going to volunteer our way out of the access to justice gap, but it's a start. And that's kind of what we're all about. So I think for me, having those personal experiences that I had in law school, directly with those folks, was super impactful and led me down this road. And I do believe that, by kind of lawyers putting themselves in similar situations in pro bono, they will also identify problems and get creative. And try to find ways that we can start to bridge this gap. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda Brown: Yeah. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Yeah. Do you think... So, I think that's a really interesting thing to point out. We're not going to volunteer our way out of systems of massive inequality. Right? Do you think... I mean, is technology sort of another stop gap? Do you think it can be sufficient enough to close the gap, or do you think it requires larger systemic changes before there's actually equal access to justice? Amanda Brown: You're absolutely right. This is... I wouldn't call it a stop gap. I do think it's a sustainable and appropriate strategy for mitigating some of what we have created. But the bigger picture has to be taken into account. Namely, is this the system that people actually want? Do they really? And you know the answer is, no. So I think you're absolutely right, that there has to be bigger structural change to the system. And that's really overwhelming for, number one, me. Number two, lawyers, regulators. It's overwhelming for everybody because it's really an age old system that's been created. But I do think there has to be work done. And I do actually, truly believe that technology is part of the sunlight that is shining lights on these issues about different burdensome processes. And it allows us to capture data that might lead us to think about what types of metrics make a justice system actually functioning and well-run. So, that's a long, roundabout answer to say, it is a little bit of both. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Yeah. So, it's something that is doable now, that can also set the framework for the larger changes that have to happen, at some point. Amanda Brown: Absolutely. Katie Wolf: Yeah. That's smart. That's interesting. I want to talk about the details of what you're doing at Lagniappe and elsewhere. What are you focused on right now? Amanda Brown: So my organization is funded by the Louisiana Bar Foundation, and we really act as a central kind of technology coordinator for access to justice system here in Louisiana. So our cornerstone project is the Louisiana Civil Legal Navigator. And that is really all about allowing people to come to a site, answer a few questions about their issue, and find super targeted results, based on how they answer questions. And that project really has kind of put a... it has a, I don't know. It has a foothold in almost everything that I do here in Louisiana, because I want it to be kind of... We have court infrastructure, we have law firm infrastructure for private attorneys and legal aid. But we don't have that public platform for people to access the justice system online. So I'm kind of hoping that we're planting the seeds for, really a larger infrastructure here in Louisiana that sort of fosters this end to end legal experience for members of the public. So, I'm really focused on that. And then... So that really does inform a lot of the work that I do, even in committee work, where we're pushing for additional forms to be created, for example. So, there are system-level things and a lot of persuasion that has to happen on a non-technical level, in order to enable us to get there. So, that's really where I'm at these days, with this organization. Katie Wolf: Yeah. I have also read a bit about the work that you've done. Early on in the COVID crisis, everyone was scrambling to figure out what was... I mean, I shouldn't say, as though- Amanda Brown: Katie Wolf: ... this is in the past. We're still scrambling. We're still trying to figure out rent relief issues and eviction... how to stop evictions. Do you want to talk a little bit about work that you've done around that and what you're thinking about, now at this point, in terms of how people can stay in their homes? Amanda Brown: Yeah. So, way back. That seems like light years ago. Katie Wolf: Eons ago. Amanda Brown: Oh, my gosh. I can't even deal with it. But yeah, so this was, I guess, really at the height of the frenzy around, what are we actually going to do? States were starting to issue lockdown orders. And it became really apparent that, when we're locked down, normal people that work regular jobs that maybe aren't knowledge workers or office workers, are going to be severely impacted by these decisions from leaders. And there's no criticism. This is what kind of had to be done at the time. And at that point, there was something so simple floating around the internet. I think it was a California form letter that was essentially a demand letter, or I guess, I shouldn't say, a demand letter, an informational letter to a landlord that a renter could send, to essentially put their landlord on notice. And try and open up the conversation with their landlord about their likely inability to pay rent. Now we have a lot of moratoria in place, and that has come with its own tools and issues as well. But at the time, it was just something so simple that really had the ability to make a big impact on people, by sort of acting as a buffer, I guess, between a person, a renter, and their landlord. And really just a tool to say, "Hey, you know the world is kind of collapsing in front of our eyes. I'm really struggling here. Can we talk about a payment plan or deferring rent or things like that?" Amanda Brown: So it was a super simple concept, really about opening up those conversations, that I worked on the rent relief app with a Twitter friend, actually, Diego. And he helped me. He and his wife actually helped me craft the letter and then translated into Spanish. And it was something that, again, those no-code tools allowed us to prototype and get out the door in less than a week, to try and see if this is something that people actually needed. And the response was, clearly they do. Katie Wolf: Right. Amanda Brown: We prototyped. Other organizations came in with much better versions of what we had created, and the world moved on. And now we're kind of in a similar situation with the CDC eviction moratoria, where a lot of other organizations have come in. I think that's the power of when there's actually kind of federal or national leadership on an issue. There's one form that needs to be created. And that- Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda Brown: ... again, that allows for more rapid kind of prototyping and pushing out tools out the door for people in need. Katie Wolf: Otherwise, you get these patchworks, which thank heavens that they exist because without patchwork solutions, what would you do? But yeah, it is interesting, when there can then be one unified solution that can be distributed. You also work with the Disaster Legal Services Team and you live in a beautiful, gorgeous state that has been the victim of a lot of natural disasters. Can you tell us a little bit about your work there? Amanda Brown: Yeah. So, I've been a member of the ABA's Disaster Legal Services Team since, oh boy, 2017, I think. And this was really born out of my own, again, young attorney experience. I got my start in my legal profession as a civil legal aid attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, where I was doing disaster recovery work. My parish had experienced some really bad flooding. It was a non-hurricane event, but we had a system move over the state and just stay on top of us for three days and flood. I think, it was 93% of the structures in my parish were flooded by this storm. So, I took on a lot of clients in my parish, and really saw how the federal appeals, FEMA appeals process works. Looked at some system-level work here in Louisiana for title clearing. That was impacting people's ability to get titled to their homes. So, I had a very kind of tangible, again, experience with disaster law and joined that team in 2017, and have been sticking with it ever since. This year, I am serving as the vice director and just... I should say... I'll go back even to 2017. That was an insane year for disasters too. We were running in dozen disasters across the country, dozens of them probably, across the country. And then, this year has suffered a similar fate, especially here in Louisiana, where- Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda Brown: .We've had five, I think, named storms hit our state. And I guess weirdly, the only good thing about that is, we were already responding, so just add another one on to the response. But it has been super taxing to just see- Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda Brown: I guess, the devastation that people are dealing with, even though I haven't had to personally deal with it, firsthand. But COVID has thrown a lot of wrinkles into the ordinary kind of response that we do, as well. So it's been a very challenging year to do outreach and connect with people in ways that we are used to. And then in turn, I really do believe that that has lessened our legal service providers' ability to actually provide services to people that need them. So, I know that there are needs going unmet, but the challenge has really been, how do we reach them? Katie Wolf: Yeah. Yeah. How have you, throughout all of this, seeing such intense things, helping people through it, how do you keep from burning out? Amanda Brown: Ah, I don't know. It's really... It's starting to take a toll on me, if I'm honest. I definitely don't look forward to winter. I am lucky to live in a very sunny state. But it is starting... It's taking a toll on me. I try to just channel that into... I think I'm lucky in the fact that, every day when I wake up, I'm doing something that I love and I have the ability to use technology and provide services that actually impact people. And knowing that those people honestly, have, it's terrible, but I know that they have it worse than I do. That is, in some way, a driver for me to put my own issues aside and keep moving. It's very motivating to know that, what I'm doing is helping other people in need. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda, I'm really moved by what you do and the way that you speak about it. And I also... I don't know. I wonder if there're some lawyers who are saying, "Well, that's great, but I've got kids who need braces." Or, I don't know. Whatever the thing is that they feel like they need, financially. Do you have any sense of supporting some of these access to justice issues? Doing your pro bono work, do you ever make the argument about how it can help lawyers financially, to build stability or respect inside their practice? Amanda Brown: Absolutely. I think there are a number of models out there that have already proven themselves to have those financial and economic benefits for lawyers. I don't know if the word's not getting out. I think the legal profession has a marketing problem on its own, so we won't go into that. Amanda Brown: But I mean, there are a number of states, mine including, that have what's called, a modest means, or a limited scope representation kind of panel that is paid services to folks, just at a reduced rate. So, this is really great for attorneys that are maybe wanting to test the waters in a new practice area, that are new attorneys that are looking to hang their shingle and go out on their own and get clients. It's basically a free lawyer referral service and they provide you tons of support by way of retainer agreements and trainings, and all this good stuff. So, those types of programs are... They're out there, they're happening, they're successful, and they're making a difference in people's lives. So, I definitely recommend checking that out. And if you don't have one, maybe you could start one. I know, I'm all for people taking some initiative on these kinds of things. And then, there are other models. One thing that comes to mind, are things like Hello Divorce, which is an online platform that... She runs a law firm but users can come to her site and they can choose to DIY their own divorce and fill out papers and file them themselves for a much lower... I think it's a hundred bucks a month to have access to the platform, which is super affordable for a lot of people. And again, addresses one of those things like divorce. We've created this certificate that we have to sign, as humans, to get married. And therefore, when I want to undo it, why is there so much of a burden to undo that? Katie Wolf: Yeah. Amanda Brown: So, there are models like that where it's kind of like a low cost. And then if you want some coaching, there's additional on top of that. So there's kind of a tiered approaches that are, obviously very successful for our private attorneys as well. Katie Wolf: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Amanda Brown: And those are absolutely widening. If you think about it from just a purely economics perspective, offering a service like that at a lower rate, captures more of the market for you. So, I think there's probably more out there and there's probably more to come. I don't think that this is the end of what we think and know of as the delivery of legal services. So, feel free to experiment with some of those no-code tools and try things out and get these back from your clients about what they actually want. And, I do. I think there is a number of ways that people can kind of get involved with this greater access to justice movement, but still make a living and feed their families. And nobody's advocating for people to not do that. Katie Wolf: To be martyrs to the cause. So, it sounds like it's productizing your service. So whereas before, you had to function one-on-one with a client, you can create a product, distribute that widely, more people have access to it, and you can make money off of that as well. Amanda Brown: Exactly. Katie Wolf: Yeah. That's smart. So you don't just have to have a good heart, you can also just want to have a successful practice. Amanda, so you've stated that your passion is person centric law. And I want to ask you about connecting technology into that. Do you think increasing reliance on technology can sometimes interfere with that focus? Or what are ways that technology can make law more human and personable? What are some of your thoughts about that? Amanda Brown: Hmm, that's a good question. I do think there's obviously an element, when you're talking purely, I guess, the realities of, I'm not interacting with that person that I once interacted with because there's this technology barrier between us. I think, sure. That's accurate and some people don't want that. And some people are going to want full representation, end to end. That's fine. But I also think people centric to me means, again, giving people what they want and need out of a service. So, if they don't want to talk to me, or not me. I'm not practicing law, but if they don't want to talk to the attorney and they would prefer, as a lot of Millennials and Gen Z-ers, as they... or Gen X-ers... I don't know about generations anymore. If that's what they want, then we should be focused on those aspects and figuring out how we can deliver those services. Because that's just plain common sense, in the competitive sense of the word. Katie Wolf:v Right. Amanda Brown: I think we, as attorneys, have kind of avoided that competition beyond the normal... You see your advertising competition, but true competition that advances the product or the service that you're offering, we've avoided that for so long. And now we can't. Katie Wolf: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, you are a young person in this field. Do you have a sense that there's a generational shift? People talk about millennial attorneys. Do you think that's just how we always talk about new generations, as though they're so different? Or do you think that young people going into the profession of law are actually different from previous generations? Amanda Brown: Hmm. I think there is an element of truth to both of those things. Obviously we're different, just on our comfort level with technology. But I think I also see in a younger generation, the more social desires and the... like what I'm talking about, that impact to people, I think that a lot of folks, kind of in my generation or the younger generations, want to feel that what they're doing matters. And want to feel that they're making an impact on whoever they're touching with their work. Amanda Brown: So I do get that. And I'm not saying that older attorneys don't have the same kind of motivations. But I do think that there's kind of a mindset shift, that's probably due to our experience with... we're comfortable. We haven't experienced any major economic crises that shape our beliefs about... You get where I'm going? I think that we have had a level of comfort that allows us to be more selective about what we do, as it impacts people. Katie Wolf: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, there's less of a frantic need to make yourself... to move up the ladder, than there is this sense of, "Ah, it's... We'll be fine. We can support some other folks too." Or, I don't know. At least, this is how my parents critique my lifestyle. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Amanda, so as a little Lagniappe, a little something extra for our listeners, do you have any book or movie or music recommendation that you would want to make for others right now? Amanda Brown: Yeah. I think... I've been reading Richard Susskind's, Online Courts and the Future of Justice. And I think it's worth a read for anybody. Whether they're interested in access to justice or not, there are some heavy A to J themes in there. But, I don't know. I especially think now, after COVID the title maybe seems a little bit radical to some people. But after what we've gone through, where we had to kind of flip a switch overnight and adjust to this new world, some of the things in here are more realistic and attainable than you might think. And I just like that it's kind of a teaser about what could be and what is probably going to be in the future. So we, as a profession, can be kind of ready to carry out that mission for people Katie Wolf: I love that. So, yeah. Written in 2019, but very, very prescient. Wonderful. Amanda, thank you so much for talking with us. Best of luck to you and in the work that you're doing. Amanda Brown: Awesome. Thank you so much. It was nice talking with you. I appreciate it. Katie Wolf: Yeah. Appreciate you, Amanda.