By Jason Tashea

It’s been about a year since I sat down with Molly McDonough on LSC’s Talk Justice podcast to talk about a new program I was launching at Georgetown Law: The Judicial Innovation Fellowship.

At the time, everything was hypothetical and there were big open questions about what we were doing: Would courts apply for a program like this? Would technologists want to do this work? Even if we matched fellows with courts, what would even happen?

A year on, I’m happy to report that we’ve got answers to these questions. Now, as our first cohort of fellows has been on the job for a few months, it’s a good time to share an update since I spoke with Molly.

Did courts apply?

Yes! A lot of them. We opened a six-week application window in early January of last year. Through partners like LSC and the National Center for State Courts, among many others, we shared the opportunity far and wide. Ultimately, we received 19 proposals from 14 state and local courts from every region of the country. Project areas included calendaring, cybersecurity, self-help resource design, court website accessibility and data projects. Never knowing who is going to show up to your party, we were very excited about the quantity and quality of the applications we received.

Unfortunately, we received many more strong applications than we had the capacity to take on. Ultimately, we are working with three dynamic and forward-thinking courts. They are the Kansas State Courts, the Hamilton County, Tennessee General Sessions Court and the Utah State Courts. The Kansas and Utah Courts pitched us on helping level up the design of their public-facing software. In the case of Kansas, they are in the early stages of developing a user-friendly efile system for self-represented litigants (SRLs). In Utah, their Self-Help Center, which has developed extensive online legal information for SRLs, needed a designer to help improve existing public services. In Hamilton County, leadership wanted a data scientist to audit and improve how courts and information technology departments share data to understand court user experiences across government services, the criminal justice system and court debt obligations in an effort to break cycles of debt, homelessness and criminal recidivism. (Complete statements of work are available on our website.)

Individually, each of these projects illustrate the need courts have for talent that has not historically been a part of the court organization chart. Collectively, we had regionally and thematically diverse projects that we hoped would entice talented technologists looking to improve the justice system.

Did technologists apply?

Yes, enthusiastically! During our two-month application window in the spring, the common refrain I heard was: “I can’t believe this opportunity exists!” This sentiment illustrates an unappreciated demand for meaningful technological work in America’s courts. We were happy to provide the on-ramp. Ultimately, we received 56 applications from developers, designers, product managers and data scientists. Of those applicants, the pool was as diverse as those using the American court system: 57% of applicants self-identified as female or non-binary and 69% self-identified as a person of color.

With only three positions to fill, we worked diligently to narrow the field and cultivate the strongest candidates. We started with a cross-cutting team of reviewers to read applications, which helped us develop our callback list. From there, candidates went through a 20-minute screener call (questions focused on EQ), a substantive 60-minute interview (including a presentation on a take-home assignment), and, for finalists, an hour-long interview with the court partners, who made the hiring decision.

Through this process, we identified three creative and passionate fellows. Kat Albrecht is an associate professor of criminology and data scientist, who took a year of leave to be a Judicial Innovation Fellow in Hamilton County. Emily Lippolis is a lawyer and designer, who is working with the Kansas State Courts. Verenice Ramirez is a bilingual designer with deep experience across legal, non-profit, and for-profit sectors. Each fellow brings a self-motivation and an enthusiasm for their work that has been palpable since before we all met in-person for the first time during our training in September. We’d be lucky to have found just one of them, to have all three has made this first year particularly special.

What even happened?

It’s been just a few months, and we don’t want to count our eggs before they hatch, but we are off to a very strong start. In early November, I visited Verenice and her boss, Nathanael Player, in Salt Lake. I could not have been happier with what I saw. Verenice was well integrated into the team and her colleagues are deferring to her on issues of design. She was set up in the court’s new UX lab, where she can watch and learn from court users exploring the court’s website. And, being a transplant from Los Angeles, she’s finding a home in Salt Lake and adapting to the weather. This holistic form of integration is what we were hoping for: Our program is not just a benefit to the courts, which receive an infusion of much needed talent, but the fellows also receive otherwise unavailable and invaluable opportunities to share and build on their skills in a high-impact environment while enjoying a new community.

We’re also seeing positive early traction at our other two sites. Like in Salt Lake, both Emily and Kat are being deferred to by their host courts as experts. They’ve been given quick and wide access to the court system, court employees and local stakeholders. Each of them is also notching early wins. Kat’s work led to a design change to printouts from the court’s criminal case database, making them more readable. Emily has joined up with a team building an eviction portal, which she is making more user-friendly.

For all the uncertainty swirling around this new program a year ago, it’s clear some of the biggest questions have been settled. Certainly, we have more to figure out in regard to how much work a fellow can get done in a year and how we turn the outputs from these projects into more universal resources for other courts to benefit from. However, we’re off to a great start, and our court partners and fellows deserve much of the credit.

We have no doubt that the more time our fellows have the more wins and lessons we will have to share. If you are interested in following along, you can sign up for our newsletter.

Jason Tashea is the founding director of the Judicial Innovation Fellowship at Georgetown Law. He is a member of LSC’s Emerging Leaders Council.

Starting from Scratch: How a new program is helping courts embrace user-centered technology was originally published in Justice Rising on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.