Nicole Bradick, founder and CEO of Theory and Principle/courtesy photo Nicole Bradick, founder and CEO of Theory and Principle/courtesy photo

Law and technology leaders from current ABA President Hilarie Bass to ROSS Intelligence founder Andrew Arruda have long discussed the need for technology to bridge the access-to-justice gap. However, in 2018 there is still fairly little alignment in the legal technology community about how exactly to start leveraging advances in technology to help people get much-needed legal support.

Nicole Bradick, formerly the chief strategy officer at CuroLegal, has spent the last few years thinking about and developing technology for exactly this purpose. Bradick has now launched her own design and development firm, Theory and Principle, that will focus on developing legal and justice web and mobile applications.

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“I saw a need for a design and development shop with a specific focus in legal tech,” Bradick told LTN of her new company. “The benefit of a niche focus is that, with each product we design and build, we gain a deeper and deeper understanding of lawyers and consumers of legal help as users of technology,” she later added.

We spoke with Bradick about her latest work and some insights she’s picked up about designing technology for access to justice along the way:

Where are you from? I was raised in Virginia, just outside of D.C. I married a New Englander and ended up in Portland, Maine, which is an incredible city for building a tech company (and for life, generally).

What are three things you wish people knew about designing technology to address the access-to-justice gap? Only three? I’ll try …

1. Make sure you really understand your problem. You can’t design a solution if you don’t understand the issues at a deep level. Never jump to building solutions until you’ve done this. (There’s a reason this is #1. This happens a surprising amount.)

2. Don’t design for yourself or for your stakeholders. I intensely hate buzzwords like “user-centered design,” but you need to build for the user. I’ve been caught in situations where the various stakeholders have an inordinate amount of weight in determining the product feature sets based on what they think should happen, often causing costly detours building features that will have no benefit to the user. It’s harmful to the goals of the organization for the product, whatever those goals may be.

3. In development, care about visual and interaction design above all else. There’s nothing else that matters more for the success of a product (along with No. 4 below). If it’s not easy to use and engaging, you won’t meet your goals for the product.  

4. Ok, sorry, I need another one. This isn’t specifically about design, but it’s where I see a lot of products in this space fail, and that’s marketing. There is often an “if you build it, they will … somehow find it on the internet” mentality, but it doesn’t work that way. I recommend thinking hard about the size of the marketing budget you need to really get the product out there before you begin to embark on a project. There’s too much good work in this space that never makes an impact because no one ever sees it. 

What role do you think technology should play in addressing access to justice? Technology needs to play a prominent role. It’s simply a numbers game: the 1.5 million lawyers in the U.S. are not coming close to providing what is needed. The legal community has been at this mission for a while now, and the latest numbers indicate that 86 percent of civil legal issues facing low-income Americans receive no meaningful legal help. And that’s just civil issues.

Technology has the obvious advantage of scaling knowledge and information to people who need it, but I do worry about the over-reliance on technology at this point. Building technology sounds sexy, but there are still so many deep systemic issues that all the technology in the world can’t fix. We need masses of people doing the hard yards in the advocacy and policy space to ever make substantial progress. But, to the extent we can use technology to package up legal knowledge and share it with the masses in usable and understandable ways, or make it easier for law firms to automate and scale their services at an affordable rate, or otherwise improve the practice, delivery, and receipt of legal help, we should be levering all of the tools we have.

Why do attorneys need to think about customizing their technology versus buying out-of-the-box solutions?  I get asked this question a lot, and I think it’s usually expected that I would push for custom tech since that’s my line of business. But for lawyers and law firms, custom technology is often not the right choice. I always encourage lawyers to explore all off-the-shelf solutions for a particular problem. Even if it’s not quite right, but it’s close, off-the-shelf products can be used as a way to prototype a solution to see if you want to build custom on top of it or build entirely from scratch. Custom technology is expensive to build and maintain, so you need to be very clear about what your goals are and have a good business case for it.

There are, however, a lot of really bad off-the-shelf products. I recommend testing off-the-shelf solutions with users the way you would if you were building to be sure it hits the mark for your users. Even if you’re not building, there’s a lot of work and time involved in adopting a new technology.  

I wouldn’t be in business if custom solutions were never right. My advice is to always start with a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, prototype a variety of solutions, and once you have a validated approach, see if off-the-shelf solutions get you there. If not, that’s when you think about building custom tech. I think the trouble a lot of people get into is that they start building a product in their mind before they’ve done the early leg work of validating solutions.

Where are you hoping the legal technology sector, especially with respect to access-to-justice issues, will be in three-five years?  I hope we start consolidating efforts. There is too much duplicative work out there in the space and a lot of organizations with limited budgets building without proper design support. I started an Access to Justice Tech and Design Collaborative Slack team in order to help private and pro bono players in this space talk to each other in the hopes that we can better leverage the subject-matter expertise of nonprofits and the resources and expertise of private organizations. The Legal Services Corp. collaboration with Microsoft on a statewide portal is an excellent example of this.

I think the industry has started focusing a bit more on user interface, and I hope that continues. We still have a lot of legacy products in this space, and I’m hoping we can move beyond those and continue the trend of using more modern technologies and design principles to build better products.

I’d like to see a lot less hype out there. It does harm to the goal of creation and adoption of impactful technology, drawing media and funding focus to a few products that may not be the best examples of what legal tech as a whole has to offer.

On balance, the legal tech products out there are only getting better. I see no reason to believe that trend won’t continue in the next few years, and hopefully it will bring more skeptics into the fold as users and expand the reach of technology for access to justice.

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