Want to know if same-sex marriage is legal in your state? There’s an app for that. George­town University Law Center students Lisa Umans, Hallie Sears and Brittany Clement created it to advise same-sex couples about their options should they want to get married or enter into some variation of a domestic partnership.
The Same Sex Marriage Adviser project was the product of a seminar designed to get students thinking about how to use technology to make the practice of law more efficient — something few law classes address head on.
Georgetown professor Tanina Rostain and law librarian Roger Skalbeck debuted Technology, Innovation and Law Practice: An Experiential Seminar this spring, directing 13 students to create interactive applications providing legal advice. The students had to choose a topic, research the pertinent laws and then figure out how to present the information in a logical, interactive way, Rostain said.
Just as important, they had to find ways to convert legalese into plain English — always a valuable lesson in interacting with clients. "The students got more confident in their ability to come up with an idea and run with it," she said. "They also got more confident in their understanding of how powerful technology can be."
At the end of the course, the two-and three-student teams faced off in what was dubbed the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition. A panel of attorneys and professors with technology backgrounds evaluated the applications with an eye for the best content, design and presentation.
An app called U.S. Citizen or Not? — created by Konstantinos Rokas and Maryam Tabatabai — was crowned the winner. The app helps people living abroad determine whether they might actually be U.S. citizens. The idea was that people in that position often lack access to American lawyers.
Another team designed an app to help users avoid copyright violations, and yet another developed an app to help police officers determine when they have reasonable cause to search a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation. The students used a Web platform from software company Neota Logic Inc., but were responsible for creating the legal content themselves.
Umans said she knew right away that she wanted to design an app addressing the tangle of state laws governing same-sex marriage and civil unions. "I thought it might be a good demographic to make an application for, because there is so much information out there but it’s not in one place, and the law is in such flux right now," she said. "This is something I thought would be very helpful."
Users of the same-sex marriage app are asked to answer a series of questions about themselves and their partners — citizenship status, marriage history, state of residence, health status and income.
The app then generates a customized report laying out options, including whether users are eligible to get married, and highlighting angles users might want to consider before making any decisions. Users can take the report to an actual lawyer for additional advice.
The team spent hours researching the law and thinking about how to make their software user-friendly, she said. The project became a minor obsession, and the team hopes to find a gay rights Web site that will host it on a permanent basis. "I’m really excited about it," said Umans, who graduated last month. "We know it needs a little bit more work, but I’d like to see it get more exposure."
In the meantime, Rostain said, the technology seminar was a hit, and one that deserves emulation. "My goal is to have hundreds of students using technology to work through different legal issues," she said. "I think law schools are still behind the curve as far as technology goes, and in about three years, every law school will be thinking about doing this."
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.