Technology Can’t Solve all of Our Problems

Some words of caution with sprinkles of encouragement.

I’ve been referencing this idea in a bunch of different articles and interviews lately, so I thought I’d write out my thoughts in a semi-cohesive way in one place.

This feels like a strange article for me to write. I’m obviously a huge believer in the ability of technology to scale solutions to help provide access to justice — it’s a large part of my company’s work. In recent months, the excitement over what I’ll call “A2J Tech” has reached a fever pitch. You can’t read a publication or peruse Twitter without seeing some reference to a new project, a new law school program, a new conference that is focused on A2J Tech. It’s fantastic that this work is getting so much attention and that students and lawyers are being taught to think in innovative ways about solving longstanding problems in this country.

Throwing a Tiny Bit of Shade

Here’s where my concern lies, and what brought me to write this: It is remarkably easy to build a bad application. We see them everywhere, certainly not just in legal tech. I’m defining “bad” products as those with unintuitive, challenging interfaces, products that don’t appear to solve an actual problem, and so on. These products likely result from a lot of shortcuts, whether the creator realizes it or not.

It’s one of the both good and bad things about the age of technology we find ourselves in: we’ve made it so easy to build digital products that anyone can do it — in the course of a semester, as a side project in your organization, or as a weekend warrior. That ease is excellent if your goal is to just build an app and learn something from the process, but it can be a problem if your goal is to build a successful product that provides value to its intended users.

My fear with respect to the immense focus on a2j tech is that it may have the devastating effect of creating a feeling that, by building a product, something has been done to help. But if the product isn’t built carefully with a robust marketing effort and regular testing and data analysis, it really may not be helping anyone. It feels like this has the opportunity to become the scapegoat for the rest of the hard work that’s required.

It’s easier and sexier to build a bad product then it is to advocate for systemic change. It’s easier and sexier to build a bad product than it is to show up at court over and over to take on pro bono cases for people who are in a bad way. It’s easier and sexier to build a bad product than it is to raise funds or start a service-based non-profit or work for a legal aid organization. None of those things scale as well as technology, but they are absolutely critical.

It’s like the Social Media politics phenomenon. I’m guilty of it, and I bet a lot of you are too. Instead of calling my elected representatives or donating to a cause or testifying at hearings about policies I don’t like, I can just fire off a tweet to my group of followers about my displeasure and it really does feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’ve created an opportunity for public discourse, but I haven’t actually advocated for my position in a way that has an impact. But hey, tweeting is way better than leaving a bunch of awkward-sounding messages at Susan Collins’ various offices.

Building successful technology products is hard, even for people who have done it many times before. I define success in this context as increasing the number of people who are actually accessing information about the law and their rights, are using technology to advocate for themselves, are taking action on the information they learn, or are actually technology to find the legal representation that they need at a cost they can afford.

So, what needs to happen?

I’d never discourage innovative thinking among lawyers and law students. It’s critical that we have a lot of minds on how to solve the very real problems that exist in our system of justice. I applaud and encourage efforts to teach lawyers and law students to understand the power of technology and the processes and methods that support innovation. But I do want to discourage thinking of product development as THE solution, the simplification of product development, or even that it’s somehow more important than the other hard work that has to be done.

I am in awe of those out there fighting for systemic change or duking it out in district court. That stuff is really hard. Please don’t stop doing that. For the tinkerers, don’t stop tinkering. For the over-hypers…. chillllll. Technology has its place, but we can’t hang our hat on it as an exclusive method to make change, and we can’t take shortcuts if we’re going to rely so heavily on tech to create accessible justice.

If you are interested in A2J Tech, I moderate a slack team of people around the world who care about such things. Message me for an invite.