2020 Duke Law Tech Lab — All in for A2J

The 2020 Duke Law Tech Lab will focus its resources oncritically under-served communities of legal tech companies enhancing access to legal services

Jeff Ward
5 min readMay 11, 2020


Ever since the Duke Law Tech Lab launched in 2016, our cohorts of start-up legal tech teams have included those focused on overcoming deeply-entrenched barriers to access to legal services. Our 2020 cohort will focus entirely on access-focused entrepreneurs and startups because of both the challenging times in which we are living and the evolution of support for legal tech in recent years.

These Challenging Times

The long-term effects COVID-19 on our world are, of course, uncertain. Yet, we can probably make at least 3 predictions about worlds of legal tech and access to legal services:

  1. Growing needs — For many, financial uncertainty will persist well beyond epidemiological danger, and growing numbers of people might need help navigating eviction, securing benefits, seeking bankruptcy, dealing with family separation, etc. The need for the kinds of high-quality and accessible legal assistance that technology tools help make possible will be as pressing as ever.
  2. Persistent obstacles — For social entrepreneurs creating tools to meet these needs, the obstacles to success, especially for early-stage companies, will remain as formidable as ever.
  3. Paradigm shifts — Many courthouses have gone electronic, some judges have conducted hearings via video, and e-signatures rule the day. In innumerable ways, traditional modes of conducting business have been disrupted and put on pause, and people are more open to imagining new approaches. This moment of unsettling offers an opportunity to resettle into a world where tech-facilitated legal solutions are more common than ever.

All of these probabilities serve to emphasize what a timely opportunity we have to support creative and dedicated legal tech entrepreneurs who make services available to the massive middle long underserved by the las and to help ensure that the benefits of technology accrue to the benefit of all.

Taking stock of 4 years

When we launched the Duke Law Tech Lab in 2016, there were very few supportive resources focused on serving the particular needs of legal tech startups in the United States. We aimed to do our part to jumpstart legal technology development generally. Intentionally light-touch, we required no equity or need for re-location in order for startup founders to participate and still have the resources and time they needed to build their companies. We aimed to add value by providing resources, connections, mentors, and support while benefiting law students by bringing legal tech innovation to campus. We’re grateful to sponsors and collaborates like Latham & Watkins, LexisNexis, and Travelers who have made this program possible and have provided essential guidance to a wide range of early-stage companies.

A very positive development over the last several years

This isn’t 2016 anymore!

Over the last several years, the legal tech ecosystem has shifted in several important ways that have influenced the future direction of the Duke Law Tech Lab. In brief, greater resources are available for legal technology companies generally, as we’ve witnessed:

1. Significant increases in legal tech accelerators & incubators,

2. Record-breaking investment by angels/VCs,

3. Expansion of the B2B market, and

4. Increases in conferences & gatherings encouraging lawyer innovation.

We’re thrilled that other leaders are providing support and resources to companies operating in the traditional B2B space, particularly in selling to law firms of all sizes. We’ve taken some of the best lessons learned in the last few years and curated a list of resources and information on our website for anyone who is looking to start a legal tech company (or who has recently started one).

Still, companies with A2J missions remain comparatively underserved, and the DLTL will seek to help fill this gap. We’re committed to using our resources toward the greatest needs with the potential for the greatest impact. In the 2019 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Survey Report, Markus Hartung noted that B2C legal tech has the potential to deliver the most value globally by improving access to justice. At the same time, the changing conversations around unauthorized practice of law and the willingness of some US states to provide a regulatory sandbox for legal tech companies continues both to open new doors and to increase the need for guidance and support in a changing environment. We’re ready to support this innovation by dedicating our resources and energies to this area of both great need and great potential.

“We’re proud of Duke Law’s research and leadership in tech and innovation. The Duke Law Tech Lab is one of several ways we support those shaping next-generation lawyering and bringing about expanded access to legal services.” —Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and Professor of Law

We’ve opened applications for the 2020 Duke Law Tech Lab to help legal tech companies with an access-oriented mission make their business case. By providing a mini-grant at the start of the program, and resources, mentoring, and connections throughout the 10-week program, we aim to reduce the failure rate of startups and leverage our network for the good of the ecosystem. At our virtual Demo Day and Celebration in the fall, founders will present their product/company to law students, legal tech entrepreneurs, lawyers, mentors, advisory board members, etc.

Cheers to another great year of using the powers of tech, design, creativity, and our passions to improve the law to help make the next generation of legal practice better than the last!

Interested in staying up to date on the accelerator? Sign up on our website to receive notice when our applications open and related events: www.dukelawtechlab.com