Legal Innovators: Briane Cornish-Knight

We are kicking off a semi-weekly series, in which we profile interesting people doing innovative work in legal services. The goal is to look behind the scenes — at how people are working on legal innovation, and what their vision of the near-future is.

To start, we have Briane Cornish-Knight — a graduate of Stanford Law School (2014) who is at the forefront of how to use new technology to improve access to justice. Briane was born in San Jose, CA. Currently she works as a policy consultant at a tech company and is based in Washington, DC.

Here’s our interview with Briane — covering what her vision of how we can make the legal system better, what she’s working on now, and why she cares about this all in the first place.


How did you get interested in working on legal services innovation?

I’ve spent over 100 hours sitting in government benefits offices, with family members, waiting for assistance. My family has been hauled in to court on a few occasions for unpaid credit card debt. I know intimately the level of frustration that comes with interacting with legal institutions.

I personally have always had the inkling to question why certain systems or these legal aid nonprofits are designed the way they are. I don’t know where that skepticism comes from. I can only guess that it has something to do with frustrating experiences I have had; anytime I am sitting in an government agency office or at a legal aid office, I think to myself that there is no way that the government or employees in agency actually want me to be confused or angry. Yet, those are the feelings I usually have.

The disconnect I perceived is likely the source of why I started to look for new approaches to legal services.


What projects are you working on right now?

I’m continuing work on CleanSlateDC.com.

Clean Slate DC, one of Briane’s projects

It is a tool for pro-bono lawyers to use as they complete their first expungement eligibility and petition cases.

I’m working on a second safety net for those who get turned away from legal aid due to income eligibility requirements.

Another project: Reduced Fee Lawyer referral services

And I’m attempting to build a marketplace for attorneys who know how to charge affordable, fixed fee prices so that they can locate clients who, either using a payment plan or paying in full, have enough income to pay for fixed fee representation or unbundled services. (See it at DCreducedFeeLawyers.org)

Briane’s Work Space

If we gave you $5 million to spend on your work, what would you create?

  1. I’d spend $1 million to convince the largest court system to get rid of their legacy data and document management systems and replace them with software that would allow for court date and court summons text reminders and text based support.
  2. I would use $1 million to fund legal navigators within a medium size court system; a significant portion of the funds would go to training and evaluating the outcomes of the navigators.
  3. I would spend another $1.5 million on a partnership with public libraries to host a legal kiosk room for patrons to conduct online visits with the court (to replace quick court visits) and the legal kiosk would also house an advocate who could call bill collectors and landlords and try to resolve conflicts before court is necessary.
  4. Lastly, I would use $1.5 million to fund 100 participatory defense circles in states with the least amount of legal resources. A California nonprofit, called Silicon Valley De-Bug, trains families with no legal background on how to impact a court system when their loved one is arrested and charged. They call this practice ‘participatory defense’, and what it allow for these families to use their ‘cumulative intelligence’, borne from the sharing of their experiences, analysis, and ideas with one another, to navigate the criminal trial system. I would personally fund a similar group based or cohort-based model for the civil legal system.

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I had the skills to fundraise. I do not like asking others for things. I’m working on it.

I also wish I had the skills to acquire government partnerships: getting access to government officials has proven to be difficult.

Governments mostly partner through their solicitation and RFP process. Every RFP or solicitation process I have come across expects you to have significant experience in managing a government contract. There aren’t alot of RFPs and solicitation bids that are meant for innovators and non-corporate players.


What would you recommend lawyers to read?

The Lean Startup. I remember that the Lean Startup changed my life in regards to thinking about outcomes and metrics and how to figure them out or test them out early.


Our thanks to Briane for sharing her thoughts! Follow her on Twitter to keep up with her work.