Going to court might top the list as one of your worst nightmares. Filling out paper forms as someone with a visual impairment or comprehension disability can make this ordeal even more complicated. Even North Carolina clerks themselves undergo a lengthy endeavor when they manually process over 31 million pieces of paper (equivalent to 4.3 miles of shelving) a year, according to the NCCALJ (North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice) in a 2016 report.
As a digital project manager for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts for about five years, Sam Tate saw all the systemic problems within the court system. In 2016, he and Mike Lotz, another project manager, put their heads together and came up with Civvis, a startup that Tate said revolutionizes how both public and legal organizations interact with the complex paper-based court system by providing a simple device-agnostic online platform.
“Technology was a big part of it, and we looked at what we were doing at the court system and all roads kind of led to the form, in our opinions,” Tate said. “If we can fix the paper, then hopefully other issues will be resolved as a result of helping out this process.”
Raleigh-based Civvis is just one of 12 startups accepted into the Duke Law Tech Lab, which began in 2016. Running from June 7 to Sept. 20, the “pre-accelerator” program provides mentorship and resources, including an initial $1,000 grant and the opportunity for more prize money at the program’s Demo Day on Sept. 20. Durham’s Courtroom5 is another Triangle-based startup in the cohort. (We wrote about Courtroom5 in March.) All of the companies selected follow Duke Law Tech Lab’s mission of “democratizing the law.”
Some may have the chance to be a part of the LexisNexis Legal Tech Accelerator, which is based both in LexisNexis’s Raleigh HQ and at the Menlo Park, Calif., offices of legal tech firm Lex Machina, which is owned by LexisNexis. The Accelerator is one of Duke Law Tech Lab’s sponsors.
Duke Law Tech Lab Director Jeff Ward said Duke’s pre-accelerator looks for special early-stage teams in legal technology.
“They’re not just trying to replicate or displace lawyers but rather trying to make the law practice better,” Ward said. “It can be in terms of more humane; it can be in terms of more efficient. It can be all sorts of different things, but we really look for change-makers.”
Civvis is one of these startups on a mission to bring about change. Tate still remembers meeting an attorney at a dinner who happened to be blind. Upon finding out Tate worked for the court system, she vented about how the court system’s website at the time was so inaccessible.
“I want to help people out like that,” Tate said. “I think access to justice, we always hear that phrase and we throw it around all the time, but what does it really mean? From our perspective, access to justice means making things accessible. Web accessibility obviously is one of those things. With Civvis, it makes any form accessible because it translates it to a web version versus a piece of paper.”
Participating in the Duke Law Tech Lab pre-accelerator’s third cohort offered the Civvis team insight about the startup’s business model and a feedback loop that Tate said has been helpful.
“I do think for any startup, regardless of whether it’s legal tech or not, this is one step of many,” Tate said, “but if you can get into an accelerator, go for it.”
Ward said Duke Law Tech Lab’s primary goal is recognizing and ushering in the next generation of legal practice. Civvis and many other legal tech startups have sprouted up in effort to change and improve the legal profession. For Ward, it is important that this technology increases access to the law.
“We hope that by the year 2025/2030, more and more people—not just a few more but a lot more people—are benefiting from high-quality, helpful legal services in ways that make their lives better,” Ward said. “We really don’t want the law to be the bastion of a privileged few.”