Global Hackathon: law students explore access to justice via tech

Zac Padgett, John Grant, Rob McMurtrie and Shiwanni Johnson

Attorneys Zac Padgett and John Grant with Oregon Law students Rob McMurtrie and Shiwanni Johnson

Two University of Oregon School of Law students, Shiwanni Johnson and Robert McMurtrie, participated in the world’s largest legal hackathon last month.

The two-day Global Hackathon included more than 5,000 participants from 25 countries. The goal of the event was to bring the legal industry together with tech and innovation, to develop solutions for the legal industry.

This year’s global challenge was to invent new ways to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in the legal industry.  Johnson and McMurtrie’s team included four developers: Tess Lameyer, Dirt Deodara, Ian Andrewson, and Eve Stockstill.

Global Hackathon participants

"The hackathon experience was great,” McMurtrie said.  “It was wonderful to see the benefits of strong collaboration between IT and Law. And it was a practical way for us to see how important it is to work through a project from start to finish with people from various backgrounds.” 

The Project: Legal Router – Access to Law

“We wanted to have a workable product, something we could walk through within our short time frame,” said Johnson. “So, we focused on one area of law – domestic violence. It had to be something that was needed, something that was not too hard to navigate for someone with a claim, and something that could be broken down--at least initially--into concrete elements.”

Together with the developers, the students created the app, “Legal Router – Access to Law.”  The app was built specifically for low-income families in Oregon who need legal assistance. It focuses on four major legal areas that were identified in a 2019 study conducted by Oregon’s Access to Justice Coalition: domestic violence, credit and debit, housing, and discrimination.

Both students did legal research, drafted the questionnaire, contacted everyone they could think of to help them with insight for domestic violence issues, and created the presentation.

A breakdown of the app in four easy steps

Step 1: When the app opens up, the user can decide which area of law they need help with. 

Step 2: The app then asks a series of basic questions about the user’s situation - without asking for personal information. 

Step 3: A report pops up and lets them know how strong their case is – all based on the user’s response and the required elements of a specific area of law (battery, assault, etc.). 

Step 4: The app gives users the option to deal with their situation in one of three ways: pro bono, pro se, or pay for a lawyer.  Based on the way the user wants to proceed, the app would forward their information to a pro bono lawyer or paid lawyer.  If users want to deal with the issue pro se, the app would provide them the forms needed to complete to file in court and the process they would go through.  


Lessons learned

Johnson and McMurtrie not only came away from the Global Hackathon with a workable app but with a first-hand knowledge on why it is important to work with others to tackle important societal issues.   

“I have never seen such a great group of developers that worked so well together, said McMurtrie. “It was great to see just how valuable legal conversations with non-lawyers can be when tackling legal issues.  They provided a unique perspective that was invaluable as we worked toward providing an application that would help others.” 

The event also gave both students a better understanding of how to help make legal resources more accessible for people in Oregon.

“As a person with no legal background prior to law school other than having to pay costly consult fees and one semester of law school under my belt, it seems like there are areas of automation, like our app, that would really help low-income families get the answers they need without costly fees,” said McMurtrie.

This process also helped Johnson to see just how difficult it can be for those outside of the legal profession to navigate their options. She says that the law is complex – even for those with legal training. And for someone who hasn't had training, it’s almost impenetrable.

“Our app is to help empower people with legal tools and information,” said Johnson. “When it comes to the law – how does it go? Justice for all. This is our way of seeing that happen.”

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law Communications