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NextGen Fellowship: A new kind of good

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Innovation

It was a chilly night on a farm in rural Maine, and I was at a party with a few law school classmates where we were engaging in a time-honored tradition – complaining. About the weak job market. About our internships. About other students and attorneys. About virtually anything worthwhile that came to mind. Unfortunately, my wife Michelle was trapped at the same party, and the whine-a-thon was wearing her down.

When the group ran out of steam, we said our goodbyes and left. As soon as the car door closed, Michelle turned to me and said, “Enough. You have an incredible opportunity to do some good in the world. You started school with a technology background, now you’re about to graduate with a law degree. Most people will never have this kind of chance. Get out there and find the thing you can do to make a difference.”

Michelle’s remarks snapped me out of my grumbling and inspired me to take on a new mission. I did have some technology skills. I also had experience with housing law. When I was growing up, my family had faced eviction multiple times. From that evening on, I would actively seek out opportunities to do a new kind of good: use my legal and tech skills to help litigants struggling with housing issues.

A few weeks later, I received an email advertising the launch of the NextGen Fellowships at the ABA Center for Innovation. If I was chosen to be a fellow, I could spend an entire year working on a legal tech project of my choosing. This would not need to be a side hustle. The fellowship would give me the space and time I needed to plan, design, and build a technology-oriented solution to make a positive impact in housing law.

I would soon discover that innovation was present even at the beginning of the application process. The application did not call for your typical resume, cover letter, and references. Instead, I crafted a detailed project statement and recorded a video to give the ABA more context on my background and inspiration. I could convey my story to the Center.

After passing the interview process, I was selected as a NextGen Fellow for 2017-2018. True to form, our orientation was not an endless array of PowerPoint slides, but instead came in the form of a boot camp at the Center’s headquarters in Chicago. Boot camp included an afternoon of improv exercises and workshops on design thinking, lean process improvement, and public speaking (yes, our speeches were videotaped, and no, you will never see them). The objective was not only to help build our projects, but to help build ourselves as legal innovators.

On the heels of the boot camp, the Center staff scheduled presentations and site visits to organizations such as state courts, legal services organizations, law firms, and design schools. Still, self-direction has been key through the fellowship. I set my own deadlines and milestones. Nobody is looking over my shoulder, or measuring my progress. Ultimately, I am accountable to myself and the potential users of the solution I am developing.

I am grateful that my schedule is flexible, because I soon faced a major pivot from my planned fellowship project. I entered the program intending to develop an expert system to assist renters through eviction proceedings. However, I quickly learned that there were multiple tools developed to do the same thing. I needed to find a new angle. After weeks of interviews with legal services directors, attorneys, academics, and technologists, I identified a new area of housing law where technology could augment state policy development – tenant screening.

When a tenant applies for a new apartment, the application fee pays for the development of a screening report by a consumer reporting agency. Most tenants never see their own reports. Information may be inaccurate or outdated. Negative records may be eligible for sealing or expungement. Such damaging report data often leads to rejection by reputable landlords and the need to settle for substandard and unsafe housing from less scrupulous property owners.

Luckily, tenants can request a free copy of their screening reports each year, just like credit reports. The problem was that few people were aware of this legal right. If I developed a Web application to raise awareness of tenant screening and help tenants request copies of their reports, I could potentially improve housing outcomes. Fair Screening was born, and I got to work on designing the app.

While I have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, I am not alone at the Center for Innovation. I am privileged to work alongside some incredibly talented fellows from all over the U.S. They are responsible for a diverse set of projects, in fields including digital privacy, conversational interfaces, machine learning, and blockchain. All our projects are designed to help close the access to justice gap.

I am now nearly halfway through my fellowship. Over the next few weeks, I will continue to develop a prototype of Fair Screening, conduct user testing at a local courthouse, prepare to give a presentation at a conference in San Francisco, and participate in a hackathon (or two). I am eager to see what’s next.

Tobias Franklin Tobias Franklin is a NextGen Fellow at the ABA Center for Innovation, where he is building Fair Screening, an application to help renters request free copies of their tenant screening reports. Tobias graduated magna cum laude from University of Maine School of Law, where he served as senior developer for the Apps for Justice Project. Before law school, he spent 10 years in Web development as a project manager and business analyst. He will be sworn in to the Maine Bar in January 2018.