TRU Law Students challenged to create next Uber

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By joining the ranks of cutting-edge thinkers considering the future of the legal profession, Thompson Rivers University Law School (TRU) in Kamloops, BC hopes to offer its students an advantage in the volatile world they’ll enter as new lawyers. Lawyering in the 21st century, a third year elective course taught by Assistant Professor Katie Sykes, seems likely to do just that.

After studying law at the University of Toronto, Harvard, and Dalhousie, clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada, and working in New York for a large international law firm, Professor Sykes recognized the need to prepare students better for practice in today’s fast-changing society. The goal of Lawyering in the 21st century is to help students develop the necessary vision and skills to anticipate and adapt to change.

Professor Sykes says, “The students are at the cusp of change. They know their future in the practice of law involves uncertainties. They seem relieved to discuss the challenges they face openly, to confront them and identify the opportunities they create.”

In the course, students become partners in a fictional law firm, form teams, and plan new approaches to the practice of law. “Law Hacks”, their major assignment, requires them to find better ways to be lawyers and devise innovative ways to provide needed legal services. They then pitch their ideas to a panel of “legal Dragons”.

Professor Sykes frames the challenge she presents to her students as developing the Uber of law – figuring out how to provide the legal services people need at low cost. The TRU course includes practice in blogging, analyzing the pros and cons of alternative business structures, and using cloud-based practice management systems. It emphasizes the importance of improving service to clients at affordable costs, but within a strong ethical framework that considers the public interest.

Thompson Rivers University Law School in the Old Main Building

And the results in the course’s first year have been exciting. Last fall students’ Law Hacks projects included an online marketing board identifying the different types of legal services available in small communities, a website to connect people offering pro bono (free) legal help, and an app to reduce the time people spend waiting in courthouses.

Developed by the team of Nawel Benrabah, Sarvesh Jeet, Nikta Shirazian, Meghan Sahlstrom, Harman Bains and Houtan Sanandaji, the app is called Summons. It borrows from the buzzers some restaurants give patrons to let them know their table is ready, and from a system used in North African passport offices.

Court appearances are usually scheduled for a particular morning or afternoon. The court can’t provide a more specific time for most appearances because it is impossible to predict exactly how long each case will take. Team member Harman Bains says the app could provide lawyers, litigants, and witnesses with live updates to notify them when the court will be ready for their case. This means the people involved in a court case could remain at work rather than wait in a courthouse lobby until their case actually proceeds. The app could even calculate how long it would take a user to travel from their current location to the courthouse.

For the Summons app to function in BC, court registries’ software would need to be updated and there could be staffing implications. However, the team is still in demo stages, gathering feedback. As they demonstrate and develop the app’s possibilities they are ready and willing to adapt it to the needs of both users and court staff. Ms. Bains notes that the app could perform other functions like scheduling hearings, efiling and esignatures, and it will be made available free as part of her colleagues’ shared commitment to improve access to justice.

Whether or not the app can be put to use in BC courts, the TRU students’ creativity and problem-solving skills bode well for the future of the legal profession and their communities’ access to justice. Harman Bains adds, “One of the best things we learned from Professor Sykes is that we actually have a lot of tools to create opportunities for ourselves and improve the justice system”.