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Connecting Justice Communities

Q&A with Michael Mills: Legal Technology Pioneer

Posted in Pro Bono, Technology

Pro Bono Net interviewed Michael Mills, Board Member at Pro Bono Net and CEO of Neota Logic.  Michael was an early supporter of Pro Bono Net, and he remains an active member of the Board of Directors and a strong advocate for the work Pro Bono Net is doing to improve access to justice through innovative uses of technology.

How did you come to co-found Neota Logic?

Since I stopped practicing law 22 years ago, I have devoted my career to applying technology to improve the practice of law.  That was the focus of my work at Davis Polk as chief knowledge officer and co-head of technology, and continued in my consulting practice at Kraft Kennedy. And it’s what brought me to found Neota Logic with friends in 2010. What we do at Neota Logic is the absolute leading edge of technology in law practice.

How did you develop an interest in legal technology?

As an undergraduate, I learned to program for the simple reason that the pay was better than washing dishes. It turned out to be more fun too, and indeed more fun than most of my coursework. After law school, I clerked in a US district court, then went to Davis Polk as an associate, and eventually to Mayer Brown as a partner.  At Mayer Brown I was founding chairman of the technology committee. After practicing law for 15 years, I thought it time for a second career, and returned to Davis Polk as Director of Professional Services & Systems.

Law firms are filled with very smart, very busy people doing (mostly) very complex work. Technology can reduce friction, create leverage (in the Archimedean sense) and improve quality, ultimately improving service to clients.

How and why did you get involved at Pro Bono Net?

Mark O’Brien was a colleague at Davis Polk [where he ran the firm’s pro bono program from 1991-2000], and I gave him and [co-founder] Michael Hertz some help getting started and then they invited me to join the board. It seemed to me that Pro Bono Net was aiming to do for the public interest legal world what I and my counterparts in other firms were aiming to do for lawyers in private practice – improve the quality and quantity of service that lawyers can deliver to clients.

Looking back at your time with Pro Bono Net, what have been some of the highlights of working with our organization?

From the beginning Pro Bono Net has had a broad vision of how technology can improve access to justice. We started in New York City with the service for lawyers in private practice doing (or wanting to do) pro bono work. Then, in partnership with many, many organizations, we replicated probono.net across the country. Next, again in partnership with other organizations, we built the LawHelp service for consumers, and replicated that. Since then LawHelp has been extended with document assembly as LawHelp Interactive. The success of these projects shows that technology, when effectively designed and used, truly can improve access to justice.

Pro Bono Net’s vision has remained the same, but the scope of our work has steadily increased.

Can you tell me a little more about Neota Logic?

Technically, we offer an expert systems development and delivery platform, which enables people who are not programmers (lawyers, even) to build very subtle and complex expert systems.  What we do is enable people who are experts on a topic to package what they know interactively so it can be used by tens of thousands. There are demonstrations on our web site.

How did Neota Logic get involved with the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition at Georgetown Law School?

We had been working with David Johnson, a visiting professor of law at New York Law School and pioneer in legal technology, who introduced us to Georgetown Law Professor Tanina Rostain. We worked with Tanina to develop a curriculum for a spring semester seminar in which the students, instead of writing papers, used the Neota Logic System to build applications that deliver online answers to real-world legal questions. We plan to repeat the program at Georgetown next year, and hope to replicate it at other law schools. [For more information about the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition, see coverage in the National Law Journal and Nightly Business Report.]

What were some of the outcomes of this project?

The students built realistic applications, enjoyed the work, and learned a lot. As Professor Rostain said to me, building expert systems is a great pedagogical tool. Students have to learn the law (in a decision tree, one can’t blur or obfuscate answers as one can in a memo), learn to think from the client’s perspective (what does the client want the app to do?), and learn to write about legal topics in plain English (real people aren’t as patient as law professors).

Any last words on Pro Bono Net?

The challenge for Pro Bono Net is that the gap between demand and supply for legal services is bigger than ever.  Bigger than when we started 10 years ago. Think of the foreclosure crisis. Think of the funding shortfall in court systems, forcing some courts to close a day a week. There is no prospect that the number of lawyers working pro bono will multiply miraculously. Or that rich funding for legal aid will start growing on the Congressional budget tree. Creative use of technology is the only way to close that gap, and Pro Bono Net is at the center of the community of people thinking about how.