“Legal help by a community, for a community.” That’s the idea behind NetWit, a concept envisioned by a team of Richmond Law students in partnership with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. The project was part of the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy’s inaugural Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational, “an international competition for student-created tech solutions that help bridge the justice gap.”

To create a legal solution, the Richmond team had to start with a problem: Virginia legal forms are often difficult to find, and even more difficult to execute. And for self-represented litigants, who make up the vast majority of cases across civil court systems, that difficulty in access and execution creates a barrier. Under the leadership of Roger Skalbeck, Associate Dean for Library and Information Services, and Paul Birch, Computer Services Librarian, the team spent the semester developing a technology-driven solution to break down that barrier.

Originally scheduled to take place at Georgetown on April 17, the program shifted to a virtual platform as a result of the COVID pandemic. Teams were tasked with creating video presentations of their solutions as part of the first round, with subsequent rounds of questioning and presentations taking place via Zoom.

According to the team video, the idea behind NetWit is to build “on the idea that legal help should be accessible, and experts should be able to easily edit it.” So, they combined a form of shared content development with an open source website environment to create a tool that improved the way legal information is created, presented, and managed. “We wanted to open up legal information to an open-source model,” said Matthew Donovan, L’20, one of the students who developed the concept for NetWit.

In fact, he and the other team members had no prior experiencing with open source coding, but used the project as an opportunity to teach themselves. “I think that a lot of law students see the benefit of technological advances,” said Donovan. And moreover, he added, those students had a passion for the project and for the cause.

Using a hypothetical citizen trying to assert her rights in a landlord-tenant dispute as a case study, the team laid out a model for a site that would let the public learn about their rights and explore their options – all while also inviting attorneys and subject area experts to submit helpful content for potential publication.

The Richmond Law team advanced to the finals, competing with projects like Melbourne Law School’s initiative to process insurance claims for bushfire victims, and the University of Hong Kong’s platform for injured workers to access risk information and analytics, which ultimately took first place.

Along the way, said Skalbeck, those students “experienced and really got to fully understand a lot of the challenges that people face in just trying to understand legal problems.”

Congratulations to the members of the Richmond Law Team: Mohammed Albabtain, L ’21, Bicao Butterfield, L’20, Logan Butterfield, L’20, Matthew Donovan, L‘20, LeGrand Northcutt, L’20, Rohini Pandit, L‘20, and Dylan Phllips, L’21.