Interview with Alice Armitage, UC Hastings Professor of Innovation

Each month, we sit down with one of our heroes from the world of legal tech. This time, it's Alice Armitage, Silicon Valley-based Professor of legal innovation.

Alice broke away from the law after years as an international tax lawyer, and today spearheads innovative legal education in her roles as Professor and Director of Applied Innovation at UC Hastings College of the Law, and as Chief Executive Professor of UC Hastings’ innovation hub for legal tech startups, LexLab.

We were lucky enough to sit down with her to find out more.

Tell us about your previous careers and your colourful path to UC Hastings! 

It has been an interesting journey! I started out as a tax lawyer, going from a good law school [Yale Law School] to working in a big firm [Arnold & Porter] and later at the Department of Treasury.

I quit cold turkey to become a mom. And boy, that was hard and humbling in many ways. It took me 2 years before I didn’t answer “well, I was a lawyer” when people asked me what I do. It was tough but, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

 

It forced me to get out of the mindset that many lawyers have. It led me to start companies, which I wouldn’t have known I wanted. It’s also taken me to where I am today. I was first hired to grow the Startup Legal Garage, a program that provides startups with free legal resources.

Being so close to early-stage startups based in the Bay Area and New York, I became aware of legal technology quite early on and I thought it had a lot of potential in the legal profession.

So I’ve taught, worked at a big firm, been part of the legal tech startup world. It’s been an unusual and serendipitous match, and I’d never imagined it would all come together this way.

Tell us about your role as Chief Executive Professor at LexLab!

The role I play is dubbed Chief Executive Professor and a lot of it is outreach-based, whether finding startups for our legal tech accelerator, or connecting our students to the industry and new ideas through our events and education courses.

We hold events weekly on cutting edge topics, open to the public. This week we’re hosting one on Deep Fakes with a speaker from Google, from the DeepTrust Alliance, and several others immersed in the content moderation debate, just in time for the (U.S.) election. We also develop courses in legal technology: I’ve created three courses, and I’m hoping to develop a dedicated concentration or major in law and technology.

“Law schools are adding legal tech into their curriculum. Eventually students will demand it ... it will bring legal education to a point where it matches the skills today's lawyers need.”
– Alice Armitage, UC Hastings Professor and Director of Applied Innovation

Because we’re in San Francisco, it’s really exciting that we can draw on experts who work as Product Counsel at top startups — Waymo, Facebook and Strava to name a few — to teach the students. For the most part, professors don’t know about a lot of these things. But our students need to know, because that’s what they’ll deal with when they get out of school.

How important is legal tech to law students?

It’s so important that law schools give students exposure to legal technology because the legal profession as a whole is very innovation and technology resistant. We inculcate this in the legal profession through law schools because legal education is primarily still based on principles from the early 1900s. Legal education, as it’s taught these days, frustrates me.

LexLab works with early-stage legal tech startups

LexLab works with early-stage legal tech startups

Law schools like UC Hastings are adding legal tech into their curriculum. Eventually students will demand it. It’s slow but important, as it will bring legal education to a point where it matches the skills today’s lawyers need.

What’s the biggest opportunity in legal education?

A growing area of practice in the US is legal operations. We’re currently developing a legal operations course which we hope will be available in January next year.

Opportunities are going to increase for lawyers who have more skills than traditional legal skills. What it requires is for lawyers to really understand the business side, either because they work in-house or because they are a private firm but the clients are in-house. So, they have to justify what they charge and how they’re doing things. They’re much more aware of what their clients need.

It’s a new area to teach, and frankly, a great area for students to get into because it’s growing like crazy.

What excites and frustrates you the most about legal tech?

It’s exciting how technology will make the practice of law much more substantive. You’ll be able to focus on the nuanced difference in a contract or in litigation in a way that we don’t today. Today, we read documents for years and spend endless amounts of time re-writing contracts that we’ve probably dealt with a hundred times before.

“Technology will change access to justice. By automating things and making law more user-friendly, we will be able to change the fact that 85% of the world does not have access to legal services.”
– Alice Armitage, UC Hastings Professor and Director of Applied Innovation

Resistance to change frustrates me the most. Practising law has got a lot of tedious components to it. And yes, that’s how you learn as an Associate, but it’s very costly and not a very efficient way to learn.

Even more than that, technology will change access to justice. By automating things and making law more user-friendly, we will be able to change the fact that 85% of the world does not have access to legal services.

What did you think of the recent class Josef ran at UC Hastings?

It’s very exciting, and I think there should be more of it!

“By the end of the class with Josef, my students created a chat bot. The students loved it ... they were saying, 'oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that!'”
– Alice Armitage, UC Hastings Professor and Director of Applied Innovation

By the end of the class with Josef, my students created a chat bot. The students loved it. They sent me emails about how great it was. While I have one or two students who are programmers, most of them have no computer science or engineering background, and they were saying, “oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that!” 

I’m finally, actually doing what I’ve tried to do all this time, which is to introduce students to technology, get them more comfortable with it, and to understand the benefits of it. 

I’m looking forward to the ‘Hack Homelessness’ hackathon, where my students will get a lot more time to work with Josef.

We’re looking forward to that too! For our readers, can you give a bit more background on how that came about? 

I created a class last year, built around the idea of having a week-long hackathon instead of an exam. Because UC Hastings is a standalone law school, we don’t have a business or engineering school, so a key idea of the course is to teach students how to collaborate with students from other disciplines. So it’s a great way to get people from different backgrounds to understand the problem of homelessness and how to find a solution to ‘hack’ homelessness.  

Not only did my students tell me last year that it was an amazing experience, but I had engineers come by and say “I have been in so many hackathons, but this has been, by far, the most meaningful.”

Final words?

I suppose my epitaph would say ‘I like change’.

I’m always looking for new things. That’s probably why I’m an outlier in the legal profession and legal academia.