The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Sam Sasso

Building a legal app: What principle do you want to teach?

December 12 2016 12 December 2016


When coming up with an idea for building a legal app, the first question you should answer is what principle it is that you want to teach.

Start with the area of law you enjoy most.  Be honest.  It's okay to enjoy tax law above all others.  Personally, insurance is my favourite.

Make the principle you want to teach as personal as possible, that is make sure it's something you are going to work on for hours on end, or present to your clients or other lawyers as part of a seminar.  With any luck, you could become a go to person with respect to that principle, so make it one that you would like to be attached to for a while.

An article or book tells the reader how a legal principle works; an app has the ability to show the user how the principle works.  An app has the ability to demonstrate the principle.

Apps provide a unique way of teaching a legal principle.  Some of the benefits are:

  • Unlike an article or a book, an app can show how a legal principle works as opposed to telling how it works;
  • An app can deal with a single principle in a simple way, or multiple principles with in a complicated structure;
  • An app can jump to different formats (cases, legislation, papers, calculators) which is largely unavailable in print media; and
  • An app can show how different legal principles are intertwined.

For example, with the help of my colleague Gary Luftspring, we created a D&O Policies app to show how definitions are important in an insurance policy in general, and in an insuring agreement specifically.  The definitions are available simply by tapping them.  Due to its format, the app shows that the definitions are of great importance and should not be ignored — they are each hurdles the insured must overcome before coverage is granted.  Writing and reading about how important definitions are in a policy (as has just been done) is one thing, but having it in hand with the app and actually interacting with the policy, we hope demonstrates the principle better than we could merely by explaining it.

As another example, say you wanted to demonstrate how equalization payments work in a family law setting.  You could start with something simple like the relevant sections of the governing statute.  Of course, that's only a starting point to understanding how equalization payments work.  The definitions within that section could be shown by linking to them or having them pop up.  How that section interacts with other sections is important to understand so other sections could be linked.  What about relevant case law on point?  Easy to connect to the original section.  Relevant forms?  Again, link them.  How about a calculator which takes in the required information and estimates what the equaliztion would be: attach a calculator.  This is just a rough outline of what such an app could look like, but it should show how one could be built and how it differs from an article or book.  Wouldn't such an app be useful to clients or students?  Couldn't this type of structure be used for virtually any principle?

The interesting part of all this is that no app built to demonstrate a principle needs to look or work like any other app.  It is a tool tailored specifically for the needs of demonstrating that principle.  In that sense, an app is fundamentally different than a book or other traditional tool.  A lawyers' imagination in articulating a principle through an app can be let loose.

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Sam R. Sasso is an associate with Ricketts Harris LLP in Toronto. Sam’s practice focuses mainly on commercial litigation and insurance coverage matters. He also writes on a wide range of legal topics and frequently speaks before colleagues and students on topics such as evidence, technology and mediation strategies.

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