DU Law Students, Professor Honored for App to Help Unhoused Young People Navigate Legal World
Being recognized for hard work is great, but the human connections often mean more.
For law student Jason Roberts and alumna Veronica Torok (JD ’22), the pinnacle of their time working on Street Law Navigator — an app to connect unhoused teens and young adults to pertinent legal information — wasn’t when they won second place this spring at the Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational. It was when the app finally landed in the hands of two former self-styled “street kids,” Chuck and Helen, who provided guidance and feedback through the development process.
“The reaction was more positive than Jason or I anticipated,” says Torok, a former Sturm Law Scholar. “The app was extremely helpful. I felt proud sitting down, going through the app with them and seeing them share it with their friends.”
Street Law Navigator was developed as part of the Law & Innovation Lab at the Sturm College of Law. University of Denver professor Lois Lupica directed the project, including guiding the students through the competition process.
The Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational is sponsored by the Georgetown University Law Center and draws students from some of the world’s top law schools. Past winners have included groups from Hong Kong and Canada, while competitors in this year’s invitational came from as far away as Singapore and Australia. The competition started in 2018 as an extension of Georgetown’s internal program where the school’s law students develop apps for pro bono organizational clients. This year, with the event curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts and Torok presented the app remotely to a panel of judges.
Before the 2021 fall semester, Lupica connected with local nonprofits to learn more about their operations and unmet needs. Five of those were addressed by apps created especially for the tasks at hand. Among the nonprofits was Dry Bones, a faith-based group focused on meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of unhoused youth and young adults in Denver. Staff at Dry Bones often felt ill-equipped to address the legal questions facing their clientele —everything from jurisdiction issues to interactions with police.
This app gives them a resource to use.
“We solved some major problems through creativity, through going through the human-centered design process and understanding the product development process,” Lupica says. “Students going out into the field on a regular basis to initially talk to the ultimate users, then coming up with a draft and testing their products. To me, it’s really exciting to see how legal knowledge, learned technical knowledge and the building of outside tech tools — all of that can be used to solve real-world problems for folks who can’t afford lawyers.”
For the team at DU, the development process started with getting to know Dry Bones. That meant meeting with director Robbie Goldman, staff members and, mostly important, the young people for whom the app was made.
“We wanted to get a feel for what the needs were for the homeless youth community in Denver,” Roberts says. “What their interactions were with the legal system and in what ways we could possibly make that better.”
The app was developed on a platform from Neota — a technology-solutions company based in New York — and the team stretched the limits of the platform’s capabilities. When it came to ensuring that the app is both engaging and accessible, Lupica says her students “hit it out of the park.”
Torok says the platform is excellent for forms, creating documents and flexibility of application, but it doesn’t excel when it comes to the striking visuals needed to engage teenagers.
With ample work and help from Neota, the team was able to add video, sound, definitions and other markers to help with accessibility and connect with the target demographic.
Lupica thinks back to the night before the DU competition — judged by, among others: Dean Bruce Smith, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart, and Kathyrn DeBord, formerly the chief innovation officer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner — and what stands out is the sheer quality of the projects produced by her students.
“I had to sign off on every app and presentation just to confirm that everybody was ready,” Lupica says. “I was looking at each of the projects and thought, ‘Wow, they did it.’ These are beautiful, thoughtful, well-designed, well-developed, user-sensitive technology tools that will help real people’s lives.”