It started with an idea, a competition and an “I can do that” attitude.
A year-and-a-half later, an entrepreneurial-inspired legal answers website, started by Notre Dame Law School students, is preparing to go live, attracting funders and still turning heads. In a few weeks, the Fighting Irish students will travel to Austin, Texas, as one of eight finalists in the South by Southwest Student Startup Madness.
Their creation is an online platform — Impowerus — designed to connect pro bono attorneys with people who need legal services. What sets this product apart from the other sites is its focus — a specific demographic, immigrant youth — and its aim to be self-sufficient, charging lawyers licensing fees rather than relying on donations.
Katelyn Ringrose, a second-year law student, began working on Impowerus shortly after she arrived at Notre Dame in 2016.
The Californian knew from her experience teaching immigrant and refugee children that today’s teenagers live online, turning to the internet for information and to converse with teachers, social workers and friends. She also understood the challenge for these students of going to an attorney’s office — having to overcome both the task of getting there and their emotional uneasiness.
Looking around, Ringrose was surprised an alternative legal service was not available. She turned to her classmates — Veronica Canton, a 3L, and Erika Gustin, a 2L, and Carlos Cisneros Vilchis, an NDLS graduate who’s now a staff attorney at Community Activism Law Alliance in Chicago. Together, they started building a solution.
The website isn’t a class assignment or clinical work, but a project the law students are undertaking on their own time. As the initiative has grown, other students from the law school, as well as Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, have joined.
“This is something we’re really passionate about,” Ringrose said, noting while they all have full calendars, they care about immigrant youth and access to justice issues. “We only get to live once, so we might as well do as much as we can.”
Helping to empower
Impowerus seeks to remove obstacles to getting legal help.
In its presentations about the website, the Notre Dame team cites statistics showing 48,401 new juvenile immigration cases have been filed since 2016. Also, the members point to the stark disparity in that only 15 percent of the children who are unrepresented in immigration court are allowed to stay in the United States, while 73 percent of children who have attorneys obtain legal status.
The team envisions Impowerus connecting immigrant youths in real time with a pro bono attorney to ask question about a legal issue, such as a removal proceeding, obtaining a Social Security card or adjusting their status.
Ringrose acknowledged going into immigration court alone is risky. However, she said, the website will provide some tools so the teenagers can gain a little understanding of the law and better help themselves.
Based on what he has seen through his work, Cisneros Vilchis believes the site will attract immigrant minors. The younger clients coming into his office are arriving more prepared, having researched their legal matters and arriving with the necessary documents and other paperwork in hand.
He advocates that these children should have counsel assigned to them when they go into a removal proceeding because the cases are very complex and the consequences are life-altering. Still, he sees Impowerus providing assistance, especially for immigrant teens who live in a “legal desert” with few attorneys.
Canton knows the difficulty immigrants have in accessing legal services.
As a 9-year-old, she came across the Mexican border with her parents, following a human trafficker. She has since become a U.S. citizen, but her time working in a law firm before enrolling in Notre Dame emphasized the struggle immigrants endure, taking time off work and finding transportation, just to meet face-to-face with their attorneys.
To the legal profession, Impowerus touts itself as doing the “low-value work” of finding clients, which allows attorneys to devote their time and energy to advise and counsel. The caveat is that unlike other legal answers websites, this platform requires the lawyers or law firms to pay a licensing fee to have access to clients.
The pitch is that law firms will save money by paying Impowerus. Ringrose explained that firms wanting their attorneys to do pro bono work must cover the costs of travel, document retrieval, secretarial assistance and other activities required to help low-income clients.
These expenses, according to the Notre Dame team, amount to $8,500 a year per attorney. Comparatively, Impowerus provides the support services for less than $100 a month per attorney.
Tech for good
The sustainability aspect of Impowerus sets the platform apart from other legal answers websites run by nonprofits. With the licensing fees, the site will generate the money itself needed for operating and updating. It will not have to depend on grants or outside funders.
Notre Dame Law School’s Robert Jones, associate dean for experiential programs, and Veronica Root, associate professor, said the underlying business model of Impowerus reflects the change in the way law students are thinking in the post-recession world.
Specifically, students who are studying law now have a more entrepreneurial mindset and are more comfortable launching innovations on their own. The Impowerus team took a business approach after they saw law firms investing in pro bono. Rather asking firms for a favor, students are offering to help.
Using a business model was integral to Impowerus. While still an idea, the website was described at a 60-second elevator pitch competition hosted by the Medonza College of Business. It won the crowd favorite award.
The other key component to Impowerus is technology. Because the clients will be teens, the site has to be eye-catching and offer options such as video chatting with attorneys. Impowerus also will provide protection for things such as personal information that children growing up in the digital world do not always consider.
Current team members, Carol Li, 1L, and Manon Burns, 3L, were both attracted by the project’s embrace of technology. They know how technology has improved efficiency and reduced costs, but they have seen the legal industry lag in using digital tools. Impowerus, they said, is applying technology to make the practice of law better and help clients most in need.
Alex Sejdinaj, co-founder of South Bend Code Works, was also impressed by the social ideals.
The tech company helped with the development of the Impowerus prototype. Ringrose and her colleagues knew the legal issues and what they wanted the website to do, but they were not sure if their ideas were technologically possible.
Code Works built from scratch the application for the prototype. Now having secured $15,000 in funding, Impowerus is moving into the testing phase with the goal of going live in July.
“I think for us at Code Works, it was really a project that we loved working on,” Sejdinaj said, noting Impowerus is different from most platforms because it has a mission behind it. “It is using technology for the forces of good, which we’re a proponent of.”•