Imagine finishing a 10-hour shift and coming home to a white paper taped onto your door reading “EVICTION NOTICE” in big, black letters. It’s like a punch to the gut. You thought you were only a little behind on paying rent, and you wonder how it got to this point so fast.
According to BYU law student Stephanie Maynes Aldous (BA ’16), the entire legal process for eviction cases is costly for both sides. “It’s time-consuming and emotionally taxing.” Too often, people don’t know what to do and don’t have money for legal advice. LawX, a legal design class in the BYU Law School, decided the solution was better—and earlier—communication between tenant and landlord.
That’s the problem. “Parties weren’t working with each other until it was in court. Then, at that point, tensions were so high that it was difficult to do anything productive,” says Aldous.
Led by BYU professor Kimball Dean Parker, Aldous is working with other second- and third-year law students to develop layman-friendly legal tools to help those who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. LawX is the first of its kind—Stanford and Harvard have legal design labs, but Parker says only LawX releases products within the academic term.
Each semester, Parker and his students choose an issue, like dealing with eviction, and then get to work trying to fix it. “We pick an area of the law that’s difficult and that maybe doesn’t treat people fairly who can’t afford an attorney, and we try to even the scales,” Parker says.
So they created Hello Landlord, a website that has helped more than 300 tenants write letters proposing payment plans to their landlords when they have missed rent.
Hello Landlord did not appear overnight. It came after hours of research, design, and debate. Some classes are spent gathering data while others will involve creating surveys or brainstorming ways to contact 25 different landlords. “It’s like being in a little start-up,” says Parker.
Last year LawX students developed a tool to help with debt-collection cases. When people are sued for not paying debts, they must respond by letter to the lawsuit within a certain amount of days or else they automatically lose. Parker says the letter is not intuitive and, without a lawyer, difficult to write. Their LawX program SoloSuit helps defendants compose, review, and file the letter. To date, SoloSuit has saved tenants a total of $44,000.
Creating a free system like SoloSuit or Hello Landlord is something Parker believes could happen only in a university setting: “A business isn’t going to pay me or give me the resources to go and build a tool that has no chance of making money.”
It’s this ability to solve real-world problems in an accessible way that Parker values most. “In law school there’s a lot of talking about problems,” he says. “You can be the person who actually takes action and . . . tries to fix it.”