UNIVERSITY school of law

Profiles in Civic Innovation is our series capturing the stories of creative and visionary leaders that are implementing grass-roots efforts at the forefront of the government innovation landscape.  In this edition read about Dan Jackson and Jules Sievert, leaders of the NuLawLab, an interdisciplinary innovation laboratory at Northeastern University that undertakes applied design projects, including the development of the NuLawMaps platform, and other emerging technologies. This profile explores their vision for imagining, designing, testing, and implementing pioneering approaches to legal empowerment for communities across the globe and the role that student innovators are playing to drive this mission forward.  

How did Northeastern Law School identify the opportunity for innovation and the importance of integrating that into a legal curriculum? DJ: In 2008 or 2009, just after the financial disaster in the United States, legal education saw a period of declining enrollments, which created a significant budget crisis across legal education. Martha Davis, at the time, served as associate dean for experiential learning and proposed the development of a laboratory that would allow the law school to have a research and development arm that would position the law school for innovative ways to differentiate itself in the legal education market. The lab would also provide a path to exploring innovative technologies and approaches, and provide new ways of delivering legal services information and education. Following that, additional research was done by Pat Voorhies regarding design thinking and product design principles. A very generous alumna donor decided to fund two years to facilitate the lab as a start-up organization within Northeastern and it came into existence. The creation of the lab was borne from a desire on Martha’s part to explore the laboratory model in legal education that would introduce law students and lawyers to human centered design principles as a way of generating innovation. Around the same time Northeastern also convened the Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law, a convening around experiential learning and practice-based learning that further spurred the development of the laboratory.  JS: A critical element behind the model for this lab is the fact that we live in a complex society and law alone can’t come up with solutions to many challenges or problems. The vision was to have a collaborative space within the law school that would bring in other disciplines – artists, designers, architects – to the table to have conversations in this design thinking framework. DJ:  By pairing me and Jules as the first staff members there was a deliberate choice to create an interdisciplinary laboratory – a lab that was really creating a "third space" between law and creative arts.

Once the idea for the NuLawLab was conceived, how did you both come together from different disciplines to begin developing and integrating the lab into the law school curriculum?   DJ: We got here two years ago and looked across the room, thinking I’m a lawyer and she’s an artist and we first had to learn each other’s discipline. JS:  In addition to learning each other’s discipline, we also had to articulate the mission and vision of the lab to fulfill the promise of an interdisciplinary laboratory. I studied the social and public practice of art where you focus on what it means when an artist becomes embedded within a community and works within that community to come up with a creative solution to a particular issue. It also asks - how can art and design be used for change that needs to happen? The end result could take the form in sculpture, it could be a data-driven solution, technology, it could be maps or story-telling… you’re working in collaboration with the community to come up with a solution. It’s very much like urban mechanics. 

How did advisors and outside stakeholders play a role in the first year of your effort to create the NuLawLab? DJ: In the first year part of the charge was "find yourselves" – we were building the airplane while we were flying it, and we had a fantastic advisory board put together for us that helped guide that, as well as great faculty and staff directors. A key source of guidance came from a real change agent who served as our first faculty director - he was the experiential learning dean at the time we started and provided a constant stream of creativity for us to build on. He and others helped us create a lab whose core strength came from the fact that it was interdisciplinary.

How have students been involved in the growth and development of the lab? DJ: Right off the bat, I was very aggressive about finding students to engage with us. We both feel very strongly about that and draw tremendous inspiration from our students, it’s one of the best parts of our job. Within three months of our founding we had our first student-engaged project - a collaboration with Marisa Jahn’s Studio REV- in New York, the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Brazilian Workers Center to design the prototype for a domestic worker application which was going to educate domestic workers about their legal rights. JS: The students became directly involved in all the design work with the artist hub, the domestic workers, and they participated in rounds of co-design sessions in communities to draft different ideas. DJ: Since then we’ve had two offerings of our laboratory seminar in applied design and legal empowerment. Students have also had an opportunity to engage in our product work with the development of our mobile application for women veterans. In the summer quarter we also offered a three week intensive – the first two days provided an introduction to design principles, prototyping and brainstorming; the second week provided an introduction to technology tools and the concept of designing and testing prototypes, and then the presentation of the final prototype occurred.  

Tell me a bit  more about the coursework component. JS: The students have an opportunity to be introduced to the lab through that course, and perhaps engage in broader work with the lab via other projects. Some students have participated in a data capture where they use our mapping platform (NuLawMaps) and in those efforts they focus on how data is used, how to visualize data, how to tell stories with data, and how those stories can build out our public narrative to create the change that may be needed within communities.  We work with law students, but we also have engaged game design students, and art and design students from other institutions who want to understand how lawyers can work as change-makers within communities. 

What role do communities play – do you engage with them as you go about these projects? JS: We have been engaging directly with communities for two years. It’s really critical to the work that we do. Our law school has a legacy of working within that model. DJ: It’s central to our identity that we want to collaborate with communities in ways that deeply embeds them in our work. We take an approach with community engagement that is not lawyer-client focused, but is “service designed” focused. To do that we observe, listen, and respect the community to learn what the community needs so we can develop something that will solve a problem. One of the more remarkable things we’re seeing is community ownership. In Connecticut, for example, we're working with the New Haven Legal Assistance organization, Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, and Northeastern's Playable Innovative Technologies Lab to create an online game for self-represented parties to gain advocacy and experience before they head to court for real. What we're developing is an online simulation for people who want to represent themselves in court.  In that project, the community of staffers have been the number one owners of the project and contributors of great ideas to the project. Their input and involvement in co-design sessions took this project further than any one of us could alone.

"Students at NuLawLab often engage in extensive iteration, prototyping, and testing through the design and development process with tactile materials in an eco-system that supports innovation." Jules Sievert 

"Students at NuLawLab often engage in extensive iteration, prototyping, and testing through the design and development process with tactile materials in an eco-system that supports innovation." Jules Sievert 

Tell us about a few upcoming projects? DJ: In our game design project, we’re working with other law schools to design a module for use in professional responsibility courses where gaming will be used to advance student learning outcomes in professional ethics. We’re also working on launching a program with Margaret Burnham’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) to create a digital tool-kit for communities to engage in restorative justice investigations and memorialization within their communities. CRRJ takes law students, teaches them about the civil rights movement, teaches them about the Jim Crow era, and takes them into communities in the south to investigate cold cases and reclaim the stories for those families before the last people who remember the events themselves are gone. JS: We understand that sometimes the method is community driven, other times it’s deeply personal and dependent on the family member. But the public facing digital platform could play a role in restoring a public narrative in the context of restorative justice. DJ: The Yawkey Bike Club project is another example of a project we’re developing.  It will give youth in Dudley Square access to our mapping platform so that they can advocate for more resources at City Hall. We’re also going to teach the kids how to map so they get some technology training.  JS: The kids will not only learn how to map, they’ll also learn how to produce their own data-sets. It’ll also give us the opportunity to see how data from a community of youth takes form, and how it’s different than the types of data adults would identify.

What areas are you looking to grow in the year ahead and how can someone support your work or become involved? DJ: We are looking for ways to grow the game module, and other parts of the lab. With funding comes capacity, and we’re always looking to grow our funding. For example, we want to do a mobile lab: a vehicle that can take the law to actual communities, open up the doors and set up tables for elders, for example, who can’t leave their apartments to come to a law clinic. JS: We’re actively looking to build an infrastructure that can support that idea, likely via a grant application, or via outside funders. We would look at this as a mobile law clinic, but working within the methodology of our lab. We would be working really closely with community organizers and centers as well, and looking at different types of service delivery. DJ: We also welcome and draw students from anywhere and everywhere that have the interest, and bring diverse backgrounds. Our message to them is that we are not going to erase who you are and teach you how to think like a lawyer – we’re going to supplement who you are with legal training so that you can be even more of a change agent than you are right now.  

About Dan Jackson. Dan is a 1997 graduate of Northeastern Law, where he now directs the NuLawLab. Following a federal appellate clerkship, Dan joined the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, ultimately serving as the firm’s director of attorney development and director of training. Prior to law school, Dan worked as a designer for theater. He continues to play in that space, most recently with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and The Provincetown Theater.  To contact Dan or learn more about the NuLawLab visit


About Jules Sievert. Jules is the Creative Director at NuLawLab. She has developed key institutional and community partnerships and programs for the lab. Jules is also the Project Director and Manager of Social Design Collective (LLC) and she is the founder of a collective known as the Social Practices Art Network. She utilizes the following creative strategies: applied design, collaborative practices, public art, public pedagogies, civic engagement, social justice, participatory media, social media, GIS mapping, data collection, research, social media and storytelling. She has 15 years of experience in leadership, team building and project management. To reach Jules or learn more about the NuLawLab visit