(Photo of Stacy Butler by Bob Torrez/ABA Journal)
When Stacy Butler, the director of the Innovation for Justice Program, is asked if she will ever practice law again, she doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“No,” Butler says. “I had very few years in private practice. It was adversarial and antagonistic. It didn’t feed my soul.”
Butler has since found her calling in the i4J program, through which she satisfies her passion to open up the justice system to more Americans. “Even in law school, I was interested in the legal needs of the low-income community and looking at service models and systems and trying to understand the justice gap,” says Butler, a third-generation Tucsonan who got her JD at University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.
The i4J program, which is housed at the University of Arizona law school and the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business, celebrates its fifth anniversary in February. It is an incubator-style social justice innovation lab made up of teams of law school students and professors. In the lab, Butler has helped develop platforms and services to deal with common legal problems, including eviction, medical debt collection and online dispute resolution.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Butler, 45, has mostly taught remotely from inside her Tucson home, which she shares with her daughter Izzy, 16; son Augy, 13; as well as their two parakeets, Ozzie and Rio; and three dogs, Max, Blue and Smush.
“At any one time, she is running in a million different directions with a million different projects but is totally put together,” observes lawyer and former Utah Supreme Court Justice Constandinos “Deno” Himonas, a past Legal Rebel (“Courting Change,” February-March 2021). He worked with Butler as i4J evaluated the state court’s online dispute resolution platform, which allows remote hearings to resolve debt collection cases. Himonas says he is impressed by Butler’s logical approach, her mental dexterity and how she is “driven to her cause.”
Before she launched i4J, Butler spearheaded an initiative in the Arizona federal court for people who represent themselves, helping create volunteer legal service clinics and online resources and training for litigants, judges and court staff.
Butler has been involved in several projects at i4J over the years to improve the lives of people navigating the justice system. But she is keen to highlight i4J’s licensed legal advocate program. Launched in partnership with the Arizona Supreme Court and Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse, the pilot takes advantage of Arizona’s relaxed regulations on the use of nonlawyers to train and license domestic violence advocates. After the training, advocates can provide limited legal advice to people who are seeking protective orders; or child or spousal support; or resolving disputes over the division of property or debt.
In addition to creating new legal service models, i4J also focuses on building technologies to help close the justice gap. Butler says she isn’t techy. She credits Sarah Mauet, UX4Justice director and professor of practice, for handling the user experience and technology sides of the lab.
“I think we make a great team because we bring different skill sets to the work,” says Butler, who applies her expertise on access to justice and legal innovation to the project.
Despite the demands of her job, Butler still finds time to watch television with her kids (the mystery show Only Murders in the Building is a recent family favorite).
“My kids love to make jokes: ‘We know you’re busy innovating for justice, but can you take a break, and can we all watch a movie?’” Butler says.
Sonja Ebron and Debra Slone of Courtroom5
Uzoma Orchingwa and Gabriel Saruhashi of Ameelio