The Future is Now 2.019: How MJ Cartwright Increases Access to Justice with Technology

Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski

On May 16, 2019, the @theBar blog was invited to attend 2Civility’s The Future is Now 2.019 Conference. This article continues the series of topics discussed during the conference.

Kenny: Where do you work?

MJ: I am the CEO of Court Innovations, which makes Matterhorn. Court Innovations is based in Ann Arbor, MI.

Kenny: What does your company focus on?

MJ: We focus on increasing access to justice. It is our core focus and we specifically look for solutions that work using technology WITH people. As you know, all successful implementations require more than just technology and involved many stakeholders.

Kenny: Can you tell us a little bit more about online dispute resolution (“ODR”) and how it works?

MJ: ODR started around 5 years ago. JJ Prescott, our founder who teaches at the University of Michigan law school, came to me and wanted to know how we could work with courts to reduce the number of outstanding warrants. The emphasis was on the court system itself, and we began developing the project. Working with a few courts and technology, we first focused on traffic violation cases, since these were high volume cases in the courts. At that point, we called it online case resolution.

The terminology was developed over time since I believed that you should call a product by a name that means the most to people using it rather than what we think it should be called!

We started with the grant from the University of Michigan’s 3rd Century Fund with a proof of concept. We asked ourselves: could we build this, would courts use this? And would the court customers use it? From day one we have focused on building a scalable solution that impacts important social problems.

There are 3 main types of cases ODR falls into. The first one is criminal and traffic cases. Usually, there is some sort of law enforcement or prosecutor on one side of the case, and a violator/defendant with a citation on the other side. ODR functions as an extension of the court and to handle the case online instead of in person for potentially lesser or dismissed charges. The prosecutor or law enforcement access the case online or via agreed upon algorithms.  When stakeholders are interacting with Matterhorn, they are typically using their mobile device and this is done asynchronously. A decision on the case is made online and the appropriate court stakeholders finalize, process and communicate the decision with the defendant with notifications via text message and/or email.

Different jurisdictions have access to different kinds of information in these cases. For example, courts and prosecutors may have driving records and case history for a particular individual. This depends on what resources are available and are relevant. When a decision is made online, the system is updated, and a notice is sent to the party that received the violation. For example, they could accept a lesser offer. If there are fees and fines associated with a matter, a timeline is provided. Essentially, ODR is a platform that can facilitate the court case through closure. For a misdemeanor charge, we check that the defendant understands what the charge means and the requirements for pleas.

The second type of case for ODR is civil cases, such as small claims or landlord-tenant disputes. The plaintiff in these cases can be a landlord or bank recovering a debt. Meanwhile, the Defendant is a person charged in a civil matter. Most people tend to opt in by stating their case and what they hope to accomplish. It facilitates questions for negotiations with both parties and makes it clear what information can or cannot be shared. Through ODR, parties can go to a mediator at the beginning or end of a proceeding. However, if the negotiation or mediation fails, then litigation will escalate.

The final type of case handled by ODR is family law. It is very similar to civil. However, child support and compliance are not emphasized in the same way as civil matters, because they are ongoing.

Kenny: Where has ODR been implemented?

MJ: Matterhorn ODR has been implemented in Michigan, Ohio and just starting in IL. Matterhorn ODR is also available in Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Hawaii, and Texas. We have been working with the Manhattan court in New York as well. So far, it has been most frequently used in Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and Arkansas.

Kenny: Matterhorn is headquartered in Michigan. Do you plan on expanding it to expand to other states?

MJ: Yes, we plan on expanding within states and into other states. Our non-court customers include mediation centers and law firms that are looking to utilize online dispute resolution as a part of their negotiation and mediation services for their clients. These include mediators and attorneys working on cases.

Kenny: Based on your previous answer, it seems ODR has mostly been used in areas of the law that are straightforward to understand. Do you see ODR and Matterhorn handling more complex litigation in the future?

MJ: I think the technology could handle complex litigation. However, it depends on how people accept it fits in the courts and court processes. It’s easier to gain acceptance for it in traffic/criminal, small claims and family law matters. As we continue to look at the processes needed to open the door and resolve cases, it makes sense to ask what other types of cases the ODR can resolve. We are having more conversations about expanding the types of cases covered by the software and branching into more complex issues.

For example, copyright infringement often has large entities suing individuals. These individuals have to either pay the amount requested in the demand letter or go through the huge expense of retaining an attorney, depending on the type of case. Having a set of tools provided by ODR allows clients and lawyers to keep the costs of litigation down. This allows law firms and attorneys to save time and money and focus on their capabilities.

Kenny: What have been some of the outcomes for clients using Matterhorn?

MJ: We are measuring several types of outcomes, some of which were shown during my presentation. We look at metrics for courts, law offices, and mediation centers. In addition, we measure customer service users. 90 to 92% of end-users are satisfied using Matterhorn and would recommend it to others. Further, in courts, over 92% of cases are settled in 30 days. Matterhorn helps clear dockets much faster, which allows courts to move faster and become more efficient.

Other statistics show the power of using Matterhorn. In family court, there are 27-28% fewer hearings. Around 25% fewer warrants have been issued in criminal cases, which has an impact on law enforcement and the communities they serve. As a result, Matterhorn allows courts to have the freedom to handle serious matters, such as serious cases.

If you are interested, we have up-to-date numbers and high-level outcomes on our website You can also see webinar videos, and results for family cases and traffic warrants. Our website also has current research that we are conducting.

Kenny: During your presentation, you mentioned that you are not a practicing attorney. How do your background and problem-solving style help solve legal problems?

MJ: There are a couple advantages to not being an attorney. First, I work hand-in-hand with attorneys who know the law, so I make sure those relationships in place. I simply couldn’t do my job otherwise. But we are not working in a vacuum. Because I’m not limited to one perspective, it helps me get over barriers. I’m an engineer by training, a problem-solver. I don’t think in terms of court or legal barriers. Instead, I work with a team, check the barriers, and modify our solutions based on these barriers. My engineering background simply provides a different way of thinking and allows me to color outside the lines. The challenge is bringing it all together.

Kenny: One potential issue that ODR may bring is the Unlicensed Practice of Law. Do you have a solution to this problem?

MJ: I come from the healthcare space and have dealt with this same issue. We couldn’t practice medicine with our systems. But, in that space, we helped people help themselves with their health issues. It’s the same thing here. ODR takes care of issues with the court, outstanding obligations, and fair practices. It’s a fine line because we are typically functioning as the court. However, courts are also not allowed to practice law. Lawyers need to be involved and are involved online.

ODR is not done to the exclusion of the lawyer. Any agreement sanctioned by a court or law firm is put into place by a lawyer. As a result, we use templates provided by the appropriate parties. Our job is to leverage the things that attorneys and courts do to make sure ODR functions properly depending on the specific circumstance.

Kenny: Are ODR cases available to the public? If there are no confidentiality issues, how can people access documents filed on Matterhorn and other ODR platforms?

MJ: We tend to follow the same guidelines as our customers. If the customer is a court system, we follow those rules. When we work with mediators, conversations that take place with mediators are not available to the court, so we keep those private. If a settlement agreement is reached, that agreement may or may not be accessible depending on how the court does it without ODR.

In general, ODR cases follow the rules of the court, law practice or mediation center. Online interactions are treated in a similar way as offline interactions (usually more streamlined) and in some ways, are more secure, because of ODR’s very tight controls. Compare this to leaving confidential settlement information on a piece of paper, which could be inadvertently read by the wrong party.

Kenny: If Matterhorn plans on expanding, what role do bar associations, such as the Chicago Bar Association, have in the development and implementation of ODR?

MJ: We work with several members of bar associations. For example, we are heavily involved with various parts of the ABA’s dispute resolution chapter and have briefed them on the Matterhorn technology. One way to keep the momentum going on a growing technology is to work with bar associations.

The courts are also working with the ABA on ODR too. For example, the New York courts said we should be working more with courts and lawyers to raise understanding and awareness. That way, lawyers and bar associations will not be afraid of ODR and tech. Some people may never embrace ODR, but at the very least, they should understand what it means to their practice. I am confident that legal practices and bar associations that embrace it will only grow.

Kenny: How can young lawyers help test, develop and use ODR?

MJ: There are several ways young lawyers can help. First, they can get their law firms licensed to use ODR and work with clients to e-file cases. The attorney will then be able to assist in any disputes their clients encounter. Attorneys could also use it in private practice for mediation. Firms can also use ODR in a combined manner, for both cases with hourly rates and pro bono cases.

Second, attorneys at court-ordered mediations are in a position to help people navigate ODR. If courts have the option to conduct the dispute resolution online, lawyers can hop online with their clients and work through the formal process. By doing so, organizations, mediation centers and groups, and individuals can take advantage of this system.

About MJ:

MJ LawQuad1aMJ Cartwright is the CEO of Court Innovations. She has led the strategy and built the team to take the Matterhorn online dispute resolution (ODR) platform from an academic idea in 2014 to a platform in use by over 55 locations in 10 US states in 2019. 

Cartwright has applied her engineering and business education, her leadership and relationship-building skills in manufacturing, healthcare, and now dispute resolution. Cartwright participates in several court industry task forces and initiatives, including the IJIS Courts Advisory Committee. She speaks at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally on ODR initiatives. She has an MBA from Eastern Michigan University and a BSEE from the University of Michigan. 

Cartwright’s vision is for expanded access to justice via technology. In partnership with court and alternative dispute resolution leaders, the Matterhorn platform enables people to resolve cases “in” and “outside” court.


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