Attorney Sam Owens has had a mission to develop and integrate technology that optimizes direct access to justice. His new endeavor – called Equalyzr – is helping to make it easier for people to challenge unlawful discrimination by acclimating them to the mechanics of filing a formal complaint.
“A legal claim is more focused on individual justice; I’m hoping that this type of system can facilitate more good community-level or macro-level justice outcomes,” Owens tells Madison365 in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s east side. “I don’t think there’s ever been anything done like this in the Madison area.”
Owens, founder and managing attorney of Owens & Freeman LLC, is an experienced advisor on federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws. His law practice focuses on securing justice and financial compensation for individuals and groups harmed by discriminatory practices.
Earlier this month, Owens launched Equalyzr.com, a web app that helps people become fluent at identifying and reporting unlawful discrimination by allowing them to record in real time the facts and the more pertinent data that they would then be able to use to take down and file a formal complaint.
“This system is not a substitute for actually going down to the respective government agencies and filing a formal complaint,” Owens warns. “That will be what protects your interests and allows you to pursue legal relief.”
Equalyzr makes sure that all of the critical facts are gathered. “We cover three main areas of discrimination that I think have the most impact on the socioeconomic standing of individuals and families – that would be employment, housing, and public accommodations,” Owens says.
Equalyzr strips down the legalese to make it easy for everyday people to easily hop on their mobile devices and use. “If you begin to feel that you’re not being treated equally or you’re not getting the full enjoyment of the services in the business, I want people to be able to record that data so we can build that database to figure out how to best mobilize or strategize on how to prevent this,” Owens says. “And if we need to remedy it, how do we best remedy it?”
Does Equalyzr have Spanish translation capabilities?
“Right now, I’m a one-person shop so I’ve had to navigate through a series of challenges and have built this out lean with just English capabilities,” Owens says. “But I have reached out to some folks who have told me that if and when I am ready, they can help translate this to Spanish and other languages. That’s something I definitely hope that we can scale up in the very near future.”
Owens just went live with Equalyzr earlier this month and did his first public demonstration and community forum Tuesday night at DreamBank downtown. “People are really energetic around the idea. It’s still fairly new so there are a lot of questions about the functionality and the portability of the data,” he says. “I believe that we did a good job of responding to the questions. And as any good entrepreneur or service provider should do, we’re taking all of that feedback in and trying to figure out how we can upgrade it for the next offering that we will present.”
Owens likes to think that, ultimately, Equalyzr is “democratizing access to justice.” Owens won’t take credit for the phrase but he will take credit for the idea of developing a web app to help with legal recognition and executing it.
“A lot of the concepts behind what I’m doing in terms of disrupting the legal industry and making information and self-advocacy more accessible to individuals so that they don’t necessarily always need to rely on an attorney to take care of the more mechanical functions – that was something that was very much inspired by a book that I read called ‘The End of Lawyers,'” Owens says.
“The End of Lawyers” by Richard Susskind is about how technology and globalization transforms everything that we do in terms of business and interpersonal interaction and what that means for the evolution of the law profession. “The way that I interpreted that was: Just like anybody who provides a service from crisis management to helping households … if you are doing it for the proper reasons, from my perspective, you are doing it to try and get people to avoid having to be in situations to where they then have to do the curative things,” Owens says. “Because the curative things take forever. Especially if you are analyzing it from the perspective of someone who is short on financial resources or at risk of being removed from housing. My idea of how we should be evolving as a profession is getting the tools in the hands of people who can advocate for themselves.”
The app is also for employers, landlords, business owners to look at and check how they have been making their own decisions so they know that they aren’t violating someone’s civil rights. “I want to begin to avoid legal problems even arising and, inevitably, when there are situations that can’t be avoided, that’s when it becomes critical to engage the legal process and legal assistance, if necessary,” Owens says.
Earlier on, Owens knew that he would be using his lawyering skills to advocate for civil rights and social justice.
“It’s been with me as long as I knew that I wanted to pursue law as a career or profession,” he says. “I think, for me, that idea was solidified during my college years in terms of the investments and development work that I wanted to engage in and the causes I wanted to further. The idea of social justice is what prompted me to apply to law school.”
“I don’t ever want to bring lawsuits just for the sake of bringing lawsuits … and those opportunities will arise. For me, the end goal is to figure out how we economically stabilize families, how do we protect people’s dignities so they can fully enjoy everything these cities have to offer. As much as we can avoid these issues, that’s my preference. And then we will litigate the things we can litigate.”
Originally from Chicago and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Owens came to Madison to go to UW-Madison Law School. He says that he’s always tried to be entrepreneurial in the field of law while also trying to make sure that more people are being brought into the fold and finding value in working with an attorney. “I think there’s a certain amount of P.R.[public relations] cleansing that the profession needs to go through in terms of how people perceive what we do and the trust level we have in working with attorneys,” Owens says. “That’s something I do want to take on. We need to have accountability for making sure that we’re not creating a new generation of people who are distrustful of legal service providers and legal processes.
“I don’t ever want to bring lawsuits just for the sake of bringing lawsuits … and those opportunities will arise,” he adds. “For me, the end goal is to figure out how we economically stabilize families, how do we protect people’s dignities so they can fully enjoy everything that these cities they live in have to offer. As much as we can avoid these issues, that’s my preference. And then we will litigate the things we can litigate.”
With Equalyzr, he wants to keep improving the user experience and make it a more valuable tool for people. “My short-term goal is just to get people to explore it,” Owens says. “This is a potentially very powerful tool – how do we best employ it so it has the maximum impact? I hope that people’s exploration will help spark the desire to learn more about what’s proper and what’s improper in terms of making decisions on job opportunities, housing opportunities and customer service experience.”
A next-generation civil rights lawyer who is inspired by technology, innovation and big ideas, Owens has longer-term goals in mind, too. He hopes that people will use Equalyzr to record things in real time as a mechanism to build a database. “Hopefully, we can build it to a point where we can begin to map out and know where these complaints are arising from so we can begin to do interventions that are not possible through the legal process,” Owens says. “Hopefully it can help move our community towards a more equitable and more fair status in a way that the legal process can’t provide or would take so much longer to do.”