Stephen Manning: 'The World is Watching'

Oregon immigration attorney is named top legal innovator of 2017

Photo by: Craig Mitchelldyer

Super Lawyers online-exclusive

By Erik Lundegaard on July 10, 2017


Last month, Stephen Manning, an immigration attorney based in Portland, Oregon, was named the top legal innovator of 2017 for North America by the Financial Times for his Innovation Law Lab. The Times calls it “a platform that uses data analytics and intelligent project management tools to determine where lawyers can win immigration and refugee cases.”

Founded in 1888, the Financial Times began its Innovative Lawyers program in Europe in 2006, in the United States in 2010, and in Asia-Pacific in 2014.

Manning was the cover subject for the 2017 edition Oregon Super Lawyers. He talked with us shortly after winning the award.

How exactly does the Innovation Law Lab work?

It leverages technology and data analysis, expert legal strategy, and a network of volunteers and collaborators to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees in detention centers and hostile judicial jurisdictions across the United States. 

Where do you get the data?

We collect it passively through our use of the LawLab platform.

Is an algorithm involved to determine which cases to focus on?

We use a series of algorithms built around what we have found successful lawyers do to make immigration cases successful. We look at what lawyers have actually done in a winning case. Because they use the system, we can see what they actually do—and not just what they report or think they do. Based on that knowledge, we find patterns that emerge and apply those patterns in future cases.

Did this begin with your work at the detention camp in Artesia, New Mexico, in 2014?

Yes. The Innovation Law Lab was founded in direct response to the systematic mass incarceration and mass deportation of immigrant communities of color. We made the decision to represent every single family who came to us—a task that would be impossible if we relied on the traditional model of assigning cases out to lawyers. Instead, we broke each case into a number of tasks that could be triaged to volunteers and lawyers.

While the Artesia detention center was eventually closed, it was replaced by a new family detention center located in Dilley, Texas. The pro bono team embedded in Dilley continues to use LawLab software and processes to manage upwards of 200 cases a week. LawLab is also in use by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, which provides legal services in four adult detention centers in the south.

While it is a powerful tool for detention center pro bono projects, it can also be used outside of detention centers. The Innovation Law Lab uses LawLab to manage asylum cases represented through our four Centers of Excellence—coordinated pro bono legal efforts—anchored in Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; and Portland, Oregon.

Is this specific to immigration cases or can be it be adjusted for other practice areas?

Right now, our software and strategy is tailored towards immigration cases, but we don’t intend to stop there.

According to the Times article, “In 2016, the project advocated the release from detention of over 30,000 women and children, representing a 99 percent success rate.”

It is a pretty bold number. Before we got involved, everyone—with no real overstatement there—was detained and deported. 

The Times mentions a black-tie event. Were you there? And were you wearing a black tie?

Funny you ask. The event was very, very black-tie. More so than I was prepared for. I was wearing my best (only!) tux, new shoes, and fanciest silk tie I could afford. The New York big law crowd, though, is pretty tough. At one point during the cocktail-mingle portion, I was off at a corner table by myself, when a fellow attendee approached and remarked “I guess this is where they put the guests who forgot it was black tie.” Ouch. 

What does this award mean to you?

The award means the world is watching what is happening here. … The whole concept of what the Law Lab is doing is based on the principle that the law matters most in moments of crisis and that legal systems ought to function fairly even under stress. It takes a lot of brave people to bring that principle into existence. This year in particular we’ve seen many brave people—lawyers, advocates, volunteers, and immigrants—asserting that belief.  This award represents the work of thousands of lawyers, advocates and volunteers.

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Photo by: Craig Mitchelldyer

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