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Connecting Justice Communities

Speaking with the Master Part Three: Standing up for the Self-Represented

Posted in Courts, Legal Services, Pro Bono, Technology

The origin story of the Self-Represented Litigants Network got me thinking about we can do today to assist pro se litigants. I asked Richard what changes would have the largest impact and he immediately identified three areas: simplification, triage, and universal access.

Beginning with simplification, Richard pointed out that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were written in the 1930s (or as he starkly put it – “before computers, but also before photocopiers and ballpoint pens!”). Most view the rules as apolitical or simply a structure to promote efficiency, but they produce definite winners and losers. For example, easy enforcement rules benefit the smaller and always-represented creditor class at the expense of the larger, often pro se debtor class. Thus, the rules have powerful effects on results and rule changes are fundamentally an access to justice project and a fundamental part of the ATJ movement.

The case for better triage is simple: effective resource utilization requires effective resource allocation. As Richard says, we will not have 100% access to justice until there is a system that effectively gets resources to those who need them, especially unrepresented litigants who need counsel or self-help resources. A more rational and efficient system does not mean one that is 100% fair, but rather one that is better than the status quo. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good – the fact that we cannot create a completely fair triage system is not an impediment to developing better and more equitable systems.

Richard’s final point is a crucial, and oft under-reported, one: the ATJ movement must be about 100% access to justice for all, not about 100% access to justice for a subset of the population. About 20% of Americans qualify for free legal assistance (though only 4% are able to access it), but that leaves a wide swath of people that cannot afford legal representation and must appear pro se. The movement has to help these people as well. Richard stressed that technology can help address this gap. Legal tech is often developed via funding for low-income assistance, but the completed technology can then be deployed to help everyone. There is no marginal cost to extending technology beyond the low-income population to the middle class and, thus, it can be leveraged to make dramatic differences in the lives of millions of Americans who represent themselves in court every year.

So ends this post, but come back next week for the Episode VI of our series which will cover Richard’s thoughts on the successes, failures, and future of the Access to Justice Movement.

EJW Guest Post: Don’t Delay: Apply to AmeriCorps JD and Receive Funding for Your Service NOW!

Posted in Legal Services, Military/Veterans, Pro Bono

We are pleased to highlight Equal Justice Works’ campaign to recruit applicants for the AmeriCorps JD program. A guest post with application instructions (apply by May 2nd!) and a brief description of the program is below, along with a testimonial from L.G Corder, a US Army Veteran and Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow.

Law students: are you interested in public interest opportunity this summer where you can make a real impact in the lives of our nation’s Veterans?

Equal Justice Works’ program, AmeriCorps JD, is looking for law students to provide legal service to Veterans. Eligible law students must dedicate 300 hours of service to a qualifying legal project with legal aid organizations, Veterans’ law clinics, Veterans Treatment Courts, and state or local government agencies. The deadline for applications is May 2nd, and the 300 hours of service must be completed by Aug. 31, 2014.

You may be asking, how can I give back to Veterans as an AmeriCorps JD member? Well here’s a special video message from L.G. Corder, a US Army veteran who is currently in his second year of his Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship and provides legal services to low-income veterans:

If you’re inspired by LG’s story, and want to become a AmeriCorps JD member, don’t delay in applying today!

To be eligible, you must be currently enrolled in law school at the time your service begins, agree to criminal background checks, not receive more than $4,300 in outside funding for their project, and not have served more than three previous terms as an AmeriCorps member.

Complete an application in the Student Application Manager (SAM) by May 2nd! A step-by- step guide can be found on the AmeriCorps JD application page.

Have questions? Feel free to contact Anna Cupito or Lynn Feldmann, the program coordinators of AmeriCorps JD!

Assistant District Attorney Advances Career with an MPA Online from UNC-Chapel Hill

Posted in Technology

We are pleased to present this guest post from our corporate sponsor 2U. “2U partners with top tier colleges and universities to create the world’s best online programs” including the MPA@UNC, which is highlighted below and may be of particular interest to lawyers.

An Assistant District Attorney with six years of experience as a prosecutor, Mike Silver was ready to take his career to the next level. Although his law degree prepared him for the courtroom, it did not give him the multidimensional skills he needed to become an effective manager and leader within his community. By enrolling in MPA@UNC, an online Master of Public Administration program at the UNC School of Government, Silver gained strategic skills from leading experts in the field.

Mike Silver, Assistant District Attorney and MPA@UNC student.

Here, Silver discusses his motivations for earning a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree and the real-time benefits he’s experienced in his career so far.

Why earn an MPA degree?

As an attorney, people often assume that you have a skill set that you don’t actually possess. People often give promotions simply because you’ve done well in the courtroom, but doing well in the courtroom does not translate into being an effective leader or manager. MPA@UNC gave me a chance to learn many of the skills that a lot of people think I have, but I didn’t actually possess coming out of law school.

What was it about MPA@UNC that most appealed to you?

I’ve been a prosecutor for six years now, and I’ve acquired significant responsibility and a mortgage. I wasn’t interested in quitting my job and moving out of my home to go back to school fulltime. I was looking for a program that would give me the flexibility to continue my job, which I really care about and am passionate about, and still gain the education and skills that would make me a better leader within my office.

What did you look for in an MPA program?

If you work in public interest, or if you do public interest law like I do, everyone knows that the UNC School of Government is the premier institution, not just in our state, but nationwide. I wanted to be taught by all the scholars from all the books we read and the publications they produce. Also, it’s good to have that name brand to say, “I was taught by these professors, and I’m affiliated with the UNC School of Government.” And so when I was looking at schools, I wanted to have the credibility of the Carolina name and the Carolina brand. That really made the difference for me.

How much have you been able to take from what you’ve learned?

Every single class I’ve taken has been immediately useful in my field of work. For example, as a result of my communication class, my press releases have significantly improved. I did an interview with the news, and the first thing I did was send a link to my professor saying, “Hey, I was in the news, check out this link.” She responded, “Yes! You nailed it, and you used the strategies we talk about.”

How I manage people has also changed, and I’ve heard that my management style has improved. The people I supervise say, “Hey, Mike, we really like that you’re in this program because we think that this is a good style of leadership.” My leadership style also rubs off on my other coworkers and peers. So it’s not just that I’m getting the benefit, but I think holistically our office is improving because I am learning effective strategies that other people can emulate. So I think it’s a win-win, not just for me, but for my entire office as well.

How has MPA@UNC impacted your career?

When I first signed up for this program, my boss and I had an agreement that this program would not interfere with my work. He said, “Mike, we trust you. You have a lot of responsibility. Don’t lose focus of your job while you’re taking this program.” We were talking last week and he told me, “Not only has this not affected your work, but it’s actually enhanced your work.”

MPA@UNC improved my work within the DA’s office and on the boards I sit on as well. I took a financial management class, and now that I understand finance, I can sit on the financial subcommittee and bring good strategies and try to implement good policy. MPA@UNC has allowed me to branch out and take on new roles, so I think everyone has noticed that this program has benefitted me and is benefitting everyone else too.

What are your career goals?

My goal is to be an elected official—such as an elected DA. To do this, you need to have many different skills sets. You need to be an effective manager, you need to be a leader, you need to know how to do a variety of things fiscally and socially and interpersonally, and those were the skill sets I didn’t have. Carolina and the School of Government allowed me to feel confident in my education and confident in my abilities. MPA@UNC taught me things I didn’t know before and made me look at things in a different way. And that’s why I enrolled in the program, and I’m a huge advocate of the program, because I really feel like it’s benefitted me personally.

Why is MPA@UNC a good degree for lawyers?

When I went to law school, a lot of what I learned was legal theory—that was the primary focus. But what I did not get in law school was management. I didn’t get budgets. I didn’t get actual leadership. I didn’t know how to manage a staff of attorneys or deal with interpersonal dynamics and make it work for my office.

Those are things that you don’t get in law school, and that is what MPA@UNC gives you. It gives you this knowledge and this education of how to deal with all of the collateral things that law school doesn’t teach you, yet you are expected to do and do well on a daily basis.

That is the beauty of MPA@UNC—it supplements your legal education with so much information and so much knowledge, and it gives you a good resource base. Being taught by nationally renowned professors makes you an immediate authority on the spot when people have questions, because they know you were taught by leading experts.

Want to know more? Learn how MPA@UNC can impact your career.

Speaking with the Master Part Two: The SRLN Begins

Posted in Courts, Launch, Legal Services, Pro Bono, Technology, Website Launch

About the Series

Richard Zorza, one of the founders and leaders of the access to justice (ATJ) movement, recently received the American Bar Association’s 2014 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access’ Lifetime Achievement Honor for decades of work on behalf of self-represented litigants. Not to be outdone, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators passed a Resolution of Recognition “express[ing] their deep appreciation to Richard Zorza for his thoughtful, unique, and dedicated service, loyal support and guidance, and for his unfailing commitment to improving the state courts of this nation, and the Conferences extend to him their best wishes for the future.” I recently spoke with Richard, and we are excited to produce this four-part installment from that discussion. Our second post covers the origins of the Self-Represented Litigation Network. And of course, read more of Richard’s always fascinating thoughts on his Access to Justice blog.

The SRLN Begins

One of the most important projects Richard has spearheaded was the creation and development of the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN). As he noted in the previous episode, the 1999 Conference on Self-Represented Litigants was when the ATJ movement really began to accelerate. At that time, the Open Society Institute brought together various stakeholders (including Pro Bono Net, the National Center for State Corps, and the Legal Services Corporation) to discuss what would become the Technology Innovation Grants (TIG) program. In addition, the same group began discussing self-representation and identified six states where various parties might assemble to develop a long-term strategic plan for assisting pro se litigants. In 2000 at the first TIG Conference, they created a substantive agenda to guide their efforts moving forward.

After the conference, the group continued to meet and the SLRN informally launched as a website in 2001. Further conferences and funding followed the successful initial launch, and the Network continued to grow. Richard stressed that the first steps were very ad hoc and focused on bringing together stakeholders in states that did not have a dominant legal aid entity. Capitalizing on a growing recognition that groups with no collaborative history could and should work together, the founders of the SRLN sought to create a network that could work both in tandem and in isolation to assist pro se litigants. The SLRN would not be an arm of LSC, the bar, or the Courts, and therefore 1) it could achieve far more than any entity could individually and 2) no organization would feel as if it were receiving short-shrift. Thus, it developed into a decentralized network, rather than a command and control program that can quickly and easily adapt to individual situations across the country.

Bringing the conversation back to the present, I asked Richard what changes would make the biggest difference for self-represented litigants today. However, to hear his thoughts for the future, you’ll have to return next week for the third installment of this rapidly growing series.

#DisasterLegalAid: LawHelpNY Webinar Outlines Best Practices in Post-Disaster Social Media

Posted in Social Media, Superstorm Sandy, Technology, Webinar

Non-profits and legal services organizations have come to recognize the importance of social media and many now have well-developed social media strategies implemented by staff experts. That being said, disaster response brings with it special considerations for every facet of an organization’s operations and social media is no exception.

In order to assist legal services providers, Wilneida Negrón and Leah Margulies of LawHelpNY recently hosted a webinar entitled “Tips on Using Social Media for Disaster Recovery.” Drawing upon lessons from their response to Sandy, Wilneida and Leah outlined how social media can play different, important roles in disaster response and how the role an organization chooses to play inevitably dictates the content they post.

Wilneida and Leah demonstrated how different social media platforms serve different functions in disaster response

Wilneida and Leah began the webinar by reviewing LawHelpNY’s response to Sandy through their blog and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Immediately after Sandy, they began posting resources, contacts, and assistance information for New Yorkers. News outlets, blogs, and others recognized LawHelpNY as a central repository for Sandy legal relief information, and LHNY’s posts enjoyed high viewership and virality. To spread the lessons of their experience, Wilneida and Leah published a toolkit on “Leveraging Social Media and SEO for Online Disaster Outreach.”

Wilneida and Leah used the lessons from their Sandy response to help viewers begin thinking about their social media role in disaster response. Many of the webinar attendees indicated their organizations would likely pursue a passive role, like LawHelpNY did, whereby they would broadcast and disseminate information.

That being said, the webinar also highlighted possibilities for active content and engagement, through proactive data collection and public responses to create situational awareness. Wilneida and Leah featured some of the myriad social networking platforms and guided viewers through creating visualized, aggregated, and personal content that would be useful for a collaborative, planned disaster response effort. They stressed the importance of fact checking, especially after a disaster.

The webinar ended with reminders of best practices in creating post-disaster social media content

Having used their Sandy response to illustrate and explain how organizations could share useful content over social media post-disaster, Wilneida and Leah concluded by helping viewers think about developing a social media strategy. They encouraged organizations to plan ahead by analyzing their networks and pages to evaluate their social media presence, content, and plans. Wilneida and Leah also detailed how organizations can better manage and disseminate the barrage of social media information they receive through listening dashboards and by testing shareable content, and finally time-lined three phases of disaster-related content to share: crisis preparedness, crisis response, and disaster recovery.

I’m excited to apply the lessons from the webinar as I help with disaster legal response efforts. Even with my personal experience with Facebook and Twitter, I am now much more cognizant of how organizational social media strategies must be unique to the disaster context. When the inevitable next disaster strikes, I hope the resources we develop will be easily and quickly shared via effective social media dissemination.


Speaking with the Master: Part One of Our Interview with Richard Zorza

Posted in Conferences, Courts, Legal Services, Pro Bono, Technology

About the Series

Richard Zorza, one of the founders and leaders of the access to justice (ATJ) movement, recently received the American Bar Association’s 2014 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access’ Lifetime Achievement Honor for decades of work on behalf of self-represented litigants. Not to be outdone, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators passed a Resolution of Recognition “express[ing] their deep appreciation to Richard Zorza for his thoughtful, unique, and dedicated service, loyal support and guidance, and for his unfailing commitment to improving the state courts of this nation, and the Conferences extend to him their best wishes for the future.” I recently spoke with Richard, and we are excited to produce this three four-part installment from that discussion. This first post will focus on the founding and history of the access to justice movement through the eyes of one of its pioneers. And of course, read more of Richard’s always fascinating thoughts on his Access to Justice blog.

Installment One

Richard traces the access to justice movement’s beginnings back to the early 1990s, when an array of stakeholders concluded that the existing approach of “just fund more lawyers” was not reducing the justice gap. The ATJ movement’s first steps were to develop self-help centers in Arizona and California and to recognize that technology could be leveraged to support lawyers and provide direct services to the self-represented. At the same time, the Bar, legal services providers, and the judiciary formed the first Access to Justice Board in Washington to coordinate the ATJ movement and consider larger, more conceptual changes. These two revolutions – the idea that technology could augment the work of lawyers and that the different stakeholders could and should work together – were essential to the birth of the ATJ movement and have been essential to its successes over the ensuing two decades.

Like a Porsche accelerating from 0-60MPH, the ATJ movement expanded quickly. By 1998, the Inspector General of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was supporting an online document assembly pilot in Georgia and LSC held the first summit on technology and legal services, which led to the enormously successful Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program. Perhaps even more importantly, Richard stressed that the summit created a venue for never-before-held discussions on how legal aid providers and the courts could work together to increase access to justice and make the system fairer for all participants, not just those who can afford counsel.

ATJ commissions proliferated over the next several years, technology began to take on a greater role (including the founding of Pro Bono Net and LawHelp), and states began to expand their self-help initiatives. Of course, developments across these three areas were intertwined and interrelated. In November 1999, the American Judicature Society, State Justice Institute, and Open Society Institute hosted a national conference on pro se litigation with teams from every state attending. Richard believes that this was the moment when efforts to provide support to self-represented litigants really accelerated. After the conference, the state teams returned home with outlines for plans to assist the unrepresented.

That’s it for today, but tune in next time for more of Richard’s thoughts on supporting self-represented litigants and the creation of the Self-Represented Litigants Network.

EJW Guest Post: Apply for AmeriCorps JD!!!

Posted in Legal Services, Military/Veterans, Pro Bono

We are pleased to highlight Equal Justice Works’ campaign to recruit applicants for the AmeriCorps JD program. A guest post with application instructions (apply before April 15th!) and brief description of the program are below, along with a testimonial from Jennifer Aronson, an Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow.

Law students can give back to our nation’s veterans! AmeriCorps JD, an Equal Justice Works program, provides funding for law students who dedicate 300 hours of service to a qualifying legal project with legal aid organizations, Veterans’ law clinics, Veterans Treatment Courts, and state or local government agencies. What impact can you make as an AmeriCorps JD member?

While we can list the benefits of being a member of AmeriCorps JD, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, Jennifer Aronson, is the best person to demonstrate how pro bono work can make a difference in veterans’ lives. Here’s a special video message from Jennifer, who helped a homeless, Vietnam veteran with cancer write his will:

Like Jennifer, you can provide legal aid to support veterans! Consider applying to the AmeriCorps JD program by April 15, 2014.To be eligible, you must be enrolled in law school at the time your service begins, agree to criminal background checks, not receive more than $4,300 in outside funding for their project, and not have served more than three previous terms as an AmeriCorps member.

Visit our site for more information and learn how you can make a difference in the lives of America’s returning military members! Complete an application in the Student Application Manager (SAM) by April 15. A step-by-step guide can be found on the AmeriCorps JD application page.

Feel free to contact AmeriCorps JD program coordinators, Anna Cupito or Lynn Feldmann, with any questions.

Measuring The Justice Index: An Important Impetus for Conversations on Access To Justice

Posted in Launch, Legal Services, Technology

My work on disaster legal services at Pro Bono Net has made me keenly aware of the barriers to access to justice that many Americans encounter. I’ve also become cognizant of the vast regional and jurisdictional differences in how courts accommodate participation by non-lawyers in the civil legal system. So when Mark O’Brien invited me to the launch of the Justice Index at Cardozo Law School on February 25th, I was equal parts curious and skeptical – could you really apply a uniform standard to measure civil access to justice in the United States? Long story short: the Index is an important tool for promoting understanding about the many different factors that affect how individuals experience access to justice and for measuring the progress that states are making to improve access. But it’s a work in progress, and I also feel it is missing a key measure of innovation in state law.

Cardozo Law School hosts the National Center for Access to Justice and was the site of the Justice Index launch

The presentation at Cardozo featured representatives of the organizations that collaborated on the creation of the Index: David Udell and Jamie Gamble of the National Center for Access to Justice, Ellen Rosenthal of the Pfizer Legal Alliance (who marshaled the efforts of Pfizer’s law firms to undertake exhaustive state-by-state research), Mondi Basmenji of Skadden Arps (who spearheaded her firm’s efforts), and Jeremy Perisho of Deloitte (which analyzed the raw data and developed the algorithms and visualization strategy to make sense of more the individual data points that make up each state’s score.) The Index measures state performance against four factors that define the daily experience of litigants in the justice system: the Ratio of Legal Aid Lawyers to State Poverty Population; Help Available for Self-Represented Litigants; Support for Litigants with Limited English Proficiency; and Support for People with Disabilities. The first category is a numeric count, whereas the latter three are calculated based upon the presence or lack of identified laws, rules, and formal policies in place. The four categories are then given equal weight in a composite index.

Two questions asked during a lively Q&A session that followed the presentation really stood out: how did the developers of the Index compare fundamentally different measures across states? And to what extend can the findings be interpreted? In answering the first question, David Udell acknowledged that, in order to ensure consistency, the Justice Index team could only evaluate whether states had rules in place to promote access and not assess how well states are doing to enforce (or to fund) implementation of identified standards. The Index, then, is still a measure of rules rather than the lived experience of access to justice. But Udell is (rightly, I think) hopeful that advocates will be able to use the Index to start a discussion about how to better measure progress in improving the availability of access to civil justice.

In answering the second question, Mr. Udell noted that among the key findings was that in many cases neighboring states, which spent similar amounts on civil legal services, performed very differently on the Index. Instead of looking at the Index as a way of comparing the composite scores of the 50 states, he said, advocates could look at how neighboring states fared as an indicator of innovations in state laws. Advocates can see the Index as establishing a road map for promoting reform in their states.

Ultimately, Mr. Udell said it best when he noted the development of the initial Justice Index is a first run at creating a resource that can be a force for change. He hopes that leaders in the access to justice community view the Index as an impetus for important conversations about what should be measured and how respective measurements should be valued.

Like the developers, I am hopeful that the Index will provoke a serious conversation about what individual states can do to improve access to justice, and that this conversation will lead to improved measures in future releases. Based on my exposure to the civil legal system here at Pro Bono Net, I wonder if the Index should place more weight on the relative number of lawyers and overall resources available to support access for people in poverty (even if performance on that measure is poor across the board).

I also agreed with Mark O’Brien’s observation that the Index needs to incorporate innovations in practice rather than simply the presence of rules. Possible indicators of innovation could include support for the types of pilot programs that Chief Judge Lippman has announced here in New York (to provide trained volunteer non-lawyers as “navigators” to assist self-represented litigants in court), or expenditures on technological innovation in the delivery of legal services. The Index may better encourage innovation if it rewards courts for taking risks, not just for making rules.

Together with many of my colleagues at Pro Bono Net I am very excited by the arrival of the Justice Index. (Aside from everything else, it is an elegant and attractive demonstration of what a difference effective data visualization can make in parsing complex information!) The Index makes clear to the public what many attorneys and advocates have long known – the civil legal system is broken and fails to serve those most in need. More positively, it highlights where and how progress is being made, so that others can replicate and expand on successful practices.

Latin@s in Tech Conference: Even More Fun Than SXSW!

Posted in Conferences, Social Media, Technology
Shirt and Laynard

My official shirt & laynard

On March 6, the Kapor Center for Social Impact hosted the first Latin@s in Tech Conference as a pre-conference to the SXSW in Austin, Texas. I was excited to be invited to the inaugural conference that brought together some of the most accomplished Latino/a tech leaders in the country. The expertise in the room was astounding, ranging from software programmers and designers to social entrepreneurs to social justice activist to investors. The conference provided a platform for Latinos to engage in dialogue about the existing gap of Latinos presence in the technology sphere and in conferences like SXSW Interactive.

The one-day conference kicked off with a panel led by Maria Hinojosa, lead anchor and executive producer of her show Latino USA on NPR, and Ben Jealous, former President and CEO of the NAACP and now Venture Partner at the Kapor Center. The conversation quickly dove into the importance of Latino presence and representation in the technology and media fields. With structural barriers, such as access to wealth and educational opportunities, presenting a challenge for Latinos, and other minority groups, it is clear that now is the time to own the issue and together be proactive in creating change.

The conference hosted a number of workshops on topics including social entrepreneurship, investing, social justice, and mobile technology. While the workshops touched upon different areas of technology, the same theme resonated across the board: the need to “disrupt for a reason.” The social entrepreneurship workshop hosted a panel of emerging Latino startup leaders whose startups aimed to resolve social issues. The panelists are creating apps that make it easier for non-profits and funders to connect, help people find jobs using their cell phones, and tackle literacy issues. All gave first-hand experiences about the success and pitfalls of launching their startup, narrowing in on the need to take risks, maintain passion for the idea, and work towards successes regardless of the barriers.

Among my favorites was the workshop on the future of mobile technology and its significance to the Latino community. Perhaps it was my desire to learn more about mobile apps, given my recent work with our CitizenshipWorks mobile app (iOS, Android), but I was fascinated by panelists’ breadth of expertise. Their years of experience in the mobile arena and lively imagination for what could become, allowed for a lively discussion about how startups could leverage mobile technology to not only reach the Latino population, but also to create social change. It was reassuring to know that apps like CitizenshipWorks can truly serve as a platform for social change.

Mitch Kapor

Mitch Kapor, Co-Founder of the Kapor Center

Also among the notable speakers of the day was Kapor Center’s Co-founder, Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and investor of social impact startups, who spoke candidly about the successes, expectations, risks, and failures of launching startups. Participants were eager to hear and soak in Kapor’s insights. While he encouraged the group to learn the “game,”  not be afraid to take a risk, and really understand one’s own idea, he acknowledged that Silicon Valley is not an even playing field, but instead tends to have a narrow idea of what success should look like. Our challenge as a community is to change this perception with a focus on fixing the education system and assuring that students have access to enriching technology programs that will prepare them to tackle and succeed in the technology world.

This year’s Latin@s in Tech was only the start; a catalyst for further dialogue and action. With such an energized group of  “creators, innovators, [and] investors” ready to revolutionize and disrupt the tech world as we know it, I can’t help but be excited for the future of technology.

Innovation in Online Triage: A Discussion with Gwen Daniels of ILAO on their Award-Winning System

Posted in Legal Services, Pro Bono, Technology

Last month, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) won a 2013 Innovation Award in the Pro Bono category for their Statewide Online Access System. The awards were presented by Law Technology News (LTN).(For those not in the know, these are basically the Oscars of the legal tech community – except bigger.)

Gwen Daniels

Gwen Daniels

ILAO’s System is “designed to streamline the delivery of free legal services in Illinois by directing people seeking civil legal assistance to the best service available for their legal issue in their geographic area.” After receiving the award, Gwendelyn Daniels, Technology Director at ILAO, stopped by our offices for a conversation about the Statewide Access System.

In 2011 ILAO received a TIG grant to replicate a system used by the Northwest Justice Project (NWJ); the goal was to create a single system for both intake and triage. The design process started with NWJ’s logic as a baseline, but completely changed the technology underlying the system. ILAO wanted a system that accommodated and streamlined existing workflows, practices, and systems of programs across Illinois. This required a highly (and easily) customizable system that could meet the specific, and occasionally idiosyncratic, needs of every organization. For example, organizations’ intake processes have different questions and often define terms slightly differently.

ILAO’s design achieves their goals through the use of a common ColdFusion object with editable text-based rule files for each organization. The text files make the Online Access System highly customizable, ensuring easy integration with existing workflows. In addition, the design makes the system easily and quickly scalable. This will be crucial to future rollouts as ILAO adds functionality (multi-language support is coming soon) and expands the system across different practice areas and geographic regions.

Historically, legal hotline advocates spend half their time informing litigants that they cannot help and directing the caller to another organization. Meanwhile, many individuals that CAN be helped are placed on hold or never get through and receive the services they need. The Statewide Online Access System has streamlined these legal services providers’ workflows through the provision of effective, response triage, allowing them to more efficiently deploy their scarce resources.

Litigants enter basic information about their situation and through a sophisticated process, the System directs to the most effective resource, whether it is a hotline, an in-person consultation, or self-help materials. They can quickly access the help they need, instead of spending countless hours calling, or traveling to, multiple organizations. In turn, providers can allocate resources to high priority cases, leveraging their expertise to make the biggest difference. In a world of tight budget, time, and resource constraints, effective triage is perhaps the essential element in the provision of efficient and meaningful legal services.

The new Statewide Access System provides legal aid organizations across Illinois with this capacity, and is a paradigmatic example of how technology can be used to close the access to justice gap. Pro Bono Net congratulates Gwen Daniels and the staff of ILAO on this much-deserved award.