LawHelp Interactive offers free online legal forms to provide essential assistance to those with unmet civil legal needs. LawHelp Interactive (LHI) provides an easy-to-follow process that empowers individuals without legal counsel to create legal documents on their own. 

LHI is an especially essential and powerful tool for rural residents of the US, more than 14 million people, who face unique barriers to accessing justice. The Georgetown Journal on Law and Poverty reported that only about 2% of small legal firms are located in rural areas. This lack of availability and supply of legal experts and tools for legal support can lead to the creation of legal deserts – areas where residents, even those who can afford to pay, have extremely limited access to legal support. Government assistance in its current form widens this access-to-justice gap: rural states receive less federal and state funding for legal aid because this funding is issued on a per capita basis rather than being directly tied to need. 

On the LHI platform, rural residents can easily create legal documents through high quality online forms created by expert attorneys from courts and nonprofit legal aid organizations. Residents of rural areas can use LHI forms for free – without incurring high legal expenses or traveling long distances to get to an urban area for help. In rural areas where there is often limited investment in legal services, including legal self-help and access to justice initiatives, forms powered by LHI are truly a legal lifeline. In some regions, the LHI powered forms are one of the only available resources to prepare needed legal documents that can be completed in a timely manner. That’s why LHI and its partners are committed to providing legal forms for free, especially because our resources are often the only help available in critical areas of law such as family law, housing, and guardianships. 

While LHI forms are used all across the country to assist in a wide variety of civil legal needs, a review of LHI form use in 2020 shows that people in rural communities use LHI’s forms at a disproportionately high rate. Nationally, around 14% of Americans live in rural areas, yet 32% of LHI survey respondents reported living in a rural area. To further understand the increased use of LHI forms in rural communities, Pro Bono Net conducted a review of LHI’s 2020 evaluation, focusing on usage in states with a high percentage of rural residents.

First, to understand the magnitude of free online form use in rural areas, it is important to know that most of the form use through the LHI platform comes from states with large urban areas, including NY, CA, MI, and IL. 

So in order to best assess the needs of LHI users in rural areas, we looked at data from Maine, Kansas, Iowa, and Arkansas, states having a significant percentage of residents living in rural areas. According to the National Center for Access to Justice, these states all have fewer than 35 civil legal aid attorneys per 10,000 low income residents. Not surprisingly, as the pandemic resulted in heightened civil legal needs for many, usage of LHI in rural states has been increasing. In 2020, these states saw an increase of 16.8%. 

All data cited above leads to the conclusion that national infrastructures like LHI are key to preserving access to justice for a significant portion of our rural population, and that rural areas need an infusion of funding to improve the legal services available for residents. Lack of a legal market or inability to pay due to high poverty and high unemployment trends in vast regions of the country means that foundations and funders at the local, state, and federal level, prioritize supporting tools with long track records of trust and use by residents in those areas. 

Residents of rural legal deserts should not be doomed to a systemic and perpetual lack of access to justice. Looking towards the future, LHI will continue to provide forms for free to end users while seeking additional revenues to ensure the costs of use can be covered to continue meeting the needs of rural residents. 

As an organization committed to justice, Pro Bono Net continues to work to bring the power of the law to all and to make the law work for the many and not the few. 

Pro Bono Net honors and celebrates the countless achievements, contributions, and rich history of Latinx American communities during this year’s National Latinx Heritage Month. 

Latinx Heritage Month commenced on September 15th, which marks the independence days of many countries in Central and South America, and ends tomorrow on October 15th. This month is all about “celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America,” says the National Hispanic Heritage Month website

As part of the celebration at Pro Bono Net, Latinx staff hosted a virtual gathering where all staff had the opportunity to learn more about what this month means to staff who identify as Latinx and ask each other questions about the culture, history, and traditions of the Latinx community. This is the first time that Pro Bono Net as an organization has hosted such a gathering, and as the year progresses we hope we can do the same for other groups.

Pro Bono Net is grateful for all Latinx staff and Board members, partners, advocates, and supporters’ contributions of work. We are also grateful that as a technical solutions leader in the area of access to justice, we strive to serve the Latinx community in parity with national demographics, and we remain committed to creating and building tools and partnerships that serve all, regardless of language and national origin, race, ethnicity and religion. 

The College of Law Practice Management recently announced its 2021 InnovAction Awards. This is the 18th year the College of Law Practice Management has presented InnovAction Awards. The InnovAction Awards recognize lawyers, law firms, and other deliverers of legal services currently engaged in extraordinary innovative efforts worldwide. 

We are delighted to share that Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, Liz Keith, was awarded with the 2021 InnovActor Award. Liz has played a key role in Pro Bono Net’s program strategy for more than a decade. She joined Pro Bono Net as a LawHelp Circuit Rider, working with legal aid programs in 25 states to build online resources to increase access to legal help for low income communities. As Program Director, Liz now manages strategic initiatives and programs at Pro Bono Net that equip individuals and communities with new tools to tackle civil justice problems.

Liz Keith is, and has been for almost two decades, a national leader working to bring the power of the law to all by building cutting-edge digital tools and strengthening collaboration in the civil justice sector to implement those tools broadly and effectively.”

Congratulations to Liz and the other two InnovAction Award recipients, Digitory Legal, together with its client, Kaiser Permanente, and Julia Farr, Senior Manager, Osler Dash at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. To learn more about the recipients and the awards, click here. For more information on Pro Bono Net initiatives, visit: https://www.probono.net/programs/   

Each October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month shines light on domestic violence issues and provides information to victims as well as the public about tools and resources available. A staggering number of Americans experience violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. These victims and other victims of crime have a new resource available, keep reading to learn more.


The New York Crime Victims Legal Network (CVLN), developed by Empire Justice Center, Pro Bono Net, and SUNY Albany Center for Human Services Research, recently launched the Victim Compensation Online Claim Application Guide and the Victim Compensation Claim Navigator on NY Crime Victims Legal Help (crimevictimshelpny.org). The Guide and Navigator were created to ensure that eligible crime victims are successful in submitting their applications for crime victim compensation through the New York State Office of Victim Services (OVS) Online portal.

The Victim Compensation Guide offers tips and reminders to help victims with the application process. The Navigator was created to help crime victims determine if they are eligible for victim compensation and the type of claim they can apply for. “We learned from OVS that a common mistake people were making when applying for victim compensation was filing the wrong type of claim. So, we wanted to make an easy-to-use tool that would help. By answering a few questions, users of the Navigator will receive personalized information about their eligibility, the type of claim they can apply for, and resources for help with their claim application,” said Laura Dwyer, CVLN Regional Attorney Coordinator at Empire Justice Center.

“Working with Neota Logic, a software platform Pro Bono Net uses to build tools to increase access to justice, we developed a user-friendly tool that helps victims quickly determine if they are eligible for compensation and what type of claim they can make,” said Tim Baran, Technology Innovation Manager at Pro Bono Net.

The website, along with the Victim Compensation Guide was developed with insight from crime victims and service providers. “This guide was developed with direct input from providers who serve victims of crime,” said Dr. Susan Dietzel, Senior Research Scientist at SUNY Albany Center for Human Services Research. “The content and design reflect their feedback about how to facilitate the application process. I am excited to see a product that incorporates research into practice in such a tangible and meaningful way.”

According to the 2019-2020 OVS Annual Report, the total number of claims accepted by OVS was 9,682. “Many people who experience crime victimization and are eligible never apply for compensation,” said Remla Parthasarathy, Senior Attorney and CVLN Project Leader at Empire Justice Center. “We are excited that these tools are available and hope they will encourage more people to apply for and successfully complete the compensation process.”

The Guide and Navigator were developed with the assistance and support from the New York State Office of Victim Services. “The Office of Victim Services is dedicated to ensuring that all eligible crime victims receive the assistance that they need, including financial compensation for out-of-pocket expenses. This new guide and navigator will help more New Yorkers complete applications for assistance while avoiding common errors in the application process. We thank the Crime Victims Legal Network, Empire Justice Center, and partners, for developing these tools to ensure that more help gets to those who need it,” said Elizabeth Cronin, Director of the Office of Victim Services.

Go to crimevictimshelpny.org/compensation/ for more information on the Victim Compensation Online Claim Application Guide and Navigator.

For LiveHelp volunteer Jordan Kaufman, the motivation to use his legal skillset to help those in need comes from a place of profound empathy for his fellow New Yorkers. Jordan’s love for New York and its residents has been present his whole life, hailing from Nassau County, Long Island and completing his undergraduate studies with a history major at Yeshiva University in New York City. In his own words: “What really struck me about live help is that I’m a native New Yorker. I plan one being a lifelong New Yorker, and I just think the fact that this was a New York focused pro bono opportunity is something that really intrigued me with livehelp. I was excited to help my fellow New Yorkers.” Although Jordan left New York for law school at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, he has since returned to New York City to begin working in the corporate department of a law firm.

A legal career had always interested Jordan as he was exposed to the field at a young age from his father, but the idea didn’t fully crystalize until his junior year at Yeshiva University when he began studying for the LSAT. During his time at law school, Jordan began to learn more about the legal landscape of America and its inherent flaws. Seeing firsthand how “the legal system in general is a little bit opaque and very difficult for people to navigate,” Jordan decided to leverage his newly developed legal skillset to help his fellow New Yorkers with LiveHelp.

Working with LiveHelp from November 2020 through May of 2021, Jordan graciously helped guide New York’s residents through the complexities and intricacies of day to day legal problems ranging from rental agreements to family law. When asked for a key takeaway from his time with LiveHelp, Jordan said “As lawyers, we are lucky enough and privileged enough to acquire this skill set in law school that many people are unable to acquire or don’t have access to, and we can really use these skills to help and improve people’s lives on a daily basis.” 

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the nature of communication and collaboration for everyone, Jordan too felt the strain of working remotely with LiveHelp. “Not having that face to face interaction was something that was a little bit difficult and a little bit strange… but I quickly adjusted to the situation and was able to assist people who were coming to the platform.” Although the adjustment to an entirely online landscape was challenging for Jordan, the positivity and gratitude from LiveHelp users motivated him to adjust and provide the best possible assistance. On his interactions with users, Jordan said that “The vast majority of people were incredibly grateful and always saying thank you for the assistance,” and “whenever I provided assistance, people would say ‘This is amazing. This is great info that you’re providing.’” 

When asked if he would recommend volunteering with LiveHelp to other law school students and lawyers, Jordan responded by saying “Yeah, definitely. I think [working with LiveHelp] is very powerful for someone, also particularly someone who is either a native New Yorker or will be going to New York. I think that a lot of firms encourage pro bono opportunities, and I would definitely encourage people to check out LiveHelp New York as a pro bono opportunity.” For Jordan, being able to help people navigate the legal landscape is the whole point of becoming a lawyer. “I’m privileged to have this skill set and I hope to continue assisting people through pro bono work throughout my legal career.”

We at LawHelpNY and Pro Bono Net are incredibly grateful to Jordan for volunteering his time and effort to support his fellow New Yorkers. We admire your selflessness and willingness to help others with your skills, and we wish you the best for the future of your legal career. Thank you, Jordan!


LiveHelp is the bilingual chat component of  LawHelpNY.org. LiveHelp chat is available in English and Spanish and provides legal assistance, information and referrals to those who have urgent and complex legal needs. Trained volunteers staff LiveHelp from 9 AM-9 PM on weekdays, making this service readily accessible to low-income working clients, individuals in rural areas, or people who may be homebound, elderly or living with disabilities. LiveHelp is also available on other websites powered by Pro Bono Net, including New York Crime Victims Legal Help.

LiveHelp recruits volunteers throughout the year. In order to be considered for our program, please complete our volunteer application and send, along with a copy of your resume to Dennis Brink at dbrink@nylawhelp.org. The application as well as additional information about volunteering with us can be found here: LiveHelp Program information.

Pro Bono Net is pleased to announce an important update to an interactive, guided interview that allows disaster survivors to generate an appeal letter if they have been denied assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or would like to appeal the amount awarded by the agency. The guided interview, powered by Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program, is available at FEMAAppeals.org. Since the 2017 major disasters, the interview has been used nearly 9,000 times by individuals affected by major disasters in the United States such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Pro Bono Net, in partnership with the City Bar Justice Center, initially created the tool in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy for use by people impacted by disasters who cannot afford a lawyer. In 2017, Weil, Gotshal & Manges updated the interview for people affected by Hurricanes María, Irma, Harvey, and the California wildfires. This year, Pro Bono Net worked with Disability Rights Texas to incorporate questions that address the needs of survivors with disabilities. Answers to the questions in the interactive interview are input into a form letter that a survivor can save to their computer and print out for submission to FEMA as an appeal. Users can also email the letter to a third party, such as an attorney, for review.

Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) is the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency for the state of Texas. DRTx works to ensure that Texans’ with disabilities have equitable opportunities that are free from discriminatory barriers across all societal domains and their individual rights and liberties are upheld.  DRTx’s priorities now include disaster planning and recovery and in response to Hurricane Harvey had dedicated personnel to assist with legal needs. 

In working the response to Hurricane Harvey, DRTx’s immediate caseloads were occupied with FEMA denials and FEMA appeals.  Navigating FEMA’s process is complex and confusing and for disaster survivors with disabilities, meaningful access was denied, as FEMA lacked a public facing reasonable accommodation process to ensure an equitable opportunity to participate in and benefit from FEMA’s programs.  A failure to address and engage with disaster survivors with disabilities to determine specific needs, was the most substantial barrier the disability community faced.  

Sometimes clients were denied effective communication, as accommodations as obvious as an interpretation in a different language either for the application itself or for an inspection were not provided.  Sometimes clients needed continued assistance throughout FEMA’s process to address mental health needs, or maybe they required, as a reasonable accommodation, a modification to a specific policy that was creating a discriminatory barrier, yet FEMA lacked a means to request and sustain a reasonable accommodation for a disaster survivor with a disability.

The FEMA appeals interview will allow, as a pro se tool, for disaster survivors with disabilities to explicitly address their lack of meaningful access to FEMA’s programs based on FEMA’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.  A FEMA denial of an accommodation denies an equitable opportunity for disaster survivors to access FEMA’s programs.  Sometimes the legal aid response in disasters can be limited due to the overwhelming need. This tool affords an independent resource for advocacy. Survivors impacted by a major disaster and that have applied to FEMA can use the tool to generate an appeal letter. The tool is also inclusive of the barriers the disability community may face in recovery. 

In September 2021, FEMA updated its disaster assistance application.

Specifically, question number 24 on the application now allows for an individual to request a specific reasonable accommodation.  This option is new and FEMA has not released specific guidance on how the reasonable accommodation process will work.  The FEMA appeal interactive interview can be a critical tool to assist in navigating these new procedures.

We hope this updated tool is helpful to survivors in communities recovering from the impact of Hurricane Ida and other climate-driven disasters such as the wildfires in California. 

Pro Bono Net thanks Stephanie Duke, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Fellow at Disability Rights Texas, for her continued advocacy on behalf of disaster survivors with disabilities and her work on these updates. Pro Bono Net also thanks Capstone Practice Systems for its generous support in making updates to the interview. 

To access the interview, you can visit www.FEMAAppeals.org. To learn more about Disability Rights Texas, visit https://www.disabilityrightstx.org/en/home/. To learn more about Pro Bono Net’s disaster recovery efforts, visit https://www.probono.net/our-work/initiatives/disaster/. For any questions or comments about the program, please contact Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz at jortiz@probono.net

This blog post was originally created and published by UniCourt on their blog. Thank you to UniCourt for granting us permission to repost. You can find the original blog post, here: https://unicourt.com/blog/qa-with-claudia-johnson/ 


Claudia Johnson is an inspiring example of how taking calculated risks and setting audacious goals can lead to a fulfilling life and an impactful career. When she eventually landed in the United States after living in several different countries, Claudia committed her career to serving the neediest legal consumers, working hard to devise tech solutions that scale lawyers’ services and allow them to reach exponentially more people than one-to-one legal services ever could.

We loved talking with Claudia about her dynamic career, inspiring backstory, and big dreams for the changes she hopes to make in the legal industry. We hope you enjoy our interview as much as we did!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

Claudia Johnson: I have lived a wonderful, non-linear life. In total, I’ve lived in 5 countries and 17 cities. Right now, I live in Columbia, Maryland, and Eastern Washington. I grew up in El Salvador, and when the civil war drowned our country, my family moved out. We moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In El Salvador, I grew up speaking German, Spanish, and English in that order—I benefited from a German school education, which taught me discipline and independent thinking. When I got to Puerto Rico, I was enrolled in a Catholic school, and that was quite a change. That, added with the fact that we went from well-to-do with social status and privilege to poor, and then immigrants on top of that, made that transition hard and  painful, but it was really good to see the world from a different vantage point.

We were discriminated against for our accent, hair, and features, and for being “extranjeros” (foreigners) and poor. That was hard. But without all those experiences of going from privilege and social standing to nothing and being the butt of jokes, I would not be who I am today. I am thankful for the risks and opportunities my parents took to keep us together and safe, and for the opportunities and new perspectives we encountered and learned from.

In Puerto Rico, we were able to go out at night, to read any book, and there was even political comedy on TV. In El Salvador, there was no 1st Amendment and we were under martial law. The awareness and realization that free speech and freedom of thought and association existed in the US, and was protected by law, was sweet and beautiful. I was so thankful to experience that for the first time in my life. No fear, no fear of thinking, reading, or speaking. It was worth losing everything to gain that kind of freedom.

From high school, I went to UC Berkeley to study nuclear engineering. When I got to Berkeley, I felt I had found my place. I loved the intellectual curiosity and drive of my peers, the diversity, the ability to have access to all kinds of books and journals, the library, etc. Being the only Latina to enroll as a freshman in nuclear engineering was hard for the department. They felt awkward around me—to them I was a novelty. I felt a distance and a lot of stares when I was in the College of Engineering. I had no idea what was going on and did not pay much attention to that. In my second year, I decided to transfer to another department so I could pursue a more self-directed area of study. I switched to Ethnic Studies/Chicano Studies, and focused on health care systems.

I ended up winning an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and I had the pleasure of spending two summers at policy schools, one at Carnegie and the other one at Harvard. I went on to get an MPP/MPH from UC Berkeley Goldman and the School of Public Health.

I then worked with the US Senate doing policy analysis on Medicare payment policy. That was a great experience for me and I learned how policy is made from the ground up. I saw my work published in the Federal Register. I also  learned to work  with huge databases and do analysis that continues to be policy in action.

While doing policy analysis, I decided to go to law school. I wanted to know the outcomes of my work faster and more directly. With policy, there is a 3-10 year period before you really find out if something worked or not. In law, you know right away, and your relationship with your clients is direct and they can give you input right away.  So I went to the best law school I got into, Penn Law in Philadelphia.

I loved Penn and Philly. I felt right at home and felt so lucky to commit myself full time to the study of American Law. It was the first time in my life I did not work while in school—I had put myself through all my prior education, including washing dishes when my English was blossoming in my first year of college. After working almost full time through graduate school,  being able to be 100% focused on studying at Penn was an incredible privilege and I resolved to make the most of it. Penn did not disappoint—and I had the chance to surround myself with hard working and extremely bright minds. I loved learning the law this way.

Eventually I decided to apply for competitive postgraduate school fellowships, and I joined the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, Class of 97. I worked on Medicaid’s implementation of HMOs in Pennsylvania and learned a lot at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project. When my fellowship ended in 1999, I went to Community Legal Services to work on public benefits, and I was lucky to work with Cathy Carr in creating the LAL Language Access Project, which became a model project for the country. We worked on using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as an advocacy tool. In 1999, I was able to see the City of Philadelphia require that all agencies track the needs of Limited English Proficient communities and services provided. By 1999, we had already formed the National Language Advocacy Network to advocate for accommodations under Title VI of the Civil Rights act of 1964. NLAAN is a network of lawyer working together to end national origin discrimination and is still active and making huge strides.

My husband by then had moved from the University of Chicago back to the San Francisco Bay Area to work the dot com period with HealthCentral.com. So being far away (Philadelphia/Emeryville) — along with the long hours on both ends—made it hard to be long distance, so I moved to the Bay Area, where we had met and lived 6 years before. It was going back home.

I joined the Bar Association of San Francisco, and worked with their Volunteer Legal Services Program, training and recruiting pro bono family law, eviction, and consumer lawyers. My focus was on evictions and preserving affordable housing units. In that process, with San Mateo Legal Aid and the Homeless Advocacy Project we started the “Lawyer of the Day” project. We brought pro bono lawyers to help do the settlement conferences.

At first, the lawyer bar was not happy, but we did provide pro bono landlord counsel also, and over time the outcomes of the representation were positive. The project lasted almost 20 years and was replicated in other states. It only ended because San Francisco created civil guideon for evictions in the early 2000s, basically expanding the project to the full city, not just those who qualified for pro bono services.

After VLSP, the opportunity came to work with Ramon Arias at Bay Area Legal Aid to centralize the intake and case acceptance guidelines for Bay Area. In effect, it required taking 7 different organization practices and merging them into one. A full description of that project for its 20 year anniversary can be found here.

When my husband joined Bridgewater Associates in Connecticut, we moved back to the East Coast, now to Westport, Connecticut. I joined Pro Bono Net to work on beginning an online form project. I was a circuit rider and focused on partnerships with courts and legal aid to use forms. It was 2008, the country was in a major recession, and the self-represented population in courts was finally being acknowledged. I was able to promote and have LHI forms adopted and used as a solution for SRLs in 25 states by 2010.

In 2008, when I started, people did not trust forms or technology as a tool that those without  lawyers could use. By 2014, we had 40 states using online forms through LHI. Online forms became a go-to tool to end and close the Justice Gap.

Part of doing online forms requires making the last mile to court filing easy. In 2012, we did the first XML to XML efiling project in Minnesota—a project solely focused on SRLs. This had never been done before. Out of that project, we wrote this guide that still brings a lot of value to those planning or starting on efiling for those without lawyers, a majority in dockets of limited jurisdiction. We continue to do efiling with partner courts, always focusing on the needs of the person without  a lawyer, to lower the barriers to justice.

UC: What is Pro Bono Net? What is its mission?

CJ: Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit founded in 1999, based in New York, with offices in San Francisco, that looks to increase access to justice. Through innovative technology solutions and expertise, it builds and mobilizes social justice networks. It has multiple product lines, and LawHelp Interactive is one of them. The company has been and was one of the first groups that brought the power of the internet when it was starting to pro bono services and civil legal aid.

LawHelp Interactive is a platform and a training and best practice engine. In LHI we bring together a HotDocs document assembly software owned by AbacusNext, as well as A2J Author 6 owned by CALI at Chicago Kent. We maintain a robust, secure technical platform that has over 1 Million visitors per year and creates more than 700,000 free legal documents a year.

UC: What are some of your top pieces of advice for future lawyers heading into law school and practicing lawyers who want to get involved in helping close the access to justice gap?

CJ: 1. Be curious. Read a lot—and read in areas where you don’t necessarily have exposure, like outside of law, outside of your community/history/background. Ask questions. Be engaged.

2. Be humble. Even though law is an excellent education and gives you great analytical tools, be humble. In your teams you will have people with backgrounds in other fields. Learn from them. Don’t assume you know everything. Listen. Be kind to your co-workers. Include others and give them credit. Often, the work of women and people of color is not recognized, or is minimized—don’t be that person. Be inclusive. Be an ally. Lift up.

If you look at my path, I pursued what interested me and I feel very happy about my career and the impact I have had in the past 25 years. And I am excited about what else we can do to make our great country better. Being open to change and opportunity is hard for those of us who want to plan out a career. Be ok if plans change. In that change there will be a great opportunity.

UC: What role does automation play in improving access to justice? How can document automation in particular make interacting with the courts much easier for consumers and pro se litigants?

CJ: We will never be able to serve everyone who needs legal help one-on-one, not now, and not while civil litigation is on the rise, with consumer, eviction, and family law cases on the rise.

We will not meet the need to have one lawyer for one client in the US—not at current funding levels and not with the current federal restrictions to civil legal aid. No amount of pro bono hours can meet that need, either.  Pro bono hours help, but the need for 47 million low income people facing 5 or more legal problems a year needs more than volunteers and funding.

In my heart, I believe technology is the one tool that can help us start bringing scalable solutions to a big problem of national importance. With technology we leverage expertise and move to enterprise legal services. I am inspired by the work of Richard Granat who has been a pioneer. But technology alone is also not enough. You need practitioners who have handled the cases and know the communities that are not empowered in the legal system. They need to be part of the teams creating the tools. You can’t build tech tools without experience, compassion, and kindness.

Online forms can handle a lot of complexity—and they don’t replace the judgement of a lawyer. So they are great tools to help a lot of people in need, efficiently and effectively. Instead of having a 1:1 lawyer to client relationship, you can scale up. And you can have new skills in your team, so you can support enterprise models like 2 lawyers, 3 paralegals and 1400 people helped, with 200 represented in contested cases. In our system, some forms are used over 100,000 per year. That is an outstanding investment. A non tech supported project would never do that.

Instead of spending 4 hours doing a complex pleading for divorce, you can have your clerk or paralegal spend 30-45 minutes, and then you can review in 10—because everything is standard.

And hundreds of thousands of people can use your forms, 24/7, on weekends, and be empowered to be part of the solution to their legal problem.

As a person alone with a legal problem, you can create your own document, letter, or pleading and you know it is complete. It is typed, you don’t have to worry about missing a section, and you can spend more time getting ready for court, getting organized, and getting support as you move through the case. For the courts—they can issue better orders, with more complete and legible forms, and the litigant can be more present because the form contains guidance and support.

Forms let you serve 10,000 people or more with one form that can handle multiple factual scenarios. In this access to justice crisis, the best  things to do are:

1) simplify the process

2) put it in plain language and then put a form on- it

3) work in partnership with courts,  advocates, and nonprofits that work with those areas of need (housing, child support, credit collection, benefits, etc.)

That is the LawHelp Interactive model: free online forms for end-users, always centered in partnership and the belief that a person has the right to clearly present their petition and raise their concerns directly to a decision making forum.

UC: Why are technology integrations important for legal aid organizations? How can they streamline providing legal services and help break down traditional data silos?

CJ: More and more, you can’t practice legal nonprofit civil law, in fact any type of law, without understanding technology and using technology. If you are a person coming into law to not have to understand technology, you need to reconsider your profession. Tech and law go together hand-in-hand. We can’t put the genie back into the bottle. So now, we have to understand tech, maximize it, and use it in the best interest of our clients and to fulfill our missions.

From case management, to training your interns and new hires, to work process, technology is now embedded or should be in your practice. With 1.7 lawyers per 10,000 people in need, if your mission is to serve those in need, technology is a must. Otherwise, to not use it to make your services scalable and high quality, it is unethical and inefficient.

The new “Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid” by the ABA SCLAID elevate technology and empower legal aid boards, executive directors, and staff to become friends with technology, to do their due diligence, to protect their client’s data and privacy, and to use it to be more efficient and effective. I was honored to be part of the tech drafting group. I think they are a big step forward and offer timely guidance as we grapple with the move to tech. 

One caveat, because unfortunately I see a lot of courts and nonprofits using tools that rely on machine translation to in theory close language gaps, using machine translation alone is not the answer. If you are going to use machine translation to close the language gap with your clients and communities, please use a professional translator to review the end product. It will save your trust with the community and your brand. If you are going to care about accurate meaningful communication, do it right. Otherwise you are putting your brand and credibility at risk.

UC: Who (and what) are some of your favorite resources for learning more about what’s happening in the access to justice space?

CJ: I value so many people, and I follow

@jtashea

@winkiepp n and her podcast Reimagine Justice

@ConnConnection

@inspiredcat

@ATJTechFellows (I sit on their Board of Advisors)

@eLizk (we have worked together for years)

@mhpob (same)

@laloalcaraz for some great Chicano cartoons and humor

And so many more. I tweet under @C2AJ as a personal project on things that interest me.

And so many others. I also read the Management Innovation Exchange Work and Journal. I serve as a reviewer for the National Center for State Courts Future Trends in State Courts, so I read the journal when published once a year. And I follow the Access to Justice Fellowship and the fellows and alumni as I sit on their Board of Advisors. I really believe in the idea of diversifying the pool of lawyers and law graduates using and developing technology for civil services.

I also read and follow all the blogs and interviews that the Future of the Profession Initiative shares and posts. I am honored to be one of six Penn alums serving in an advisory capacity. 

In terms of researchers, I am a fan of the work that Victor David Quintanilla is doing from the Maurer School of Law on issues around SRL bias and documenting how judges perceive litigants without lawyers by gender and some of his other work. 

There is no shortage of really talented and experienced people doing amazing work.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

CJ: “Tiempo perdido hasta los angeles lo lloran”—even angels cry over lost time. To me this is a reminder to be intentional about everything I do. Life is short, so make it real, now, fun, and do what makes it meaningful to you.

“The only constant in life is change”—Heraclitus. Change is scary for everyone. But in change there is great opportunity to learn—and everything is changing—no matter how we try to frame things as constant and linear. So embrace change, learn, grow, and adapt. Once you learn how to slow down to observe change and then speed up to embrace it, it can be so amazing where that takes you. Learning how to use time to your advantage in times of change is a very fun thing to master.

UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?

CJ: In the realm of online forms in the nonprofit sector here at LawHelp Interactive—we continue to work on efiling integrations—and we are about to go live with e-filing eviction answers in Southern California. In addition, we continue to e-file domestic violence petitions in New York,  partnering with nonprofits across the state, and that project keeps growing. We now have partnerships with 5 state courts and that is something we hope we can continue to expand.  We are now supporting Medical Legal Partnerships groups using LHI, and that is an area I am very interested in, since I have a public health masters, and really believe in the relationship between unmet legal needs and determinants for health and interdisciplinary approaches to meeting both types of needs.

The online forms our partners create in rural deserts continue to be a lifeline. In addition, we are working on sustainability and finding new ways to provide free forms to all who need them. Our LHI network is vast and robust and all of our partners are amazingly creative, resilient, and the forms are part of their long term strategies in delivering legal services as well as leveling the playing field for those that do not have attorneys.

This year has been busy and foundational for those of us who do tech and access to justice work. I was honored to be part of the drafting group for the ABA SCLAID Standards for Civil Legal Aid for the tech updates—not updated since 2006! That was an incredible opportunity to bring the Standards to date and update so that they reflect how technology is part of every aspect of civil legal aid nonprofits, from training, to Board support, to fundraising, to services, understanding needs, etc. These Standards will last hopefully from 5 to 10 years—and they hopefully will encourage legal civil legal aid providers to get “jiggy” with tech.

I am also getting ready to teach again at Penn Law in the Spring of 2022. The class is “Technology and Access to Justice” but with an intersectional lens. I am lucky to co-teach with Miguel Willis from the ATJ Tech Fellows. We are reviewing the course now, which we taught Spring 2021, to make it better. This course is unique in many aspects. It is taught by two people of color,  so it brings in other perspectives and from two different generational perspectives. When I graduated 25 years ago, I did not have any insight into legal tech. It did not exist. Then we created this movement with hotlines in the early 2000s and document assembly in the late 2000s with support from LSC and many other national and regional leaders, so sharing the lived history on how this field was created, where we started and how we need to move forwards is something that anchors the class. My co-instructor came into law at a different time, and has been involved in bringing legal tech skills to law students since his second year of law school—so we cover a wide perspective and that makes our class fun.

Being able to teach future law graduates from a top 5 law school how to think through law and tech and leverage it to increase access, avoid systemic biases, and recognize how to remove data and other biases that creep in through groupthink and lack of representation in design, risk evaluation and all aspects of tech creation and use, is an amazing opportunity for us and the students that join us.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

CJ: TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpgEceNtYlA

Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/reimagining-justice/id1449701070?i=1000477221545

Blog Law and Technology:

A Story of Diversity and Documents: Claudia Johnson

Blog: Connecting Justice Communities—blog posts about LawHelp Interactive

Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Provided Legal Lifeline During Covid-19

There are multiple posts here, including highlights of the NY DV efiling project, and highlights of our Partnership with DC Courts and more.

Blogs in Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog: example: https://accesstojustice.net/2011/12/30/claudia-johnson-blogs-on-legal-services-policy-research-and-the-elephant-in-the-room/

Leveraging Technology to Provide Legal Services at Scale

As Claudia points out, it is worth losing almost everything in order to gain the unprecedented freedom our country promises. By working hard to leverage tech to serve the neediest in our society, Claudia – and other legal tech pioneers – are securing that promise for more and more of those in need of legal services every day. We loved speaking with Claudia and look forward to following her career for years to come.

Safaa Aly first started volunteering with LiveHelp in the fall of 2020, hoping to find a way to support those in her community with the legal skills that she acquired during her time at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. The COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in illuminating the importance of community for Safaa and motivated her to volunteer for LiveHelp. In her own words, Safaa explained that “The pandemic made me think a lot about community and how to help your community members in any way you can, and working pro bono is one way to do that.” This passion for supporting those within her community is what helped motivate Safaa throughout her time with LiveHelp, and her empathy and dedication to helping others was consistently felt by those who turned to her for support on legal issues.

Entering into the legal field was not something that Safaa had always been certain of. After graduating from Amherst College with a degree in English, Safaa spent two years teaching at a boarding school in Jordan — an experience she described as being extremely meaningful to her. It was during this time that Safaa made the decision to go to law school. After being exposed first hand to the refugee crisis and other humanitarian issues, Safaa was motivated to “get concrete skills to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves.” During her time at law school, Safaa volunteered with the International Refugee Assistance Project but wanted to find a pro bono opportunity that would allow her to more consistently help those in her immediate community. This led her to LiveHelp where she volunteered each Monday, starting her busy week off with volunteer work — a reminder as to why she started in the legal field in the first place.

When asked about the difficulties of working with LiveHelp, Safaa responded by describing how she felt overwhelmed with the amount of people that needed legal support at first. However, these fears were quelled as she experienced the immense gratitude of those that turned to LiveHelp for assistance with some saying “God bless you” and “you really really helped me so much.” The experience of working with so many kind, gracious people in need of assistance served as a reminder to Safaa of how inaccessible, complicated, and daunting the legal system can be for so many people. 

Regarding her future in the legal field, Safaa plans to move to New York and work at a law firm after completing the Bar exam, but doing pro bono work is still something that’s incredibly important to her. On the role that pro bono work will play in the future of her legal career, Safaa said “I hope to pursue it. I definitely make a conscious effort to do it, and it’s something that everyone should do. I 100% think it grounds you, not just with your work and career but personally too.” Her biggest takeaway from her time with LiveHelp has been an increased awareness “to the variety of real everyday legal issues that people in your community are facing that really tremendously impact their lives. Do they have a home to go home to everyday? Do they have a clean or habitable space to live in? Do they have rights to see their children or are they getting their spousal support from whoever is supposed to be paying for it?” This again highlights Safaa’s deep commitment to community support and helping those around you in whatever way you can. 

“I think that 100% everybody should volunteer for LiveHelp, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.” Volunteering with LiveHelp allowed Safaa to communicate directly with those that she was helping, an aspect of her work that allowed her to feel firsthand the incredible impact that pro bono work has. LawHelpNY and Pro Bono Net are extremely grateful for Safaa’s expertise and passion in supporting everyday people navigate the intricacies of the American legal system. Thank you, Safaa, and good luck!


LiveHelp is the bilingual chat component of  LawHelpNY.org. LiveHelp chat is available in English and Spanish and provides legal assistance, information and referrals to those who have urgent and complex legal needs. Trained volunteers staff LiveHelp from 9 AM-9 PM on weekdays, making this service readily accessible to low-income working clients, individuals in rural areas, or people who may be homebound, elderly or living with disabilities. LiveHelp is also available on other websites powered by Pro Bono Net, including New York Crime Victims Legal Help.

LiveHelp recruits volunteers throughout the year. In order to be considered for our program, please complete our volunteer application and send, along with a copy of your resume to Dennis Brink at dbrink@nylawhelp.org. The application as well as additional information about volunteering with us can be found here: LiveHelp Program information.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic and financial crisis exacerbated inequality and disproportionately affected people of color and low-income communities, it also increased the civil legal needs of many.  By using LawHelp Interactive’s easy-to-use online forms, courts and nonprofits were immediately able to expand access to critical legal documents and empower those who the American legal system has historically left to fend for themselves. 

LHI is designed with empathy for the needs of those without lawyers.  It minimizes barriers and unnecessary complications associated with creating legal documents by providing comprehensive assistance in the form of free online interviews that yield complex documents in a simple and fast way. In 2020, LHI served one million interviews resulting in 710,378 legal documents to help put the power of the law into the hands of the people. LHI was able to achieve such success in these unprecedented times by listening to the needs of partners who create forms and end users who reach out for technical support. 

In LHI’s 2020 independent evaluation by Komenge,  user satisfaction was rated very high by  those who turned to LHI for help. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a multitude of new challenges for users, with 75% of survey respondents saying it was harder to access courts as a result of the pandemic, and 46% of respondents saying it was harder to access legal advice and assistance. Further, 44% of respondents reported using LHI as a direct result of COVID-19 or the related economic crisis. In response to these difficult circumstances, LHI stepped up by improving email functionality in the LHI system, providing e-signature options, and supporting partners in creating clearer e-filing instructions to share with end users. 

The evaluation found that 96% of end users had their needs very or somewhat well met, and 96% would use LHI’s services again.  During a time when access to court systems, legal tools, and communication were fundamentally challenged, 93% of end users reported that it was very important for them to have access to LHI’s services. The effects of the pandemic were felt disproportionately by people of color and immigrants. LHI users were 26% Black and 12% Latino, highlighting that the tool is used in or above parity to national samples. The high levels of satisfaction are evidence of the role that LHI played as a lifeline of legal support during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

End user feedback for LHI was overwhelmingly positive. Describing their experience, one user said: 

It was my first time, and I feel the form was easy and comfortable to manage. It was not intimidating as I could go back and forth to different sections. I took a lot of time to revise everything but I do prefer to do this at the comfort of my home and not in an office or courtroom.”

By collaborating with partners, LHI was able to meet the needs and demands of its users and develop effective and necessary legal documents. As a result of the pandemic, 61% of partners saw an increased demand for their services and 55% saw an increased demand or need for online forms. After working with LHI to adjust to the needs of clients in these complex circumstances, 100% of partner respondents said LHI was easy to use and they were satisfied with the LHI platform overall. The COVID-19 crisis fundamentally changed the way many partners delivered services with 91% of respondents reporting a partial or complete shift to remote services. LHI provided the platform and assistance necessary to meet the unique demands of this global crisis, and collaboration with partners played a critical role in supporting equitable access to the power of the law.

Pro Bono Net is proud of the accomplishments achieved by LHI and its partners and the high levels of satisfaction reported by those who utilized this national resource throughout this challenging year. In times of economic downturn and national crisis, the importance of legal accessibility is most poignantly exemplified. As economic resource pressures continue to shape the legal landscape in America, LHI remains committed to its mission of supporting nonprofits and courts who prioritize forms as a key access to justice tool and developing a system that empowers the public to create their own forms for free in a safe and supportive way. 

In LHI’s 2020 independent evaluation by Komenge, this is what a partner had to say when asked how the COVID crisis impacted how they approached remote legal services, many of the answers highlighted what a significant learning experience it had been: 

“It makes sense to offer remote legal services as one of the ways that we help the public. Some people have difficulty traveling to receive help in person. Remote services are convenient for many people who cannot take time off work during the business day. Even after the Covid pandemic is over, we will continue to provide remote services as part of our overall service model.”

This blog post is authored by Lily Zheng. Lily is Immigration Advocates Network’s 2021 summer intern. She has spent the summer updating IAN’s nonprofit resource library. She is currently in her senior year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Public Policy with minors in Human Rights and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. Lily had a chance to interview Professor Michael Kagan, below is their conversation.


Last week, I spoke with Professor Michael Kagan, Joyce Mack Professor of Law and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2020, Kagan published his first book The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line.

Lily Zheng: What inspired you to write the book?

Michael Kagan: I intended to write a more scholarly book about the state of immigration law, but we were immersed in this crisis, and panic spread through the community. I also felt like many people who opposed what Trump was doing didn’t also understand why immigrants are so vulnerable. I wanted to respond to that, and so a much more personal book came out than what I had planned or had ever written before.

LZ: Who is your audience for this book? Because it is so personal, it reads almost like a memoir to me, so who do you hope will read this and learn from your experience?

MK: One of the things that happened under Trump is that I think a lot of white liberals had their eyes opened a little bit to the inherent cruelty of the immigration system, in a way that they were not aware of under previous presidents. And I am a white man, right? I’m not threatened, myself. My family’s not threatened directly, at least not by immigration. I and other white liberals had the privilege of not being aware. As I write about in the book, even I, supposedly as an expert in this field, was not really aware of what people were coping with.

When I wrote this book, I was really conscious that I was not writing to undocumented immigrants in Las Vegas. I very much would hope that they would respect what I wrote, but I was really writing to people like myself.

LZ: In reading the book, I was really struck by how willing you were to say, “I really didn’t know this, I had no idea this was going on right beside me.” I think that is part of what makes the book really special is just that you’re so willing to put your perspective and your errors forward.

MK: I do really believe, and this was something I decided consciously after the 2016 election, that you have to be willing to make mistakes. And I made some, which I tried to discuss in the book. I’ll make more. But I would rather try to do something and make a mistake, than not try to do anything for fear of making a mistake because that’s also a mistake. Especially when the community is under attack.

LZ: Previously, you were not as heavily involved in community organizing around immigration, and  your focus was working in this field as a lawyer. After 2016, what was it like to add that aspect of community and working with community organizations?

MK: First of all, I’m always aware that I’m working with an area of law that I myself think is basically deeply wrong and deeply cruel and deeply racist in its origins and its applications. Crossing a line in the dirt is illegal only because someone arbitrarily said it is. An aggressive enforcement apparatus that we’ve built in this country only exists because we as a country consciously decided to set it up.

My basic belief is that migration is fundamentally human. To tell people not to migrate is going to be about as effective as telling people not to fall in love. And it’s going to cause hardships in similar ways and cruelty in similar ways.

So I work within that system as a lawyer. And I guess what I came to understand is that to work within that system, and to really be an ally of my neighbors, I have specific skills that some of my partners don’t have. Most of the people I work with are community organizers, not lawyers. They wouldn’t know what to do at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or in the immigration court. I think that I do have a role in that because of legal expertise.

LZ: It seems like having that legal expertise is beneficial to your work in the community. However, as someone who’s working within a system you don’t really believe in, how would you imagine the field or practice of immigration law?

MK: If I was in charge… Generally, I think we ought to have a government policy that says migration is good. It’s good for us as a country. You want to be a country that people want to migrate to, and the kind of people who do migrate are often the people who live up to every individual trait that we say we value in the United States. And migration is human.

LZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned that a lot of immigrants fit the values that America holds. Yet, I think we also see that immigrants are still criminalized and vilified in a way that is often racialized as well. How do you think that manifests in a place like Las Vegas?

MK: It is highly racialized. I think the reasons that we, as a country, have resisted immigrants have always been racial. Going back to the Chinese Exclusion era—pretty obvious. They would say they’re too hard working. They save too much money. They buy too many farms when they save all the money. Basically, they said they were the perfect Americans, if you look at the actual traits that were being ascribed to them. But then that still became a reason to hate that and exclude them for some reason. It definitely is a “you can’t win” situation if you’re brown. And that continues, too, today.

You know, like the stories I tell in the book. In a place like Las Vegas, you don’t have to work hard to find an immigrant family that has lived up to and exceeded everything that American students have been taught in elementary school about the stuff that we value in this country. They work hard, they love their family, they build their community, they help others. They teach their children to try to exceed what they have done. And yet, still, there’s a whole political party that just wants to kick them out. Just because they’re Brown. I think Trump made that more clear.

LZ: At the same time, though, there’s often a dichotomy in the narrative presented about immigrants, dividing them into good and bad immigrants, or hard-working, law-abiding immigrants and people who are unemployed or have records. How do you navigate this as you approach your work, but also, as you try to tell stories from your community and your neighbors?

MK: We struggle in the immigrant rights movement to figure out what to do with the fact that immigrants also are not perfect. There are a lot of variations on that.

So, on the one hand, with 11 million undocumented immigrants, a couple of them are going to commit murder. And I don’t think we should pretend otherwise. Because if you take any randomly selected group of 11 million human beings, you’re going to find a range. The flip side of this, too, though, there’s a tendency in immigrant rights activism, not only to highlight people who don’t have a criminal record, but also to highlight people who exceed a level most of us can never dream of. I don’t want to expect every immigrant to win a Nobel Prize in Physics either. And it’s cool that it was an immigrant who invented the COVID vaccine, but I don’t want to have to live up to that myself.

So because I think migration is human, I want immigrants to have the privilege or the right or the respect to just be normal humans. It’s cool that some of them win Nobel prizes, but they shouldn’t all have to, to have some value. So I think we struggle with that in the immigrant rights movement because it is irresistible, often, in the politics of this, to put forward the most sympathetic person.

Again, in the interest of self-criticism, in my book, if you look at chapter two, I still put front and center this very real family—not making them up—real and typical. But nevertheless, highly sympathetic, no criminal record, hard-working and all that. That’s real. And like I said, it’s irresistible. And I failed to resist using that as the narrative. But I think we should be pushing to be able to look at immigrants much more as regular people, meaning as flawed as the rest of us.

LZ: So, going back to the book, and seeing it as a process of personal growth for you as you wrote it and even now looking back on it, how was the process different from your previous writing experience?

MK: Normally, I write a lot of law review articles as a law professor or briefs because I also practice law. Those tend to be more formulaic. This was a much more personal form of writing.

I was writing about people in a community I know. Someone I know who read my book, described it as a love letter to Las Vegas. And I think that’s probably accurate. I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was writing it, but that’s right. So I hope that there’s a kind of passion that comes through, like a love letter.

But it was painful at times. As I tried to capture in the book, I was working through and learning, myself, what my role as a white man, as a white and high-status law professor in a community with far too few resources, would be when my neighbors were under attack. In the book, I tried to capture my own misconceptions, errors of good intentions, errors of blindness, and work through what I really needed to be applying myself to do and what I was also understanding was not my role. I also was witness and part of an immigrant rights community locally in Las Vegas that I think also really matured in a lot of ways in response to this crisis. We wanted to capture that too. I mean, some of the people I admire most in the world I didn’t even know in 2016, but they have mobilized to respond. I was really glad to be able to tell that story.

LZ: It’s amazing that we can read, in your book, the maturing of your work and of the entire community in Las Vegas. What has been happening, for you and your community, since then?

MK: I’m happy to report since the book ended that we’ve made a lot of progress. You’ll know from the book that I was very, very frustrated and really depressed, actually, that we had not been able to do as much as I had hoped to expand legal defense for people facing deportation.

In 2021, we are making some huge steps forward in Las Vegas. We’ve gotten $500,000 from the state legislature, and we are in process of getting a matching amount of money from the Clark County Commission to build what we will call a Community Advocacy Center and expansion of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. It’ll be the first stand-alone deportation defense center in the state of Nevada. And I’m really proud of that. I think it’s a huge contribution.