January 2014

We are pleased to highlight the Equal Justice Works campaign for increased law student pro bono participation. A brief summary of the campaign and how you can support it is below and is followed by an interview with Tyler Levsen, a law student and advocate for law student pro bono service.

This month, law students are speaking up about pro bono through the Law Students for Pro Bono initiative. Equal Justice Works is supporting the hundreds of law students and graduates who are asking the ABA to adopt an aspirational goal of law students completing 50 hours of pro bono work. Comments are due to the ABA this Friday, January 31. Join the growing list of supporters by signing the online petition today, and get your classmates and colleagues to sign too.

Pro bono projects are great opportunities to gain hands-on experience while doing what so many come to law school to do: make a difference and serve the underserved. See what Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern has to say about the Law Students for Pro Bono campaign in this special video message.

Tyler Levsen is a Law Students for Pro Bono advocate and leader at the University of Missouri School of Law. Tyler has been an active pro bono participant, volunteering at several organizations in a wide variety of capacities.* Here’s why he thinks pro bono makes a difference:

Jake Hertz: What inspired you to do pro bono?

Tyler Levsen

Tyler Levsen: As a sociology major during my undergraduate education, I learned a lot about inequality. The degree to which injustice is systemic and even intentional greatly frustrated me. I saw opportunity and purpose in assisting good people who had been discounted by others based on shallow, at times malicious, evaluations. Whether it’s due to socioeconomic status or educational attainment, a substantial number of people are taken advantage of and are not provided for according to the common dignity we all share. When I chose to attend law school, I knew I wanted to provide for those without financial means, bridging their world and the legal world, in the legal system. I am determined to provide effective legal services to those who are overwhelmed by innumerable challenges, regardless of their ability to pay, so that they may have some resolution in their lives.

JH: What skills has your pro bono service helped develop and how has it been personally rewarding?

TL: Pro bono service has taught me to be mindful in giving advice. At the same time, it assured me of my advocacy abilities. It is harmful when I preemptively jump at an answer on behalf of a client, but once I have properly considered the issue, I need to believe in my assessment and approach. Because pro bono work quickly exposed me to actual case work, the importance of my research and writing spurred me to become more capable in these areas. I am fairly patient and enjoy interacting with clients, so I would often listen to them share about their lives at length. Through these exchanges, I have improved in distinguishing information and guiding clients so I can determine what is important to their case more efficiently while still being attentive and respectful. Ultimately pro bono service has been personally rewarding in shaping my career, but more so because I have been able to provide assistance to low income clients. I have made a difference.

JH: How has your pro bono service added to your law school experience?

TL: From high school to college to law school, I have proceeded through my academic education as a continuous student without any sizeable break. While I appreciate learning in a class room setting, I found law school encouraged me to do more during these years and after graduation. I am ready to employ my knowledge, and law school has been the access point through which I have been able to accomplish this by serving pro bono. In this way, pro bono work has substantially shaped my path through law school, giving it meaning beyond grades and rankings. I have developed a finer sense of justice, helping real clients outside of casebooks. I am more aware of my strengths and weaknesses as an attorney, beyond taking a classroom test. Through assisting low income individuals, I demonstrate what I have learned in class, proving to myself that I am indeed refining my skills, which bolsters my confidence and determination. Pro bono service has been the heart of my law school experience.

JH: Why do you think the 50 hour goal is important and how do you hope it will help increase access to justice?

TL: The 50 hour goal is important because law students are eager for professional, practical experience, but have not been properly exposed to the benefits of pro bono work and public interest areas of law. I believe these opportunities for personal development and impactful service have been substantially under promoted to law students for a long time. I sense that legal education and career services are undergoing a shift, though the traditional and popular path from law school to a big firm still holds sway over the aspirations of many law students. If the ABA encourages law students to participate in pro bono, many indigent clients will be aided not just from the work of present-day law students. As attorneys, students who have awareness and involvement will be more likely to seek out employment that prioritizes continuing their service. No matter whether one is an attorney at the smallest non-profit legal aid office or the largest corporate law firm, pro bono can be and should be a part of their case load so that everyone may be represented, ensuring that justice will become more accessible to all. This need must be given the attention it deserves and the proposed 50 hour goal would help that to be accomplished.

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*Tyler’s pro bono service includes:

  • Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Rule 13 Certified Extern, Kansas City, MO (Jun. 2013 – Aug. 2013) Advised and interviewed indigent families with children in need of Medicaid coverage. Drafted research memos and letters to clients, health care providers, and insurance companies. Conducted community outreach.
  • Mid-Missouri Legal Services, Rule 13 Certified Extern, Columbia, MO (May 2012 – Aug. 2012) Represented indigent clients in civil disputes with landlords. Interviewed and counseled clients. Drafted legal memos, motions, and other legal documents.
  • Heart of Missouri CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate Volunteer, Columbia, MO (Sept. 2011 – Present) Advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in court through investigation, evaluation, and monitoring of the case until a permanent placement is achieved.
  • Mid-Missouri Legal Services, Rule 13 Certified Volunteer, Columbia, MO (Jul. 2012 – Present) Assist clients in uncontested divorces and obtaining power of attorney.
  • Memphis Area Legal Services, Rule 13 Certified Volunteer, Memphis, TN (Mar. 25-26, 2013) Worked to draft simple wills and complete power of attorney forms. Advised clients at a clinic for veterans.
  • South Eastern Louisiana Legal Services, Volunteer, New Orleans, LA (Winter Break, 2010 & 2011) Interviewed clients. Monitored hearings. Drafted memos on landlord/tenant law and social security issues in regard to homeless clients.
  • University of Missouri School of Law, Mediation Clinic, Columbia, MO (Jan. 2012 – May 2012) Organized mediation between two parties. Observed mediation in civil rights cases.

Read more testimonials from students, and share your own story, at lawstudentsforprobono.org.

Last week, Patrick Reynolds, the Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2013 AmeriCorps VISTA, wrapped up his year of service. We conducted an interview with him to reflect on his experience and learn more about what’s next for Patrick. Join us in thanking Patrick for his hard work on behalf of the Access to Justice Community!

Pro Bono Net: What interested you in the VISTA program and in service with Pro Bono Net specifically?

Patrick Reynolds

Patrick Reynolds: I first became interested in the VISTA program because I wanted an adventure. I had never done any major volunteer work before, or been to Montana, and it seemed like a situation where I would be challenged and forced to learn and adapt, while also doing something worthwhile. I have had a long-standing interest in law and I knew I wanted a VISTA position related to legal aid. I also liked the idea of collaborating with the national LawHelp network and having an impact beyond just Montana.

PBN: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past year.

PR: I’ve worked on a number of projects this year, including writing partner profiles and creating media contact lists, toolkits, and webinar summaries. I also worked on a number of smaller projects involving video editing, Photoshop image alteration, and adding items to the SWEB support site. In addition, I gave several presentations on LawHelp Coordinator Calls.

PBN: What was your favorite project and why?

PR: My favorite project was definitely the Google Analytics Toolkit. It was much more complicated than I expected it to be at first, but I ended up learning a lot of new information. The Google Analytics Toolkit was very heavy on the research phase, which I really enjoyed. The Google Analytics Toolkit also involved writing, video editing, and a presentation on a coordinator call, so I got to use and develop a lot of different skills over the course of the one project.

PBN: What are some takeaways from your service with Pro Bono Net, in personally and professionally?

PR: In terms of personal takeaways, I learned a lot about the state of access to justice in this country, and I will absolutely continue to support programs like Pro Bono Net in my personal life regardless of where I end up working. I have ended up directing friends to LawHelp sites several times already this year and I’m sure I will continue to do so in the future. Professionally, I feel I have improved as a writer, learned a great deal about web analytics, improved my overall organization skills, and formed some more solid career goals.

PBN: How will your experience help you going forward, professional and personally?

PR: My year of service with AmeriCorps has helped me realize that I would like a career in the nonprofit sector, preferably working in a legal aid related nonprofit. I have made a lot of new contacts over the last year, both professionally and personally through communicating with people in the LawHelp network and through the VISTA program.

PBN: What are you looking to do now and how has the VISTA experience influenced your goals?

PR: If possible I would like to find a job somewhere at a legal aid nonprofit. I have really appreciated how friendly and helpful the employees of Pro Bono Net have been all year. My interactions with MLSA, Legal Services State Support, OneJustice, and other organizations have also left a very positive impression. My move from Michigan to Montana also helped me realize that I can handle leaps into the unknown fairly well, and while I would at this point prefer a non-Americorps job, I would not be opposed to signing up for a second term with AmeriCorps if I could find a similar position somewhere in the country. After my year of service, I feel like I have a much more coherent goal for my future, as well as the tools to help me go after that goal.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I work on projects designed to increase the capacity of attorneys and advocates who provide disaster legal assistance. Thus, with few exceptions, I work more with attorneys and advocates than with the disaster victims themselves. On the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service organized by the Corporation for National and Community Service, however, I had the opportunity to join fellow VISTA members in doing community service. So, instead of spending this past Monday in the office, I joined VISTAs from the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island and volunteers from All Hands Volunteers to work in a residential basement damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The experience led me to reconsider my preconceived notion of the relationship between direct and indirect service.

The VISTA and All Hands volunteers took time during their lunch break to pose for a photo. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the homeowner’s son ran a personal training business out of the basement. Submerged under 6 feet of water, the basement and all of the gym equipment were completely destroyed. While a contractor initially replaced the walls, they quickly became re-infested with mold. All Hands Volunteers offered to rebuild the basement, with their corps of full-time volunteers and day-to-day participants like me.

While I admittedly had zero building and construction experience (save for assembly of the Ikea variety), the All Hands site supervisor made sure to assign tasks we could complete, provide ample instruction and supervision, and pair us to make the work social and collaborative. The day’s work consisted of preparing, installing, and securing drywall and cement backer boards, which are the foundation of home interior walls. Volunteers were broken into teams that prepared, installed, and secured the wall materials.

My partner Charnelle and I spent the day inspecting and fastening the studs that keep cement backer board solidified and in place. Cement board is a water and mold resistant alternative to drywall. With both drywall and cement backer board, the screws keeping the boards in place have to be depressed below the surface before finishing and paint can be applied. So, Charnelle and I went around the basement armed with power drills, triangles, a T-square and pencils, checking every single screw on each installed piece of cement backer board. Other than a hand cramp from continual use of the power drill, I came away unscathed, albeit still without much construction skill.

An All Hands volunteer at work. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Over the course of the day, I had the opportunity to converse with the All Hands volunteers and learn about their direct service. I left the house having made a tangible impact in a Sandy victim’s recovery – the cement backer boards I helped install will be the foundation of the finished basement walls. While it is sometimes difficult to leave the office and easily conjure the faces of people who benefit from the resources I am developing, I came away from my day of service having met someone who I definitively helped. To say the work was rewarding and of the utmost importance would be an understatement.

Direct service produced clear and palpable results that made it easy to see the impact my work had on Sandy victims, especially with the homeowner watching. It felt great to personally assist a Sandy victim. Still, I came away from my day of service feeling just as strongly about the importance of my VISTA service as I did on my first day. I had an enhanced appreciation of how vital both my efforts and those of the All Hands volunteers are to New York’s Sandy recovery.

I had assumed that direct services and capacity-building services were the front and back office of a giant non-profit machine; I now understand that the relationship isn’t so simple. We perform fundamentally different, yet equally important roles.

The All Hands volunteers help victims literally rebuild their lives after a disaster, and as a VISTA I can help make that rebuilding as easy and rapid as possible. For example, as I was working on the basement, I thought: “Why did mold return so quickly after a contractor initially reconstructed the walls? Was the contractor licensed? Did the homeowner have the necessary legal advice and knowledge to make the right rebuilding, insurance, and aid application decisions?” At Pro Bono Net, I am helping create resources that address these very questions and facilitate the provision of legal services to disaster victims.

Thanks to my participation in the MLK Day of Service, I now realize that there isn’t a yin-and-yang relationship between direct service and capacity building. All Hands Volunteers and Pro Bono Net don’t interact with each other or have the same deliverables, clients, or perspectives, but are both broadly engaged in disaster recovery. Each organization’s unique means of helping disaster victims are equally important and indicative of varied skills, backgrounds, and responses to different victim needs more so than a desire to be the front office or back office on recovery efforts. In our different ways and in our fundamentally different offices, we are serving the countless victims struggling to rebuild over a year after Superstorm Sandy.

 

Patrick Reynolds, the 2013 Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2013 AmeriCorps VISTA, reports on the December 4th, 2013 LSNTAP webinar on the use of technology to help unrepresented litigants. More of Patrick’s posts are available here.

The last LSNTAP webinar of 2013 – the Beyond Online Intake on Wednesday, December 4th -highlighted a number of projects relating to Triage and Expert Systems. The goal of the webinar was to provide a look into programs that increase the efficiency of intake, as well as the applications and tools that can be combined with them in order to improve the services offered. The webinar was moderated by Mirenda Watkins of Pro Bono Net, while projects were presented by Mike Grunenwald of the DC Bar Pro Bono Program, Gwen Daniels from Illinois Legal Aid Online, Gordon Shaw of the Massachusetts Justice Project, and Liz Keith for Pro Bono Net.

The slides can be viewed along with a recording of the webinar on the SWEB support site. A recording of the webinar has also been posted to the LSNTAP YouTube page.

Mirenda Watkins began the webinar by offering a proposed definition of triage and online intake. Triage was defined as a rational distribution of  resources based on litigant need and case complexity to insure that all litigants have access to justice. The triage process sorts resources and people to reach the most fair and just result for all involved. Intake was defined as the process of deciding which clients will be accepted by a legal services provider based on articulated criteria. Intake can include data collection, review, denial of services, and referrals and can be done online, in person, and over the phone.

Mike Grunenwald, Senior Project Specialist, DC Bar Pro Bono Program
Consumer Debt/Bankruptcy App.

Mike Grunenwald gave the first presentation on the topic of two Apps in development by the DC Bar Pro Bono Program through partnerships with Georgetown Law and Neota Logic. The first app presented was the Consumer Debt/Bankruptcy App. Utilizing law students with tech support from Neota Logic, the app is intended to assist consumers in generating no contact letters to creditors, but has been expanded to help determine if a person was judgment proof. Seeing the potential for expansion and with the willingness of the Georgetown law students to contribute to further development, the scope of the app has been expanded again and connected into the DC Bar Pro Bono Programs bankruptcy clinic. This expansion became a tool for bankruptcy clinic pre-screening that could quickly run users through a bankruptcy checklist that previously took around 30 minutes to complete during the traditional bankruptcy clinic.

The app should save a great deal of time at the bankruptcy clinic stage and allow the clinics to operate with increased efficiency. While the DC Bar Pro Bono Project is not currently doing online intake, the usefulness of this app for increasing the efficiency of their bankruptcy clinic will hopefully serve as a driver for online intake.
Concierge App

Another effort by the DC Bar Pro Bono Project is to develop a Concierge App. The goal of this app is to devise a better way to help people find the resources they are looking for. The Concierge App will ask visitors to the site why they are there and  would then help them find exactly what they are looking for. This program would also make connections where the user might not see them. The example given was that issues with Divorce, Domestic Violence, and Housing Rights are sometimes intertwined, and the process helps to branch out and identify other relevant resources for complicated individual situations.

Gordon Shaw, Executive Director, Massachusetts Justice Project
Legal Resource Finder

Gordon Shaw discussed the Legal Resource Finder, a project funded by a 2012 Technology Initiative Grant (TIG). The tool will create an expert web based triage tool to help the applicant figure out where they can get help. This is needed because of the flood of requests for assistance and the inability of the existing systems to handle the volume. In Massachusetts, there are 18 specific legal aid programs that lack any centralized way to direct people to their resources.

The site will be up and running shortly and is built with the Drupal data management system. This program uses short online forms where users fill out a limited number of questions about their issues and their demographics. The Legal Resource finder will then search a database and inform them about which programs in their area are accepting those issues for intake, provide live links to online resources, and direct them to additional programs that may exist to help. The Legal Resource finder will be part of one of the state legal aid websites, and other legal aid programs will be linking to the site if they have an online intake system. While this site is not intake in and of itself, and the information will not be saved, it will help steer away people who are clearly over income for example towards more productive areas than online intake.

Gwen Daniels, Director of Technology Development, Illinois Legal Aid Online
Online intake, Triage and Expert Systems

Gwen Daniels presented the Illinois statewide online access system, a TIG funded project from January 2012 that is currently in live beta. This project handles problematic codes where the triage is less visible and directs the user away from programs and into self help material. One problem this program was intended to combat is that telephone intake operators spend half their time informing applicants they can’t help them. This system was built with the idea of pushing high priority cases towards intake while directing the rest to self help resources. The system has an Admin focused interface on Illinoislegaladvocate.org which allows each organization or sometimes each office to set system messages at a problem code level. Advocates can open and close intake, and set limits for income, assets, zip codes and counties, and the number of intakes allowed.

The user interface for both intake and triage is on the statewide public website platform. From the user perspective, if legal aid is available then a yellow popup will inform them of their options. For example, visitors with food stamp related issues such as “I tried to apply for food stamps but they wouldn’t let me” would be directed not to online intake but to an exit screen with links to more relevant content. Selecting the right options will transfer them into the legal server, while filtering out the cases that can’t be helped. It also allows for an “Always Divert” option, where terms like “Traffic” or “criminal”, which LAS doesn’t take will be directed to call other agencies. This program will be out of beta in 2014, with next steps being focused on deeper integration with systems, true statewide integration, and analysis dating to refine triage rules.

Another project is a statewide collaborative data system, funded by a 2013 TIG grant, which will allow for a statewide legal server to be used to hold online intake. This project will be able to pass data from the case management system of each organization and the statewide websites into a single legal server. The resulting data can then be analyzed to see how well they are picking up cases that are the best use of their limited resources. This should allow them to spot patterns in the cases that get picked up and further refine their triage rules to avoid intake for people who are ineligible.

Liz Keith, LawHelp Program Manager, Pro Bono Net
New Mexico Legal Aid 2014 Triage Pilot Program

As part of a 2014 Technology Initiative Grant, Pro Bono Net is partnering with New Mexico Legal Aid and Neota Logic to develop a statewide triage system that intelligently guides users towards the most actionable results and ensures New Mexico Legal Aid and its partners get cases that will allow them to do the most good. New Mexico has large rural areas that cover thousands of square miles where increased access to resources is necessary. This program has several components, encompassing triage for advocates, triage for individuals in need of legal assistance, development of new self-help and legal education content for triage system users, and a data reporting service.

While it is piloted in New Mexico the longer-term goal is to make it available nationwide. Keeping an eye toward the creation and hosting of such a program in other states, there will be a set of canned or master rules that can be modified for other states. The advocates triage program gathers information on litigants based on program priorities, intake requirements, and broader advocacy strategies in order to determine what resources or referrals would be most impactful. The first step for such a program is developing an agreed upon system of questions and protocol to help script and guide triage and referral rules for the system. The triage interview for advocates will then be adapted to create a similar tool for the public. Public interviews will be provided in English and Spanish with the goal to provide a one stop universal tool that can be used statewide for diagnosing and guiding people to the relevant resources, forms, referrals, or intake. Those directed to intake will be provided with preparatory information, and recommended actions to help the user prepare for their appointment or meeting with an advocate. It will also include the option to email a standard email request to a recommended organization for reviewing and uploading into their CMS where appropriate. The interview template with Neota Logic could also be widgitized for inclusion in other systems such as those of public libraries.

This year’s Technology Initiative Grant’s annual conference is slated for next week, January 15th through the 17th in Jacksonville, Florida.  This is the only national conference to focus specifically on technology in nonprofit legal service environments.  This year’s conference highlights online intake and triage, support for self-represented litigants as well as data analysis and visualization. Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, LawHelp Program Manager Liz Keith, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Coordinator Mirenda Watkins,  LawHelp Program Associate Jillian Theil and LawHelp Program Coordinator Xander Karsten are slated to participate in a variety of panels this year. Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology and Operations, Doug Carlson, will also be in attendance.

Mark O’Brien and Mirenda Watkins will join Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems, Mike WIlliams, Chief Clerk at the New York Bronx County Family Court as well as Vince Morris and Kim Marshall at Arkansas Legal Services Partnership on a panel exploring the history and future of LHI in “LHI- You’ve come a long way baby.”

Mirenda, Liz Keith and Mike Williams will sit down with Susan Ledray of Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District to explore both physical and online best practices when creating services for self-represented litigants in “Creating On-Ramps to Online Resources: User Centered Design for Self Help Environments.”

Liz will also speak about trends in online intake and triage with Illinois Legal Aid Online’s Gwen Daniels and Northwest Justice Project’s Joan Kleinberg in “Online Triage and Intake: To Infinity and Beyond.”

Claudia Johnson will join Caroline Robinson of Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Jeff Hogue of Legal Assistance of Western New York as well as Gwen Daniels and Dennis Rios of Illinois Legal Aid Online in “LEP Dreaming of the Future,” a panel focusing on harnessing technology to address the needs of LEP communities.

Xander Karsten will join LawNY’s Anna Hineline and Legal Server’s Ivy Ashton in “Introduction to Data Visualization and Process Analysis.”

Finally, Claudia, Liz and Jillian will be hosting Affinity Group gatherings covering LawHelp Interactive, LiveHelp and social media.

We also hope to see many of our partners and stakeholders at the conference, in panels, and at our LawHelp Networking Session: What’s New, What’s Next in 2014, on Friday from 8:30-9:30 AM.  Not only is the session a great opportunity to meet other admins from around the country and see what will be changing in the next year, we will also hear from Sue Encherman, the Director of Administration at Northwest Justice Project and Barbara Siegel, Project Manager at Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, about exciting work taking place on LawHelp.org and probono.net projects in Washington and Massachusetts.

Directly preceding the conference itself, Claudia Johnson and Mirenda Watkins will be hosting an in-person training for the LawHelp Interactive community on creating online forms and managing interactive forms projects.

To learn more about this year’s conference and many other sessions of interest to the legal services technology community, visit the TIG website.