February 2014

I was delighted by the invitation to speak recently at one of my favorite events – the yearly gathering of New York’s Pro Bono Coordinator Network, held during the New York State Bar Annual Meeting in NYC. The meeting brings together pro bono professionals of all persuasions – from large urban legal services organizations and small rural ones to law firms and law schools – from across the state to discuss changes and hot topics in the field. Although my lunchtime tech talk meant that I missed out on those delicious little sandwiches (I think it’s the dressing) I’d tasted the previous year, it was definitely worth it to share ideas with these folks.

The invitation asked me to hold forth on tech tools and case management systems, but I confessed up front that the only thing I can say about case management systems with 100% confidence is that you’re probably frustrated with the one you’re using. Better to stick with a few tips for using technology to streamline, automate, and promote key elements of a pro bono program (and an organization).

PBN collaboration through Office365

So, first up: versatile, name-brand, collaboration-enabling office tools that you’re already familiar with are available in the cloud, and in many cases are free to your program or organization. Not that you don’t have so much funding you can’t spend it all but, you know, just in case. Google for Nonprofits offers the suite that you probably already use in your personal life completely free to nonprofit organizations. Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar …  but branded with your program’s name. That is, I can use the email address afriedl@probono.net (drop me a line!) through Gmail, with my program’s logo where Gmail usually goes. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has begun offering Office 365 for Nonprofits as well. Outlook, Word, Excel … all the programs that you know and love, cloud-based and free.

Second tip: don’t reinvent the wheel – just write your name on it. There are great tool-builders out there you can partner with to offer innovative features under your brand. Take, for example, the NY Opportunities Guide created by Pro Bono Net. I mean the NYSBA Opportunities Guide. See what we did there? The second is identical to the first (it searches the same organizations and provides the same functions) but has the look (or “skin”) of NYSBA’s website laid on top. (Also, NYSBA, great new design!) Similarly, for large organizations and law firms that use an intranet, Pro Bono Net has developed a tool that seamlessly streams content from the PBN network alongside the normal content on your page. It makes pro bono resources and information available in the same window – no going to another website or remembering passwords. In many cases, users don’t even know the content is coming from another site.

NYSBA’s Twitter Account

Third tip: when you’ve got a great program, folks ought to know about it – but be thoughtful in how you approach your web and social media presence. It’s always better to start small and grow rather than start too ambitiously and not be able to keep up. For example, you want to make sure that your website is fresh and current. Websites that have obviously not been touched in a long time feel stale and imply that their creators are not on the ball. Similarly, if you’re going to use Facebook or Twitter, really use them. When an organization’s last tweet was 963 days ago, I start to suspect it might not be the sort of engaged place I want to know more about. There are lots of ways to lighten the social media load, including linking your Facebook and Twitter accounts or using services like Buffer or Hootsuite that allow you to pre-write, schedule, and otherwise manage posting efficiently.

Although I’d love to say my talk was the day’s unquestionable highlight, 2013 was a year of big changes for pro bono in New York, so I was a small part of a big day. It was fascinating to hear views on developments such as the 50-hours of pro bono requirement for bar admission, mandatory pro bono reporting (but not mandatory pro bono service itself), and authorization for inhouse counsel pro bono from such a diverse group. There were also excellent panels on Federal Practice Pro Bono and on Court-based Family Law Clinics for Pro Se Assistance (including a new videoconferencing model that Pro Bono Net is helping to expand).

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) released its TIG Letter of Intent (LOI) invitations last week. This year the priorities are very focused and closely aligned with the Technology Summit Report of 2013.

This year the total amount of funds available to Legal Services grantees is $3.45 Million. There are two main categories: 1) innovation and improvements, which allow grantees to invest in creating new technology or enhancing existing technology projects and 2) replication projects, which could be used to replicate priorly funded projects, or replicate document assembly projects. LSC highlights multiple areas of interest, including:

  1. Online forms
  2. Mobile technologies
  3. Check list and expert systems
  4. Work flow process analysis
  5. Tech tools for Federal areas of legal work

LSC encourages collaborations between groups serving overlapping communities in the legal services delivery system—so if you are not an LSC grantee, you could partner with an LSC grantee and work together on an LOI. The replication category is pretty broad—and it includes projects such as developing e-filing integrations with friendly e-filing forms, integration between online forms and legal nonprofit case management systems, and multiple video tutorials including multilingual projects in past years (a growing area of need for both courts and legal aid groups).

It also includes multiple enhancements to information seeker online portals, including creating mini-portals off existing LSC funded statewide websites (visit LawHelp to find each state’s website) to push out information relevant to high volume legal programs in substantive areas of priority, such as foreclosure, divorce, and consumer law.

Here is an example of a mini-portal on divorce from Virginia and one on foreclosure from Georgia. Another example in the area of child support (not funded with TIG funds but Title IV D, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) funds) includes a broad range of technology tools, including website, videos, and forms from South Carolina could also be replicated.

It is time to put on the thinking cap—and come up with projects and models that leverage the investments. This is a chance to look at the “bread and butter” building blocks of access to justice technology and think creatively about expanding them and or/moving them into the LSC’s areas of interest. This Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project (LSNTAP) webinar is a good overview of technology in the access to justice space for anyone looking to understand where the field is and what is new and up and coming.

If any of the readers of this blog wants to pursue projects that include online forms/checklists/or federal areas of law, please email me at cjohnson@probono.net and/or Mirenda Watkins at mwatkins@probono.net, and for those of you who want to pursue expert systems projects, or attorney and statewide information and referral websites and mini portals, please email Liz Keith at lkeith@probono.net.

Court-related readers should consider some of these ideas also for the SJI funding stream for courts, which is still accepting applications for 2014 with deadlines coming in May 1st, and then August 1st, 2014. The priority areas for SJI include:

  1. Self-Represented Litigation.
  2. Limited English Proficiency (LEP)
  3. Reengineering in Response to Budget Reductions
  4. Remote Technology – e.g., innovative use of technology to improve the business operations of courts and provide enhanced services outside the courtroom (videoconferencing, online access, educational services, remote court proceedings, the electronic record, centralization/regionalization of court services, etc.).
  5. Human Trafficking and the State Courts
  6. Immigration Issues in the State Courts
  7. Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Elder Issues

The deadline for the LSC grants is coming soon—3/17/2014 and there is a call on 2/27 to find out more about the application process. More information on the SJI grants is available on the State Justice Initiative website. The next deadline is in August.

The Problem

In the weak recovery from the worst recession in nearly a century, many South Carolinians have found it increasingly difficult to make their child support payments and have sought modifications to reduce their burden. One study reported that 79% of non-custodial parents in South Carolina who are unable to pay court-mandated child support are unemployed. Failure to make child support puts the non-custodial parents at risk of criminal sentences and Andrea Loney, Executive Director of South Carolina Legal Services says that in particular “low-income and no-income parents face a huge threat of going to jail for nonsupport.” Unsurprisingly, incarcerated parents are less able to make payments and find it more difficult to be a part of their child’s life.

In addition, as their financial circumstances worsened, many custodial parents faced an increased need for support. The consequences of the Great Recession precipitated a situation where both custodial and non-custodial parents had substantive reasons to seek support increases or modifications respectively. Unfortunately, both parties have found it increasingly difficult to receive assistance from the courts and the legal community at large.

As the demand for modifications increased over the past half decade, budgetary shortfalls reduced the capacity of legal aid providers to serve those seeking support modifications. As a result, already understaffed and overburdened courts have been flooded with “poorly documented or incomplete fillings.” Consequently, South Carolina courts can now take six to twelve months to hear support modification cases.

The Solution

A private/public partnership of various members [1] of the South Carolina and national legal community set out to respond to this growing challenge. Two years ago, members of the partnership brought LawHelp Interactive (LHI) and LawHelp.org to South Carolina. LawHelp Interactive is a national, online document service that enables pro se users to create their own court forms, while LawHelp.org is “an award-winning website that makes it easy for litigants to find, create, use and submit forms.” LHI divorce forms have been phenomenally successful in South Carolina, with 93% of users reporting that they plan to print and file the forms and 88% saying they would recommend the process to others. Seeking to replicate this success, the coalition created an application that would produce standardized, automated, and court-approved child support modification forms.

The application is available on LawHelp South Carolina and on a new site dedicated to child support modifications. Users go through an interactive interview and their answers are used to create court-approved documents and forms that they can print and bring to court. After receiving their documents, applicants are presented with step-by-step instructions on what to do next. In addition to helping litigants, the programs lessen the burden on overworked court staff by providing them with correct and complete forms that can be processed quickly. With less time spent correcting forms, court staff is able to provide better services to more people.

“Everyone’s looking for a way to do more with less. We’re using LawHelp Interactive to do just that.” – Pat Muller, Information Technology Manager for South Carolina Legal Services

Modification seekers can now generate complete, court-approved forms in just 35 minutes. According to the partnership’s research, the application cuts three months off the time needed to create accurate pleadings. Gale DuBose, Esq., Project Director of Jobs-Not Jail and Legal Coordinator at SC Fathers and Families says that the forms “keep parents in control of their cases instead of depending on agencies” and expand access to justice by providing tools to parents who cannot afford lawyers: “with LawHelp Interactive, we’re helping the system to work the way it’s supposed to work for all.” The partnership’s LHI forms extend resources to indigent South Carolinians and demonstrate the power of technology to help close the justice gap. To fund their effort, the South Carolina partners sought Title IVD funding from the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, allowing them to standardize and automate court-approved forms. Pro Bono Net operates LawHelp Interactive in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Innovation Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation. Pro Bono Net produced a case study that illustrates the improved outcomes for litigants and reduced costs for all parties.

Glenn Rawdon, Program Counsel for Technology for the Legal Services Corp. says that the project, “is a perfect example of legal aid groups working with other non-profits and funders to develop projects that improve access to justice with easy-to-use, uniform forms as the cornerstone.” As we begin 2014, our community should keep these successful initiatives in mind as examples of what is possible from the successful use of technological innovation to augment the work of skilled lawyers.

Further Reading:

1. Project Partners: South Carolina Legal Services, SC Bar Foundation, SC Center for Father and Families, SC Access to Justice, SC Judicial Department, SC Department of Social Services, and Pro Bono Net

In Bronx Family Court, Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive forms are a central component of an innovative e-filing project that has dramatically increased the court’s efficiency. The new pilot project is a paradigmatic example of technology’s capacity to increase access to justice, streamline court processes, and create a better and friendlier litigant experience.

Traditionally, when unrepresented litigants seek an Order of Protection (OP) in Family Court, they are told to wait in a crowded, impersonal room, and eventually met with a clerk who manually records the information (e.g. their name, the alleged offender’s name, litigant’s allegations, past legal actions, state registries, etc.) needed for the petition. This time and resource-intensive process was long and draining for litigants, and it prevented clerks from attending to their many other duties.

The new e-filing project is revolutionizing OP petition filing in Bronx Family Court and demonstrating a path for future uses of legal technology. In the Bronx, LHI programs are employed to allocate much of the petition preparation and intake to advocates instead of court clerks respectively. Under the pilot project, unrepresented litigants meet with approved advocates from nonprofit agencies in a smaller, more welcoming space in the courthouse where they can be comfortable explaining their situation.

The advocates use LHI programs to conduct intake and prepare petitions, which they electronically submit directly to the court’s Unified Case Management System (UCMS). LHI programs make petition preparation quick, easy, and accurate, ensuring both properly formatted, legible petitions for judges and court staff and allowing the advocates to assist far more litigants than if they were required to write every petition from scratch.

After meeting with an advocate and electronically submitting the petition, litigants head to the petition room to verify the information. Clerks quickly review the petition and cross-reference the parties to the case with other information in the UCMS or state databases. Litigants then go directly to see the judge/court referee, whose courtroom is directly off the petition room. Litigants who are granted a Temporary Order of Protection receive the paperwork in a matter of minutes. The clerks are able to process far more litigants, focusing on non-electronic filings and judges are able to issue more – and more accurate – orders. Usage of the LHI forms has increased each quarter, and in the final quarter of 2013 the application generated almost 40 petitions a day.

For other family court matters, such as child support, unrepresented litigants can use one of a dozen court-provided computers to access online Do-It-Yourself forms that generate the necessary documents. Exhibit A is a visual recreation of the new process in the petition room.

Exhibit A

The new system is open and transparent, using large windows without glass to provide litigants with a direct view of the inner workings of the court. In addition to the inherent virtues of transparency, the increased openness fosters greater trust in the justice system. Trust is essential to the court system’s genuine efforts to configure its courthouses into more user-friendly and approachable places for the litigants who seek justice there.

Under the tremendous leadership of Clerk of Court Mike Williams, the e-filing project is dramatically decreasing the time it takes to file OP petition, more efficiently utilizing staff resources and time, and increasing the capacity of both legal aid providers and the Bronx Family Court.

In Tuesday’s State of the Judiciary Address, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman highlighted the work of the Committee on Non-Lawyers and the Justice Gap (which includes Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien) in his announcement, including pioneering new efforts that will better serve the unrepresented.

For example, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, Court Navigators will give legal information to pro se litigants in select cases. This pilot project will use trained volunteer non-lawyers.

Additionally, in a collaborative effort between Albany Law School and the SUNY-Albany School of Social Welfare, a new program will be launched to provide legal information to seniors with a particular focus on the homebound. Pro Bono Net and LawHelpNY are excited to be a part of these innovative initiatives and commend Justice Lippman and the New York Unified Court System for their continued commitment to closing the justice gap.

For more on these programs, check out the always informative Richard Zorza’s recent write-up on his Access to Justice blog.

PLI’s New Reception Area

As the New Year begins, we are highlighting some exciting Practising Law Institute (PLI) workshops and trainings of particular interest to pro bono, legal services, and nonprofit attorneys. As always, PLI’s 2014 program places a strong emphasis on the needs of pro bono attorneys, working to ensure that all practitioners have the tools and knowledge they need to help close the justice gap. In addition, New York programs will be held at PLI’s new state-of-the-art Conference Center. The new space features a more intimate and specialized training center, a dedicated room for speakers and trainers to prepare their presentations, and a bookstore so attendees can continue their legal education on their own time.

We would also like to thank PLI for championing the need for pro bono as one of Pro Bono Net’s Bronze Sponsors since 2011. Through their sponsorship of Pro Bono Net and consistent presentation of pro bono programs, PLI has demonstrated outstanding dedication to providing attorneys with information and techniques to develop a powerful and effective pro bono practice and use their legal skills to give back to their communities. In 2014, PLI is offering workshops on a range of exciting topics – a selection of some our favorites is below.

March 20th: Social Media for Non-Profit and Public Interest Organizations 2014

This workshop will discuss how public interest organizations and nonprofits can develop a powerful social media brand. The panelists (including Pro Bono Net’s own Liz Keith and Xander Karsten!) will discuss the nuts and bolts of developing a consistent voice, setting up social media accounts and content strategies, and continuously maintaining a productive social media presence. The goal of the session is for attendees to leave with the tools to “attract more support, donors, and volunteers.” The program will be held on March 20th in San Francisco and will be live webcast online. You can register for this free event on PLI’s website.

April 16th: How to Handle Your First Pro Bono Case in New York

Taking on your first pro bono case can be a scary proposition! “How to Handle Your First Pro Bono Case” provides attorneys with the knowledge to begin their pro bono practice with the confidence and skills needed to succeed. The course will touch upon several topics, including:

  • Finding work consistent with or complementary to your current practice
  • Determining what type of pro bono matter you are looking for and ways to find it
  • Using resources in your firm to manage your pro bono matter
  • Establishing productive relationships with legal services/nonprofit providers
  • Competently representing your client and avoiding conflicts
  • Effectively communicating with your pro bono client and helping your client to navigate the court system.

This free program is on April 16th at the new PLI New York Conference Center and will also be webcast on PLI.edu. Attendees will be eligible for two professional practice New York CLE credits. Interested attorneys are encouraged to register in advance.

May 9th: Representing the Pro Bono Client: Consumer Law Basics 2014

The New Training Center

Consumer law is an area of widespread need amongst legal services and pro bono clients. In addition, it is a remarkably diverse field of law with issues ranging from consumer debt defense to mortgage matters to fraud and consumer protection. This free session will teach participants to represent and advocate for their clients in a wide range of consumer issues. The agenda covers legislation, namely the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and specific issue areas such as automobile fraud. The program will be hosted in PLI’s San Francisco offices and webcast on PLI.edu on May 9th. Registration and further details are available now!

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A complete listing of PLI programs, with courses available in New York, California, Chicago, DC, and online, can be found at PLI.edu.