November 2014

Non-lawyers writing words like Petition and easy in the same sentence? You got to be kidding me!

Everyday I come to my home office in Eastern Washington looking forward to opening our LawHelp Interactive inbox support box. Why? Because I want to read emails from end users and staff at libraries, self-help centers, and clinics that tell us what a difference being able to create legal documents online makes. I feel that from here I connect to the world via these emails.  And I do mean the world, since LawHelp Interactive creates forms for people in Germany, India, UK, and by people living or serving abroad. From being here over 6 years, I know the LHI statistics intimately – I am a self described data hawk. For example, I know that each day we support over 3,000 sessions, and that people are creating 1,300 documents per day using our system—including Saturday and Sunday. I am also acutely aware that the number of users keeps increasing thanks to the creativity of our legal aid partners and their outreach efforts – including greater use and adoption of LHI-powered forms in self-help centers, brick and mortar centers run by courts, legal aid, or libraries, and also in remote clinics. We also recently confirmed that 70% of our users want to create their forms and go—they don’t want to create accounts and come back to edit a long interview. We also know that shows that 15% of the documents are created by lawyers and court accounts working through pro bono events, run by legal aid staff attorneys, or pro bono lawyers. So, I got the numbers down—and I love the numbers.

But numbers are not enough. At the Goldman School at Berkeley, I learned that good policy looks at both qualitative and quantitative factors. In an effort to look at qualitative feedback from a different perspective, I went into our user inbox and pulled emails from 8/30/2014 to 9/15/2014 and stopped when I had 100 words. I used the feedback to create a word cloud. This is how it looks!

LHI Word Cloud
The LHI Word Cloud

It amazes me to see words like “helpful,” “Thank,” “Divorce,” “Support,” and all in relative similar sizes. The email forms asks “was this useful”—“Yes” is almost always in the emails we get—and also “Thank you so much.” Some people use the word awesome; “easy” is another word that comes up a lot. Seeing this word cloud, confirms to me that online, easy-to-use forms, and the platform that serves them play an indispensable role in the access to justice continuum. Without the forms or LHI to serve them, save them, store them, and allow people to edit them when they need to, many legal aid, court, and access to justice initiatives would not be able to provide such high quality assistance to so many who are in need.

Personally, to me this is reaffirmation that contributing to LawHelp Interactive, and being part of the Pro Bono Net team—is meaningful. My great grandma used to tell me in Spanish, “Tiempo perdido, hasta los angeles lloran,” which roughly means even angels weep for the time that they lose. Or in other words, wasting time is terrible. Time is the only resource in life we control absolutely – how we spend our time, what our mind and body do with the time we have, and how we share it with others. I spend everyday in the Pacific Northwest connected to NY, the South, and the Midwest and supporting LHI and the projects the amazing legal aid and Justice community run through LHI; it does not get any better than this. Seeing the word cloud—and seeing the words our end users use to tell us if the LawHelp Interactive forms were helpful makes my day many times over. I hope it makes your day too. If anyone wants to talk data, numbers, and LHI statistics for their projects and initiatives, and/or have me pull a word cloud from feedback on their online form projects, reach out to me. I would love to share our feedback with others.

The annual National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s conference, Blueprint For Justice: Designing a New Paradigm for Impact, will take place in Arlington, Virginia starting today.  Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, along with Liz Keith, Program Director, and Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, will present on a variety of panels about innovations in civil legal aid.

Fifty years after the launch of the War on Poverty, poverty remains a persistent problem in America, however, innovations in technology have allowed for significant progress in the provision of civil legal aid. With ever-expanding caseloads for full time attorneys and dwindling resources for legal services and courts, Pro Bono Net staff will join speakers from across the country to focus on how these innovations in technology have allowed for broader access to legal assistance.

Pro Bono Net staff are slated to participate in the following panels:

  • The Role of Forms and Interviews in Supporting the Work of Lay Advocates –  Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net; Alex Rabanal, Chicago-Kent College of Law; Glenn Rawdon, Legal Services Corporation
  • Innovations in Civil Legal Aid  – Sarah Frush, Legal Aid Bureau, Inc; Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net; Jan May, Legal Counsel for the Elderly; Patricia Pap, Management Information Exchange;  Alison Paul, Montana Legal Services Association; Jonathan Pyle, Philadelphia Legal Assistance
  • Expanding Expungement: Leveraging Technology & Implementing Innovative Strategies – Sharon Dietrich, Community Legal Services; Michael Hollander, Community Legal Services;  Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • The War on Poverty: Doing It with Modern Tools – Michael Hollander, Community Legal Services; Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net; Tanina Rostain, Georgetown Law School ; Gordon Shaw, Community Legal Aid

We hope to see many of our partners and stakeholders at the conference, in panels, and at our PBN Affinity Group Meeting on Thursday from 12-2:00pm!

Earlier this year, Pro Bono Net partnered with JASA of Legal Services for the Elderly in Queens to develop a new web app that enables social workers to perform quick legal screenings for homebound and disabled seniors. JASA assists many at risk Queens seniors with their emergency issues, in particular housing, consumer debt, and elder abuse cases. However, many seniors are homebound or face significant obstacles getting to legal help and a courthouse. In many ways they personify the broader justice gap in America.

In January, Donna Dougherty, Attorney-in-Charge at JASA, heard about Chief Judge Lippman’s new Court Navigator program and joined the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York to work on a model creating a similar pilot for social workers assisting seniors and the disabled. In February, we partnered with JASA and began working with Georgetown law students in Professor Tanina Rostain’s course, “Technology, Innovation, and Legal Practice” to develop the app. Our Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, had been invited by Professor Rostain to teach the spring semester along with Kevin Mulcahy, the Training Director for Neota Logic. A generous technology donation from Neota Logic allowed the students’ app design to become reality.*

App Development

Before beginning the development process, Donna asked JASA’s social workers what they wanted and just as importantly what they did not want in an app. The social workers were nervous about crossing the line between providing support and legal information and giving legal advice. They are in a client’s home for a limited time so the app had to be easy-to-use, quick to identify potential issues, and provide concise and clear suggestions for action.

The other crucial consideration was practical – many of JASA’s clients do not own computers and/or do not have Internet service. Initially JASA and PBN looked at using iPads – they’re portable, user friendly, and can access the Internet over a cellular network. However, the team quickly realized that they could also be limiting and that making a more universally accessible app was a better use of resources. Thus, they settled on a web app! Social workers would carry small, lightweight laptops and use iPhones as mobile hotspots to access the app.

With these needs in mind and a budget of about $5,000, Donna and Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl began working with the Georgetown students in March and had a completed app by the end of Spring Semester. Donna acquired all the tech equipment within two months of starting the project and so the project roll out was ready to begin within 6 months of the start-date. Over the summer, the app, christened the Debt & Eviction Navigator (or DEN), launched.

Roll-out

As the roll out began, the social workers were apprehensive and in some cases resistant about using technology – some had never used a laptop or a hotspot. After a small amount of training however, they quickly realized 1) how easy the DEN is to use and 2) its massive potential to help streamline services and allow JASA to provide more holistic assistance. They can now give their clients information easily, quickly, and clearly. Most importantly they can help people who otherwise cannot access the court system.

Over the past several months, JASA social workers have used the DEN to interview over two hundred people. About five were homebound and had an immediate legal issue (e.g. they had a lawsuit pending against them in court). Without the DEN, these clients might not have known that their issue was pressing. Without the new navigator program, they would not have been able to access the court system.

After identifying that a homebound client has a legal issue, JASA brings the situation to the court’s attention and the client is able to access the justice system remotely. For example, the social worker can assist a client to file an answer online, verify their identity and intentions with the court via VoIP and online video calling, and then have their filing marked as “homebound” and sent to judges who are familiar with the new system.

Future

Donna is really excited about the potential to use similar apps to increase access to justice for homebound and otherwise isolated Americans. The development process was fast, easy, and inexpensive. As providers and the courts gain experience they will be able to make more powerful and efficient apps in the future. Investments today will also decrease future development costs; iPads, hotspots, video conferencing technology only have to be bought once.

The combination of technological advancements and a court system willing to experiment enables gatekeepers – those with the most consistent contact with hard-to-reach people – to extend access to justice to often-neglected populations. Donna envisions apps that could help in foreclosure cases, disaster relief work (where computer access is often limited or non-existent), and with language issues. The DEN is just the first iteration in the exciting future of access to justice apps!

*Editor’s note: Michael Mills, President and Chief Strategy Officer of Neota Logic, is a Pro Bono Net board member.