September 2015

Jax Gitzes Development Associate, Pro Bono Net
Jax Gitzes
Development Associate, Pro Bono Net

At the end of July, I had the opportunity to attend the Supreme Court Law Review offered by the Practising Law Institute (PLI), a nonprofit continuing legal education and professional business training organization. PLI is bronze sponsor of Pro Bono Net’s work and Pro Bono Net is pleased to promote PLI’s efforts to provide pro bono training for the access to justice community, reflecting its deep commitment to the public service work of the legal profession.

The focus of this year’s Supreme Court Review was on the tendency for this Court to make liberal leaning decisions while the conservative Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Thomas and Scalia hold the majority of seats. This year saw a fair share of conservative Justices vote with the liberal minority on decisions that have greatly affected the US population. The opening presenter, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine, warned participants not to be deceived into believing that Justice Roberts now leads a liberal court, but that we’ve only had a more liberal year than usual.

Why are we seeing such a liberal year when the conservatives hold the majority of seats? According to Chemerinsky, the reason lies within the cohesiveness of the liberal Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan. With the four liberal Justices voting almost exclusively as a block, they need only sway one other justice in order to gain the majority on a decision. So who has been voting with the liberal block?

Justice Kennedy has, several times this year, sided with the liberals. On occasion both Roberts and Thomas have defected to create a majority vote. But, when it comes down to it, it is the case itself that will determine the decision of the court. The panelists discussed a myriad of cases that exemplified this, but three stand out: Obergefell v. Hodges, King v. Burwell, and Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

As is widely known by now, Obergefell v. Hodges has effectively made it illegal to deny same sex couples the right to a marriage license. The majority for this decision was reached by the four liberal Justices and Justice Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy wrote the Opinion of the Court, primarily stating that marriage is a fundamental right which are afforded to all citizens without discrimination. While his opinion garnered much criticism from the writers of the dissenting opinions, Kennedy’s opinion was fully supported by the four liberal judges.

Justice Kennedy’s decision was not necessarily based on liberal principles, but rather acknowledged that the Court had protected the right to marry as a fundamental right for a long time, therefore making it protected under the due process and equal protection clauses. Chemerinsky warns that while Kennedy sided with the liberals on this particular case and others this year, he has also voted with the more conservative view point in other cases. It really comes down to the arguments of the case.

There have been several cases in the Supreme Court concerning the Affordable Care Act. King v Burwell specifically focused on the ability for citizens to utilize tax-credit subsidies when purchasing healthcare insurance through the federal exchanges. Since the text surrounding the eligibility of these subsidies discusses state exchanges and doesn’t make specific mention of eligibility in the federal exchange, the states claimed that those purchasing healthcare coverage from the federal exchange were ineligible for the assistance. However, this would mean that a state could deny their constituencies the ability to qualify for the assistance program simply by refusing to create their own state exchange.

The Court ruled in favor of the United States by 6-3. Who were the two conservative Justices to side with the liberals? Justices Roberts and Kennedy both decided to uphold the eligibility of low income households to access these tax-credit subsidies when purchasing through the federal exchanges. Their decision was based on the purpose of the law regarding those subsidies. They agreed that the purpose of the law was to assist low income individuals to afford health care coverage regardless of the actions of the States. Again we see a decision being made on the substance of the law that placed all four liberal Justices on the same side, along with two of the conservative Justices.

However, neither Kennedy nor Roberts voted with the liberal Justices in Walker v Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. Justice Thomas sided with the majority on this case, to the surprise of many. The court was tasked with deciding whether the state government of Texas refusing to issue a requested Confederate Battle Flag license plate option infringed on the freedom of speech of those wishing to have those license plates. The Court decided that the license plates, in this case, indicate a level of government speech, which by nature cannot be in violation of the first amendment.

In the end, it seems Chemerinsky’s version of events holds weight. While the liberal Justices tend to agree with each other, making a strong voting block possible, the conservative judges have disagreed on various issues. This is not to say that they won’t be able to create a solid voting block in the future. This year we have seen cases that attempted to split the court along party lines, only to have the merits of the case favor a more liberal decision. Next year’s cases may see a stronger cohesiveness on the conservative side. Chemerinsky’s warning to essentially ‘not get comfortable’ definitely seems like good advice.

The Practicing Law Institute provides some of the best panelists to provide insights. The panelists for this conference included the following:

  • Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law
  • Joan Biskupic, Editor-in-Charge for Legal Affairs, Reuters News
  • Professor Michael C. Dorf, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School
  • Professor Leon Friedman, Special Professor of Civil Liberties Law, Hofstra Law School
  • Professor Burt Neuborne, Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties, New York University School of Law; Founding Legal Director, Brennan Center for Justice
  • Professor (Emeritus) Martin A. Schwartz, Chair, Practicing Law Institute’s program on Section 1983 Civil Rights Litigation and Trial Evidence
  • Kannon K. Shanmugam, Partner, Williams & Connolly LLP
  • Jeffrey B. Wall, Co-Head Appellate Litigation Practice, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
  • Professor Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law & Charles Evans Hughes Scholar, Cornell Law School

 


Practising Law InstituteThis seminar/webcast was hosted by the Practising Law Institute. To register for any webcasts or seminars go to www.pli.edu for more information.

At the core of Practising Law Institute’s mission is its commitment to offer training to members of the legal profession to support their pro bono service. PLI offers pro bono training, scholarships, and access to live programs, Webcasts, and On-Demand archived programs, as well as an extensive Pro Bono Membership program. For more information about PLI’s pro bono programs and activities, please visit www.pli.edu/probono. Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter@ProBonoPLI.

Jillian Theil has been the Training and Field Support Coordinator for Pro Bono Net since 2011. She manages the LSNTAP/PBN Community Training series. 

Last month, Pro Bono Net and LSNTAP held another webinar in the 2015 LSNTAP Community Training series with a new topic, “Process Mapping for Civil Legal Services: Small Investments with a Big Impact!” The training highlighted approaches and techniques to help identify, automate and simplify routine activities and reduce complexity in a variety of contexts, from service delivery to volunteer management.

Mike Grunenwald of Pro Bono Net kicked things off by establishing the “why?” of business process analysis. A powerful tool, this type of analysis can not only increase efficiency in workflows, but also enhance communication between stakeholders.

Matthew Burnett of Immigration Advocates Network followed with a case study image for Mappingof process mapping analysis used to help build Citizenshipworks 2.0, a naturalization application assistance technology. The IAN team facilitated a series of process mapping exercises which helped identify the landscape of existing nonprofit legal service models that support the naturalization application process. The organization then performed a SWOT analysis to assess a number of strengths, weaknesses, internal problems and external threats, along with potential strategic opportunities for creating technology in this space, the results which informed the build of Citizenshipworks 2.0.

Next, Susan Zielke of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation discussed how her organization used process mapping to help clients in need get connected to attorneys for extended representation more quickly and accurately. The experience resulted in some beneficial takeaways and lessons learned – including a reminder to engage critics and to persevere and keep improving.

Adam Heintz of Legal Services NYC closed out the presentation by reviewing the process mapping his organization completed to brainstorm process needs, bottlenecks, and determine priorities for designing a volunteer management system in the disaster response context. The result was a configured version of Salesforce that automates much of their paperwork, allowing for a much more efficient, effective way to manage volunteers.

 

To view the other tips mentioned on this webinar, be sure to check out materials available on the SWEB Support Site and LSNTAP.org

Mirenda

 

Mirenda Meghelli is the LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator at Pro Bono Net, where she works as part of a team to support and grow initiatives using LawHelp Interactive, an award-winning national online document assembly platform operated by Pro Bono Net in partnership with legal aid, pro bono and court access to justice programs across the country. Mirenda has been spearheading the LawHelp Interactive rebuild project, along with Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology and Operations.

 

LawHelp Interactive (LHI), Pro Bono Net’s award-winning online legal document assembly platform, allows low-income individuals without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. It’s also used by volunteer attorneys, legal aid advocates and court staff seeking to work more effectively and provide innovative models of service delivery.

Thanks to grants from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant program to Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Booth Ferris Foundation, Pro Bono Net has finished a complete overhaul of the current LHI platform that modernizes and streamlines the application architecture.

LHI-powered forms are being produced and used in court and legal aid office settings, at homes, shelters, and in public libraries, for remote legal assistance where advocates may be miles away from a client they are supporting, and in large group clinics where a number of participants complete forms simultaneously with advocate and volunteer support. The forms are available in over 40 states, and in many places available in multiple languages.

Released in April of this year, the rebuild platform promises to be a vast improvement, while still maintaining the previous system’s functionality. We interviewed Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator, about the LHI rebuild and her important role in the process.

 

Can you give me a brief background on LawHelp Interactive?Welcome page LHI

LHI became a project of Pro Bono Net in 2006 and since that time, the project has grown at a rapid pace – from 76,000 documents completed in 2007 to more than 509,000 forms completed in 2014. The LHI team maintains a national server where these forms are hosted.  We also train and support local legal aid, pro bono, and partner courts design the forms on LawHelp Interactive. Legal experts make the templates that are used to create the forms and documents with HotDocs and A2J Author.

The service is being used in ever more creative and compelling ways to empower self-represented litigants and increase the capacity of legal services and pro bono attorneys.  Interactive forms enabled by LHI are now used at remote court and law library kiosks, in online and brick and mortar self-help centers around the country, and in large group clinics. None of these models of service existed 10 years ago; however, this increasing activity is taking place on a system that reflects legacy architectural and software choices made almost a decade ago.

LawHelp Interactive increases opportunities for people to get justice on their own. It also improves efficiency for access-to-justice programs. LHI has grown quite rapidly in the past few years, and yet it was still running on the same technology. We definitely needed to upgrade.

How many states use LHI? Courts? How many users per year?

Over 40 states use LawHelp Interactive. In 2014, more than 509,000 forms we assembled on the LHI platform. We are used by courts, legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, volunteers and individuals from all over the country. Users can visit www.lawhelp.org, find their state and subject matter to see if there are available forms and they will be sent to LHI.  People are asked a series of questions, and then their answers are used to tailor their documents. They can use the site anonymously or create an account and save their answers. The site is used by legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, and people representing themselves. In some states, forms created by LHI can be e-filed to a court or fax and filed.

What was the need for the LHI system rebuild, and how did the project get started? And why now?

The rebuild started in 2013 with Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant funding to Blue Ridge Legal Services (BRLS) in support of the project. With all of the new ways that the LHI platform was being used, and the sheer increase in the number of users, it was definitely time to update the system. Working with BRLS, Marlabs, The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), as well as long-time LHI contractors including Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Associates, and Kaivo, we were able to rebuild the LHI technical infrastructure into a single technology stack creating a more reliable and scalable system. Internally, Claudia Johnson, Liz Keith, Mark O’Brien and the LHI tech team including Alice Pucheu, Kanchana Hegde, Greg Tenzer and Doug Carlson all contributed significantly to this project as well.

Can you tell me a little about your role in the project?

In consultation with BRLS, I’ve served as the program lead on the rebuild project where I worked with the LHI team and contract rebuild developers, Marlabs, to roll out the new LHI technical infrastructure. This involved participating in regular, sometimes daily calls, with developers and the technical team as the project progressed, handling grant and administrative aspects of the project, liaising with LHI partners who tested the system and offered valuable input, and working with the external and internal rebuild team to make sure we reached project goals.

It was really interesting and exciting to be a part of a rebuild of this kind. Our partners and end users utilize LHI to do important work and the system is a means through which access to justice can be increased.  This new platform better supports this important work.

Who else was involved in the project and what were their roles?

Many people have been involved in the launch of this project. Allison McDermott was the original program lead for the LHI rebuild and worked with Jim Wiegand, who previously served as PBN Technical Director, to scope out the project. Ahuva Shabtai, who served as business analyst for LHI, coordinated much of the project including overseeing the documentation phase before the development work began. Alice Pucheu, Pro Bono Net’s Project Manager, has also worked to move this project forward and has been the primary person supporting partners in transition to the new system with respect to LHI widgets, e-filing, and CMS integration projects. Claudia Johnson, LHI Program Coordinator, Mark O’Brien, PBN’s Executive Director, and Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, have provided guidance on business/program aspects of the project and the LHI technical team and contract rebuild developers under the leadership of Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology & Operations, were responsible for much of the development, testing, and troubleshooting of the LHI rebuild environment.

Longtime collaborators Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Kaivo also played an integral role in transitioning to this new technical infrastructure, and HotDocs Corporation provided invaluable technical assistance on key aspects of the new system and supporting current and new HotDocs interviews in the the rebuild environment Finally, LHI partners who provided feedback and engaged in community testing of the new system provided a tremendous help in the launch of this new system.

Beyond the rebuild project, LHI is supported day-to-day by a longstanding partnership between Pro Bono Net and Ohio State Legal Services. Together we have received generous support for our LawHelp Interactive program from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation.

What were the biggest challenges this project faced?

As part of the rebuild, we migrated an incredibly large volume of user and form data from the old infrastructure to the new one. Migration of data from any legacy system is always challenging as it involves ensuring that there is no corruption or loss of data during the migration.  In the case of LHI, this work has been complicated by inconsistencies in legacy data due to changes in validation rules over a 10-year period of operations. As a result, we needed to develop manual processes to analyze and resolve missing or malformed data required within the new system.  This challenging work affected the project timeline and project costs.

What are the top 2-3 differences between the old system and the new? Tell me about some of the new features?

Interview LHI 2While the plan of the rebuild was to replicate the existing system functionality with minimal enhancements, there are a number of differences in the new system benefiting the different LHI user groups. Notably, load balancing has been implemented with the new LHI system. This basically means there are three servers operating at once for LHI increasing reserve capacity and allowing the usage of the two other servers if one server experiences problems.

Another major difference is that LHI now operates as a unified technical stack & database. The old system’s architecture consisted of a number of distinct technologies maintained by different people. Streamlining LHI into a single technical stack and database makes maintenance and troubleshooting of the system much less complicated and improves the ability for LHI to integrate with other systems.

Finally, we introduced a more simplified uploading and updating process for forms developers to upload their content into the LHI server. This change was implemented given template developer feedback on the upload and update process over the years and during a rebuild focus group.

When did the new system go live, and how can I access it?

The new system went live on April 20, 2015 and can be accessed via www.lawhehelpinteractive.org. It is the same website address as before and old users are able to log into their accounts from the same location. To use the LHI platform, users can create an account which can be done from the main website page or complete an interview anonymously.

With all of the new upgrades to the platform, accessing and filling out the interviews is better supported for users in all of the 40 states utilizing the platform. Backup servers ensure that thousands of users can access the system at the same time and access their compiled documents based on their interviews quickly!