Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz is Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager. She coordinates, develops, and grows state and national digital projects that strengthen the work of legal advocates and pro bono attorneys helping individuals with their legal problems. Jeanne manages Remote Legal Connect, a new technology tool that facilitates remote pro bono projects, virtual consultations, and document sharing between legal aid, volunteer attorneys, and pro bono clients.  In 2021, Jeanne received the On the Rise 40 Top Young Lawyers award for her work in disaster relief and leadership in the American Bar Association.

After two years of virtual programming due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Innovations in Technology Conference was back in person this year with approximately 600 participants. The conference, hosted by the Legal Services Corporation, was held from January 19-21, 2023, in Phoenix, Arizona. The event convenes technologists, legal aid advocates, court personnel, law school professors, pro bono coordinators, and other professionals to learn about technology projects and tools that advance access to justice. The last ITC in person occurred in January 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Many in the community remembered it as the last conference they attended before Covid-19 caused shutdowns across the country. Here are four takeaways from my attendance at the conference this year. I also asked my colleagues to share their thoughts with me, which I’ve incorporated into this post. 

1. Most of this year’s sessions fell under the information technology / internal operations conference track.

Information technology or internal operations may seem an obvious theme given the conference is about technology, but it was interesting to compare that to last year’s themes. Conference sessions fall under multiple tracks, but this year, 37% of the sessions were about or included a component of “Information Technology / Internal Operations.” Other popular topics this year included sessions on self-help projects, websites and online tools, technology for advocates, and data. Contrary to this year, 2022’s most popular conference tracks were “Websites/ Online Tools” and “Self-Represented Litigants/ Self-Help.” In 2021 and 2022, ITC had a conference track for COVID-19 Response and Recovery, which this year did not include.* 

2. A special shout-out to regulatory reform and human-centered design

My colleague, Sam Harden, and Program Manager at Pro Bono Net mentioned he appreciated the positive discussion around regulatory reform, which LSC’s President, Ronald S. Flagg, set the tone for at the opening session. After attendees gathered for hot coffee and breakfast, Flagg welcomed everyone and talked about LSC’s latest Justice Gap Report, published in 2022. The study, consistent with LSC’s past three justice gap reports, found that low-income Americans sought legal help for only 19% of their collective civil legal problems in the past year. The report also showed that low-income Americans will approach LSC-funded legal aid organizations every year for help with an estimated 1.9 million civil legal problems that are eligible for assistance. However, those who approach LSC-funded organizations will only receive enough legal support to resolve their issue about 56% of the time. Flagg said that regulatory reform is one of the areas of the legal profession that is reducing the justice gap. For example, last fall, Stanford Law School’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession published “Legal Innovation After Reform: Evidence from Regulatory Change” to examine the regulatory reforms and innovations in Utah and Arizona. Two of the report’s co-authors highlight some of their findings here to show the positive impact of regulatory reform (e.g., addressing the unauthorized practice of law ethics rules appears to benefit low-income individuals navigating legal issues) and made an urgent call for innovation as a way to address the country’s access-to-justice crisis. For those who couldn’t attend and are interested in the discussions about regulatory change, the “Leveraging Regulatory Reform to Advance Access to Justice” session was live-streamed on Facebook and can be found here. Liz Keith, our Program Director, and Rodrigo Camarena, Director of Justicia Lab, also recently wrote about this and other innovations taking place to expand access to justice (see 3 tangible ways to ensure low-income Americans get the legal help they need). 

Flagg then welcomed Everett Harper, CEO and Co-Founder of Truss, a human-centered software development company. Harper walked us through his journey at Truss and reminded us of the superpower behind technology. He shared his experience working on and encouraged attendees to consider a few questions about human-centered design and technology: 

  • How do we create systems to enable more feedback? 
  • What is the feasibility of solving the problem we have identified? 
  • Do we really understand the problem? 

Feedback, sustainability, and scaling were all themes during the keynote. What can we learn from the products we design and the projects we implement over time? What patterns can we identify and learn from? Are there better ways to incorporate those lessons to make a case for regulatory reform?

3. Accessibility, technology + disasters(?), making change fun, and virtual reality

I attended ten sessions and learned something new from all of them. However, a few also stood out to me. The accessibility panel, “Ensuring Accessibility in Legal Technology: How it Enhances and Expands Your Reach,” was great. Panelists explained that without accessibility, there’s truly no access to the tools we build, and also spoke about website accessibility in times of climate disasters, like expanding this online guided interview to include disability accommodation questions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an online tool that helps people with disabilities to be emergency ready, and videos like this one to make legal rights information available in sign language. The “Unpacking the Intersectionality of Race, Language, and Poverty in Navigating the Digital Divide” session also touched on accessibility, and speakers made a convincing point about the importance of using data to address the needs of people who speak other languages. One of the speakers pointed out that although LSC’s Justice Gap Report was impactful and has the potential for a wide range of policy implications, it did not provide any analysis based on language usage in the United States. A proposed solution to make data accessible is to make language preference data from LSC grantees searchable by state and nationwide (separate by spoken/signed and written). Joshua Medina, Pro Bono Net’s new Legal User Experience Designer, said he also enjoyed the community’s investment and conversations about the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data and also in developing accessible technology for communities marginalized by the legal system.

I thought there was much to learn from panelists’ experiences on accessibility and climate disaster responses. Unless there is an accessibility plan in place, there is often not a lot of time to think about the consequences and impact on communities that may need to access information and services in other ways. This led me to another thought: how can we better use technology in disaster preparedness or response to the rising impact of disasters across the country? In less than four weeks since we welcomed the new year, the federal government has already made four major disaster declarations. This doesn’t count the many regions still recovering from last year’s disasters. The conference also happened when places such as Georgia, Alabama, California, and Washington were beginning to grapple with the effects of severe weather. Most ITC sessions catered to a broad audience and spanned a wide range of topics, but with the increasing rate of more powerful and frequent disasters impacting our communities, I hope we can advocate for disaster-specific discussions about how technology can improve efficiency and organizational resilience to address the legal needs of disaster survivors.

I also enjoyed the “Making Change Successful and FUN” session by Lakeshore Legal Aid (MI) and TechBridge. Speakers talked about how they navigated the design, training, and implementation of a new case management system while making it fun. The session was full of practical strategies, chart and sheet templates they used to organize the transition to the new system, and even examples of haikus written by staff saying goodbye to the old system. 

Another colleague, Alison Corn, and Legal Solutions Designer at Pro Bono Net shared that one of her favorite sessions was “The Courtroom as a Metaverse Node: Using Cross-Field Collaboration to Innovate Using 360 Video and Virtual Reality (VR).” When I asked her if she could share a takeaway from the session, she said, “VR isn’t just the newest tech experience in the space, but it’s also an incredibly robust tool that we can leverage to create idealized legal spaces that lessen retraumatization for litigants.” She provided an example of how Youtopian, a human-centered AI XR global innovation company, determined through usability testing that using mountains was extremely triggering for the veterans because of their military experiences. As a result, they removed the mountains to create a more idealized space. Alison concluded,  “if we could use this same approach in creating legal spaces, I see such huge potential in lessening the retraumatization so many vulnerable litigants face every single day in the courtroom.”

4. Pro Bono Net’s Representation and Social Gatherings at the Conference 

Pro Bono Net staff also presented on increasing access to legal help online, API-driven integrations in the civil justice sector, emerging usability research, and strategies to improve the discoverability of online legal rights content. In addition, our new Director of Business Development, Megan Vizzini, staffed the exhibit table, and we had an opportunity to share more about our programs, answer questions from visitors, and stamp passports for LSC’s Passport Contest (the winner received free registration for the next conference in Charlotte, North Carolina). I also asked Megan about her experience and she said she appreciated the exhibitor location was in a high-traffic location compared to other conferences she had been to where the exhibitors were on a side hallway. Megan also pointed out that it was great to see existing Pro Bono Net partners and prospective partners.

She said, “We had the opportunity to have many engaging conversations around current projects, future collaborations and discussions around what’s next in the space. The Pro Bono Net social event on Thursday night was especially memorable!” This social event was possible thanks to the conference’s Whova application. It was easy to organize an informal meet-up for partners and anyone who wanted to join and learn about what’s new at Pro Bono Net. 

More pictures from ITC:

Pro Bono Net’s Program Manager, Sam Harden, presenting on strategies to improve the discoverability of online legal rights content. 

Session: “Googling Justice: SEO, Schema Markup, and other Strategies to Connect the Public with Legal Help Online

Liz Keith, Program Director at Pro Bono Net, presenting on usability testing findings and how we can make our products more welcoming and inclusive.

Session: “But Does it Help?: Actionable and Meaningful Insights from Recent Usability Research” 

Pro Bono Net’s exhibit table. Attendees also had access to coffee and snacks throughout the day.

*Based on the conference’s Whova App agenda. Last year’s track analysis was based on the online schedule for ITC 2022.