LSC Innovations in Technology ConferenceThe 2019 Innovations in Technology Conference kicks off on Tuesday in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Conference brings together technologists, legal aid staff, courts, funders and others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.

Pro Bono Net will be well-represented again this year, with a cadre of our program and technology staff in attendance. We’re also presenting in workshops covering topics ranging from the Legal Navigator initiative ( to implicit bias in legal technology.

The Legal Services Corporation will be livestreaming select sessions throughout the conference including “Creating Inclusive Justice Ecosystems in Alaska and Hawaii: Developments in the Legal Navigator Initiative” with Pro Bono Net Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, and “Older Adults & Technology: The Changing Landscape of Access to Justice for Seniors” with Claudia Johnson. Claudia will also be providing an introduction to the panel “I Get Diversity but What is Inclusion: The Impact of Implicit Bias in Legal Tech” on Thursday, January 10th.

Prior to the main ITC conference, Pro Bono Net is offering two days of LawHelp Interactive Training on Monday and Tuesday to train advocates on how to develop interactive legal documents and court forms that increasing opportunities for those without an attorney to achieve justice.

In addition, Pro Bono Net and several of our partners are participating in a daylong pre-ITC workshop on January 7 hosted the Open Society Foundations focusing on legal empowerment and technology, along with OSF partners and grantees in South Africa, Ukraine, Moldova, and Mongolia. On January 8, Pro Bono Net is co-hosting a “Global Convening on Legal Empowerment and Technology” that includes a larger number of U.S. invitees and international representatives from the UK, Australia, South Africa, Moldova, Mongolia, and Ukraine. The purpose of the workshop and convening is to explore the current and potential role of technology in advancing legal empowerment strategies, with an emphasis on approaches to building legal capacity and agency within local communities.

Below is a schedule of ITCon panels and sessions with Pro Bono Net participating:

*This session will be livestreamed. To see all livestreaming sessions, view the full livestream schedule.


Monday, 8:00am – 5:00pm
LawHelp Interactive Training


Tuesday, 8:00am – 5:00pm
LawHelp Interactive Training


Wednesday, 10:30am
Resilient and Ready: Transforming Disaster Response through Technology and Network Building

  • Ariadna Godreau Aubert, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico
  • Clarissa Ayala, Lone Star Legal Aid
  • Saundra J. Brown, Lone Star Legal Aid
  • Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, Pro Bono Net

Thursday, 8:45am
Older Adults & Technology: The Changing Landscape of Access to Justice for Seniors*

  • Sarah R Galvan, Justice in Aging/National Center on Law & Elder Rights
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • David Travis, Chautauqua County Family Court
  • Molly M. K. White, Center for Elder Law & Justice

Thursday, 10:30am
Made in NYC: Emerging Access to Justice Technology

  • Tim Baran, Pro Bono Net
  • Felicity Conrad, Paladin
  • Thomas Officer,
  • Kristin Turner, Upsolve
  • Linda Tvrdy,

Friday, 8:00am
LawHelp/ Network Session: What’s New and What’s Next for 2019

  • Quisquella Addison, Pro Bono Net
  • Alex Clark, Montana Legal Services Association
  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net
  • Laurie Rashidi-Yazd, Atlanta Legal Aid Society Inc.

Friday, 9:30am
Creating Inclusive Justice Ecosystems in Alaska and Hawaii: Developments in the Legal Navigator Initiative*

  • Sergio Alcubilla, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii
  • Lester Bird, The Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net
  • Stacey Marz, Alaska Court System
  • Glenn Rawdon, Legal Services Corporation

Friday, 11:15am
Connecting Clients to Access — Remotely Bringing Attorneys and Clients Together for Document Assembly

  • Craig Harrison, Utah Legal Services
  • Michael Hofrichter, Houston Volunteer Lawyers
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net

Friday, 11:15am
Measuring Impact: An Analytics Framework for Civil Legal Nonprofits*

  • Tim Baran, Pro Bono Net
  • Maureen Jouhet, Illinois Legal Aid Online
  • Meaghan McDermott, Maryland Legal Aid


2017 TIG ConferenceThe 2017 Technology Initiative Grants Conference (TIG) kicks off on Wednesday in San Antonio, Texas. The TIG Conference brings together technologists, legal aid staff, courts, funders and others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.  

Pro Bono Net will be well-represented again this year, with a cadre of our program and technology staff in attendance. We’re also presenting in workshops covering topics such as strategies to grow adoption of online forms among advocates, technology to build partnerships with non-traditional justice actors, and expanding assistance through remote services. An affinity session on Thursday will highlight the Statewide Justice Portal Initiative collaboration between the Legal Services Corporation, Microsoft and Pro Bono Net, including the RFP for pilot jurisdictions.

On Friday we’ll be convening our statewide website partners for a networking session to share recent network highlights and updates on major initiatives such as the template redesign rolling out this year.

Just prior to TIG, we’re hosting a two-day training in San Antonio for legal aid, court and other staff on how to how to author interactive court forms and legal documents for LawHelp Interactive. The training is featuring instructors from Capstone Practice Systems, the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), and Pro Bono Net.

Below is a schedule of panels and sessions with Pro Bono Net staff for the TIG conference:

Wednesday, 3:30pm

Preventative Law: Using Storytelling to Engage Clients Early

  • Lisa Gavin, Iowa Legal Aid
  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Quisquella Addison, Pro Bono Net
  • Adam Stofsky, Briefly

Thursday, 8:30am
All Aboard with Online Forms: Getting Support from Program Leadership and Adoption by Attorneys

  • Joshua Goodwin, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services
  • Richard Granat, DirectLaw
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • Marc Lauritsen, Capstone Practice Systems

Thursday, 10am
High Touch, High Tech: Innovative Non-Attorney and Non-Traditional Justice Partnerships Using Technology

  • Dianne Woodburn, JASA
  • Rochelle Klempner, New York Courts Access to Justice Program
  • Mirenda Meghelli, Pro Bono Net
  • Renee Schomp, One Justice

Thursday, 2:25pm
Using Data to Improve your Projects

  • Haydee Alfonso, Bay Area Legal Aid
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • Mary Kaczorek, Legal Services State Support
  • Jenny Singleton, Legal Services State support

Statewide Justice Portal Initiative Discussion and Technology’s Role in 100% Access Efforts (Affinity Session)

  • Lucy Bassli, Microsoft
  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Glenn Rawdon, LSC

Friday, 8am
LawHelp / Networking Session: What’s New and What’s Next for 2017

  • Quisquella Addison, Pro Bono Net
  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net
  • Sam Halpert, Pro Bono Net
  • Barbara Siegel, Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association
  • Mary Kaczorek, Legal Services State Support

Friday, 10am
Closing the Gap: Remote Service Delivery in Action!

  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net
  • Melody Harkness, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
  • Lillian Moy,  Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
  • Anna Steele, Legal Assistance of Western New York

We are delighted to announce that Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, was invited to author a guest article for the Self-Represented Litigation Network entitled “Document Assembly : An Essential Building Block for the Access to Justice Ecosystem.” In this piece she not only describes the innovation and extensive reach of LawHelp Interactive, but it’s incomparable impact on the end user community of pro se litigants. Below is a short blurb from the piece.

LawHelp Interactive increases opportunities for those without an attorney to achieve justice on their own by allowing pro se litigants to create their own complete, high quality legal documents and pleadings for free. LHI also promotes innovative models of pro bono, remote and unbundled legal assistance, and supports collaborations with community organizations and libraries.

LawHelp Interactive is a program of Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit leader in deploying technology and collaboration to increase access to justice, operated in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Association. Together they have received generous support for this work from, among others, the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as significant software donations from the HotDocs Corporation. Through trainings, technical assistance and community networking, LHI helps local programs develop interactive forms and effectively integrate them with services to help hundreds of thousands of people each year prevent or address legal problems.”

To read the piece in its entirety, click here:

SRLNSelf-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) is a network of innovative lawyers, judges, court staff, legal technologists, librarians and other allied professionals who believe everyone deserves access to justice. They are working to transform the American legal system so that every person who faces a civil legal issue can get the legal help they need, understand court proceedings and get a decision on the merits. They accomplish this by advancing innovative, evidence-based access-oriented solutions such as comprehensive court and legal aid self-help services, simplified court rules and procedure, and integrated systems that efficiently and effectively connect people who need lawyers to lawyers.



LHI logo

Online forms are a key tool in the movement to close the justice gap. They can be used from anywhere and at any time and are now a well understood component of a robust and diverse legal services delivery system.  According to LSC’S Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice, “Technology can and must play a vital role in transforming service delivery so that all poor people in the United States with a civil legal need obtain some form of effective assistance.”

The open Request for Letters of Intent to Apply for 2016 LSC TIG Grant Funding includes document assembly as one of the areas of interest, as well as replication grants. In order to spark your ideas for document assembly projects, I’d like to share some ideas. These are ideal for programs that are new to document assembly and also for programs that had document assembly grants in the past and are now in a position to benefit from the ongoing advances being made.

We understand from our community that an area of particular interest is improving the relationship that user friendly web page design and ancillary tools (such as live chat and short videos) have on the ultimate use of your online form collection and the benefits to end users. We shared some of these ideas on our January LHI Community call. We also shared a current TIG-funded usability A/B testing project that’s being conducted in Minnesota. In case you missed the call, here is a link to the presentation.

Our LawHelp Interactive Resource Center ( includes sample documents from successful past projects that you can use to begin the process. There is a link for sample LOIs as well as sample narratives and budgets.  (Note: the LHI Resource Center requires a login. Please register or contact us if you need assistance accessing it.)

Below is a list of potential projects utilizing online forms. We encourage you to think holistically about your online forms project and reach out either Claudia Johnson ( or Mirenda Meghelli ( to help you scope your project and identify projects that might lead to potential replication in your state.

  • Replicate LHI Connect for pro bono unbundled clinics and attorney use. This new LHI functionality will be available for replication by other groups this year. LHI Connect facilitates the sharing of documents through the back-end of LHI between a lawyer and client or pro bono coordinator. In September 2015, we showcased the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma project that partnered with Pro Bono Net to develop this new LHI capacity. 2015. To learn more about LHI Connect, go here.
  • Replicate Oklahoma’s new approach to pages for specific content.  As part of its expungement project, Oklahoma redesigned how it displays the information about expungement on its statewide website, Other states could take this project’s design, simplify areas of law where the process or requirements are complex, and apply it, providing users with initial information and forms in short paragraphs and a guided navigation to facilitate understanding of the issue.  More information about this project can be seen at the LHI Connect link above.
  • Produce a mini-guide for your high volume areas. “Mini-guides” (or “mini-portals”) are statewide website pages that have a dedicated URL and contain the essential resources and forms for a particular civil legal issue. This enables a person seeking information about that issue to find all the information in one place rather than in a list, or on multiple pages. They have been very successful in increasing the visibility of resources and in getting users to the online forms available for that subject area. For examples, visit or
  • Reinvest in your collection! Several states have seen form use go down. This may indicate that it is time to reinvest in your collection of online forms and come up with up a more strategic approach to using online forms. This might include updating your document assembly authoring software (HotDocs or A2J Author) to ensure a better user experience, or coming up with new approaches to content creation now that your project is mature. Part of this would include moving to authoring with HD 11 and A2J 5 for creating forms, sprucing up your forms based, updating them for changes in the law, and conducting  user testing to ensure the updates have maximum benefits for users.
  • Add Live Chat support for your form projects (either within LHI or through your statewide website). Live Chat is a powerful tool to help more people find and make use of what they are searching for online. It also supports multilingual users. Live Chat can be used in information and referral settings, and also in advice and counsel settings. Added to  online forms, this is a powerful combination.  Here is an example of a recently launched Live Chat collaboration focusing on foreclosure.
  • Evaluate your project in more depth. Replicate parts of the groundbreaking Michigan Legal Help project evaluation in order to see if cases filed with LHI forms take longer, get better outcomes, and help your program and their partners serve the public better. Answer the question: do forms empower end users? Find more information here.  The Michigan full report can be found here.
  • Add depth to your collection – beyond initial pleadings or answers – and also add LEP content. Add more public benefit tools, more self-help letters, civil rights and disability documents or complaints – think outside the box. There are many areas that online forms can enhance, outside of litigation. What are the unmet needs of your communities where an online form might offer a solution?
  • Replicate the New York Consumer/Bay Area Legal Aid Legal Consumer projects. There is now an increasing awareness of the needs of debtors. I’d encourage you to look at Human Rights Watch report on debt collection for more information. Here are two examples of consumer law projects that are modern and state of the art.  Other resources for consumer law projects can be found here.
  • Create an LHI-Powered Expungement project. Many states are using LHI forms to help youth and adults clear their records in order to have better access to jobs, housing, and equal opportunities under the law. Consider creating an expungement project for a particular demographic, language, or age group. There are many examples of projects doing this. Please reach out if you want more information.
  • Leverage library and community partners: Stand up virtual self-help centers and beyond! Illinois and Michigan have done an outstanding job creating self-help centers in remote locations and virtually with their statewide online forms as a key component. If your legal aid organization can’t have an office in a rural location consider a project where online forms are completed at public libraries or local community colleges and reviewed remotely by volunteers or attorneys. This increases the footprint of your legal aid work without an office.  An example of a virtual self-help center opening from Michigan can be found here.
  • Add videos to your forms collections to support users or advocates. Guides, tutorials, and visual tools go farther than written content. Help your users understand their case and process forms with great video stories.  See examples here.

In addition to these projects, there are many more ideas on how you can invest or reinvest in your online forms projects that can be found here.  If you are interested in online form integration with your case management system, e-filing, custom email projects, integration with other platforms (Neota Logic) or other platforms or mobile tools, please reach out to Claudia Johnson

Put on your thinking caps and reach out if you need support!

Yesterday, LawHelpNY (, a family of online legal information and referral Internet portals for low and moderate income New Yorkers, announced the launch of its LiveHelp chatting service for visitors to the New York State Unified Court Systems website, CourtHelp (  The LiveHelp service will allow site visitors  to chat with operators who can guide them to legal resources and organizations that may be able to assist them in their case. The initiative is a collaborative effort of multiple organizations working to create a more seamless and integrated help system for vulnerable New Yorkers seeking assistance with legal problems.

Since 2010, LiveHelp operators, primarily trained law student volunteers, have assisted individuals visiting the LawHelpNY website who are often facing serious legal problems, but can’t afford a lawyer. LiveHelp will now be available to visitors on the foreclosure pages of the CourtHelp website, primarily homeowners facing foreclosure, as well as tenants of buildings in foreclosure.

Overwhelmingly, homeowners in foreclosure cases in New York State appear in court without counsel, while 100% of the plaintiffs are represented. It is this disparity, as well as the potential devastating impact on families of losing their home in foreclosure, that led to the selection of this particular topic for which to offer LiveHelp assistance on the CourtHelp website. Visitors to the website can click the button (shown below) to access the service. The button is available on 10 foreclosure-related webpages on CourtHelp. An example can be found at the following link:

Press Release Image LHNY




The project is funded by an LSC (Legal Services Corporation) Technology Initiative Grant awarded to Legal Assistance of Western New York. The initiative serves as a pilot to explore the effectiveness of providing real-time assistance to unrepresented litigants visiting the CourtHelp website to further close the justice gap in New York State Courts.

This project is a groundbreaking collaboration in the provision of assistance to unrepresented litigants, bringing together LawHelpNY, the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, and Pro Bono Net. These organizations collaborated closely to launch the initiative – installing coding, developing operator scripts, and training LiveHelp operators.

“We believe that for individuals going to court on their own who face the very real prospect of losing their home, having the ability to make a connection with an individual who can help, even if it’s in some small way, pointing them to resources or information, can have a significant impact,” said Rochelle Klempner, Chief Counsel, New York State Courts Access to Justice Program.

In making LiveHelp available to visitors on the foreclosure pages of the CourtHelp website, LawHelpNY hopes to expand its reach to serve even more low and moderate-income New Yorkers, in particular those who are facing the dreaded prospect of losing their home.


An article appeared today in the New York Law Journal about the project. You can view that article here on courtesy of New York Law Journal.


A staggering number of Americans experience violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Domestic Violence Awareness Month (each October) shines light on this issue and provides information to victims as well as the public about tools and resources available.

Too often it is difficult for victims to access the justice system to get the help they need. Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive (LHI) is a useful tool for advocates providing assistance to victims filing protection orders. LHI is an award-winning online legal document assembly platform, which allows low-income individuals without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. This past August, LHI put together a program to spotlight our partners who are using our technology in new and exciting ways that expand access to justice for victims seeking to file family offense petitions in Family Court.  Sara Sheikh from Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA), and Sun Kim from the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program discussed their respective programs

The Domestic Abuse Self Help (DASH) program is run by NLSLA in Los Angeles County, CA. Sara Sheikh is a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA). She works at NLSLA’s Van Nuys Self-Help Legal Access Center located at the Van Nuys Courthouse. She began working as the Domestic Abuse Self-Help (DASH) attorney in early 2014. Her previous experience with assisting domestic violence (DV) victims was as a volunteer at these same DASH clinics. We were fortunate enough not only to hear from Sara and Sun during the LHI call, but also to ask them questions about their work.

Domestic Abuse Self-Help (DASH)

In 2006 the Neighborhood Legal Services of LA County began assisting litigants in filing protection orders in instances of domestic violence. It began with a series of clinics in which a volunteer could assist multiple litigants as they fill out the necessary documentation to file a petition. This included manually double checking that all of the relevant information was provided on the forms, which would then need to be physically printed and faxed to an outside volunteer attorney for edits and approvals. This process was time consuming and costly in manpower as well as physical materials. With the use of LHI, these forms are now more consistent and accurate and a volunteer lawyer is able to make edits, ask further questions, and provide suggestions digitally saving time, hassle, and money. We asked Sara to tell us a bit more about her role in the project:

What do you do in your current role?

As the DASH attorney, I train volunteers and supervise them in our DASH clinics, reviewing the paperwork they help prepare and answering questions they may run into while helping our DV litigants. On those days that we may not have enough volunteers, I also assist DV litigants in filling out their paperwork.

What do you think is most important for people to understand about domestic violence and the work you do?

People need to understand what is domestic violence, and that it covers more than just physical abuse. People also need to be informed on what options they have to find safety. We help DV victims protect themselves by petitioning for restraining orders, and we can only do the work we do because students and members of the community give their time at the clinics as volunteers to assist the public.

Tell me a little about the needs of the audience you are serving and maybe how many people you serve in day, week, year?

At the DASH clinic we help litigants fill out paperwork for DV restraining orders. Litigants who are suffering from domestic abuse, in whatever form it may take, come to us for legal help. Litigants look to our clinics to help them get the protection they need from their abuser. Volunteers and staff screen these litigants and then help them fill out petitions for restraining orders. In one month, on average, NLSLA’s three DASH clinics assist 200 people with their paperwork. This number does not include litigants who come in with questions to be answered, who just need the paperwork or who need referrals for further assistance.

How can technology play a vital role in connecting those in need to resources?

Technology is vital in making the information for those resources easily available online. People in need of help need to know how to define their situation, and what resources are available for DV victims to get to a place of safety. They need to be able to see that our clinics are there to help people fill out their legal paperwork. And that information has to be easy to find, which is something that I believe that court websites like the LA Court website succeed in doing.

The Domestic Abuse Self Help (DASH) program now has four separate locations that provide one-on-one guidance while completing the forms in the morning, and provide guide packets for those filling out the forms in the afternoons. They are well on their way to having a volunteer attorney devoted to each location both for assistance as well as performing the final reviews for all of the forms before they are submitted. A recent expansion of the program has made it possible for volunteers and attorneys to access information from various locations at the same time, allowing them to work more efficiently. The expansion was facilitation through additional volunteer recruitment and involvement from partners including Los Angeles county shelters and shelter advocates, and pro bono attorneys. The NLSLA clinics exist now in Lancaster, San Fernando, Van Nuys, and Pamona, with additional clinics being held at shelter partners in Santa Clarita Valley. Additional after hours clinics are held in Van Nuys, Topanga, and Devonshire Police Stations. All final documents are submitted directly to NLSLA from off site locations for a last review before being approved for filing to the courts, thus ensuring that all documents are fully completed and ready to be submitted even from off site locations and volunteers.


Advocate Family Offense Petition Program (NY)

The Advocate Family Offense Petition Program provides trained domestic violence advocates throughout NY with access to an online document assembly interview to help litigants complete petitions.  The petition information is then electronically transferred into the Family Court’s Universal Case Management System (UCMS). Launched as a statewide initiative in early 2014, following a successful pilot in Bronx Family Court, the Advocate Family Offense Petition Program is reducing barriers for individuals seeking protection from abuse. Additionally, the project is improving courthouse efficiency. The project demonstrates how technology can increase access to justice, streamline court processes, and create a better experience for litigants.

Sun Kim works for the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program and is the Special Counsel for Technology Initiatives.  According to Sun they like to call her an attorney-technologist. We asked Sun a few questions about work:

What do you do in your current role?

I do a lot of different things but mainly I program and maintain the court’s advocate assisted Hotdocs templates and the DIY Form programs (that’s what we branded our A2J Author/HotDocs templates for unrepresented litigants). I also maintain and code CourtHelp, the court’s website for unrepresented litigants.

How can technology play a vital role in connecting those in need to resources?

The great thing about the internet is that no matter what time it is or where they are located a litigant can get information and help. That help can be customized for the individual and their situation.

Similarly how can technology help you and your colleagues as you look to help clients?

Technology is a very cost effective way to help a lot of litigants, but it improves court efficiency and saves clerks time so that they can assist litigants who really need it.

During the LHI August call, Sun explained how this system works.

Advocates and volunteers must become members of both LawHelp Interactive and and request to be approved before being able to access the e-filing petition program. The program itself can be accessed from any computer via the internet by going into the Family Justice/DV practice area on At the moment, there are 140 Domestic Violence Advocacy agencies that have been approved for this program and litigants can go to their local court for referrals to local agencies.

Advocates access the program and walk the litigants through a series of questions required for the filing of the form. Once all of the relevant questions have been answered a word document is generated for the litigant and advocate to review before e-filing the information with the Family Court’s UCMS. The litigant will still need to go to the court clerk and file the official petition, where it is reviewed by the clerk, cross referenced to check for any other open cases involving the litigant, and officially activated. The litigant will be able to see the judge and receive an Emergency Order of Protection the same day.

The benefits of this program are clear. Forms are complete and accurate, and it save hours of time and energy for the court clerks. Advocates and volunteer attorneys provide assistance and walk litigants through filing the petitions from their own offices. Litigants are provided guidance as they file for their petition and are provided additional questions only when their answers require additional follow up. They are also able to receive their protection orders much faster as they are already in the system when they formally submit their petition. This project has been so successful that the New York Courts received the Legal Tech News Innovation Award for the Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project category.

Leaving an abuser can be an extremely dangerous time for litigants. With these tools advocates can help litigants prepare their documents more quickly, accurately and efficiently. Pro Bono Net will continue to work with partners to utilize technology in order to increase access to justice for the victims of domestic violence.

Follow these links for more information:

Petition Programs:

LawHelp Interactive

NLSLA Domestic Violence Self Help Program

New York Court Family Offense E-filing Program

More Information on Domestic Violence:

Domestic Violence Hotline

United States Department of Justice

Sanctuary for Families

Her Justice

Safe Horizons

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 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 Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter@ProBonoPLI.

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

In July, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar called “Mental Health Issues & the New York States Courts 2015: Understanding Risk,” 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 New York State courts utilize various risk assessment tools to determine the appropriate level of services, supervision and treatment that should be provided to those with mental health issues that find themselves in the justice system. PLI’s seminar in July addressed these risk assessments and their integration into the justice system of New York.

The percentage of people in state prisons and local jails that meet the criteria for severe mental illness is almost triple that of the general population. Without proper treatment, many are leaving incarceration much worse off than when they started. For many years policymakers and practitioners have sought ways to expand options, treatment, and alternatives to traditional incarceration to give people a solid chance at rebuilding their lives.

The underlying assumption behind many of these strategies is that the primary reason mentally ill persons became embroiled in the criminal justice system is a lack of treatment for their illness. While new strategies and programs have decreased recidivism and assisted the mentally ill as they reintegrate into society, recent studies show that the base-line assumption is incorrect.

In 2010, studies found no direct correlation between the mental health of a person and their rate of recidivism after going through one of the alternative programs. What they found was that while treatment was helpful and necessary, mental illness was not the primary cause of recidivism or criminal activity. While mental illness is a contributing factor, the attributes involved in determining the risk of recidivism for mentally ill persons are actually the same as those for non-mentally ill persons. The risk factors include a history of antisocial behavior, antisocial personality pattern, antisocial thoughts and attitudes, antisocial associates, family or relationship instability, poor performance at work or school, few leisure or recreational activities, and substance abuse.

Armed with this new information, many policy makers and advocates are supporting a new model that focuses on a consideration of mental health, substance abuse and criminogenic risk factors to determine the correct level of supervision and services for offenders with behavioral health needs. This intersection between accountability and treatment is a difficult rope to walk. There are so many variables at play that each case needs to be evaluated and a decision made bearing in mind as many factors as possible.  PLI’s seminar addressed the risk assessment mechanisms used by the New York courts system to address this need.

The morning panels were devoted to exploring two different types of risk and how they relate to mental illness. The first session focused on the relationship between violence and mental illness, examining the current research, tools used for assessment and legal standards the New York courts use to assess dangerousness. Assessment tools are used to determine the likelihood that the offender will engage in violent acts against himself or others. If there is a risk of violence the courts have the ability to reduce or remove that risk through the services developed in addition to, or as an alternative to, incarceration.

The second session focused on the risks of criminal behavior and activities, the risk-needs-responsivity model, and a new framework for integrating the risk-needs-responsivity model with behavioral health needs. The risk-needs-responsivity model is a framework developed in the 1980’s to ensure that the level of supervision matches the offender’s risk of reoffending (risk), that type treatment and assistance provided matches the offender’s mental and physical health needs based on specific risk factors (needs), and that the level of treatment and assistance provided matches the level the offender will positively respond to (responsivity). This system is used in the New York State courts to assess the services and supervision the system should provide to an offender in order to rehabilitate the offender.

The first afternoon session was made up of four presentations examining examples of how risk assessments are used in NY. The first focused on the risk of failing to appear in court, including a discussion of the research behind bail recommendations in courts and a pilot program for supervised release of defendants who would otherwise be detained while awaiting their trial. The second addressed recommendations of the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System that assess the risk of reoffending and/or a failure to appear in court. The third examined a new program that assesses the risk of failure to appear in court and/or reoffending in order to identify eligible pretrial detainees at Rikers Island. The last described how risk and needs assessments are used to determine probation supervision levels.

The last session of the day looked at the ethical and policy considerations involved in using risk assessments in the court systems. Topics included a consideration for mental health professionals and lawyers on determining whether to break confidentiality when a client presents a risk of committing a violent or criminal act, as well as the differences in standards of professional responsibility for lawyers and mental health professionals in representing or treating an offender with mental illness. Ethical issues for prosecutors in cases involving defendants with mental illnesses, and concerns in regards to applying risk assessments created as an evaluation of probabilities across a wide range of people to an individual, were also major topics.

The morning sessions’ panels included Melissa Lee Mazzitelli, Esq., Virginia Barber Rioja, Ph.D., Joyce Kendrick, Esq., and Merrill Rotter, MD, and was moderated by Carol Fisler, Esq.. The first afternoon session panel was comprised of Sharun Goodwin-Jones, Trish Marsik, Jerome E. McElroy, and John Volpe. The final panel included Julian Adler, Esq., David Kelly, Esq., and Merrill Rotter, MD. The afternoon session panels were moderated by Colleen King, Esq., and Margaret Martin Esq. respectively.

The PLI seminars are comprehensive and informative, focusing on the latest research and contributions from the most experienced names in the field. Many are eligible for CLE credit.



Practising Law InstituteThis seminar/webcast was hosted by the Practising Law Institute. To register for any webcasts or seminars go to 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 Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @ProBonoPLI.

Each year, thousands of individuals facing domestic violence in New York seek to protect themselves from abuse with an order of protection. Last month, ALM’s Legaltech News recognized The New York State Unified Court System with an LTN innovation award for the Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project for the Advocate Family Offense Petition Project.  On Tuesday, Pro Bono Net and LegalTech News presented the award to the New York Courts.

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Pictured: L-R: Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien, Honorable Fern A. Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts and Director the NYS Courts Access to Justice Program; and Erin Harrison, Editor in Chief at Legaltech News.

The project reduces barriers for individuals seeking protection from abuse. By leveraging Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive online document assembly solution, the project allows advocates across the state to complete and electronically file petitions for litigants from any location, including from trusted domestic violence agencies and shelters. Since the program’s launch in 2014, more than 8,000 petitions have been filed using this program in 45 of NY’s 62 counties. The project streamlines the procedures for petitioners seeking protection orders, making the process less stressful for litigants. Pro Bono Net nominated the NY Courts for this honor, believing they should be applauded for implementing technology  which makes the justice system more accessible  for unrepresented litigants who are seeking critical support under the most difficult of circumstances.

“It’s been a real privilege for Pro Bono Net to be a part of that journey and evolution in the way the court has thought about providing services and equipping its staff and partnering organizations to be able to do the hard work that they’re charged with every day,” said Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director Mark O’Brien at the ceremony.

During her speech on Tuesday, the Honorable Fern A. Fisher acknowledged the collaborative effort it took to get to the end of this journey, saying that it took a lot of hands to make this happen. Collaborators included Pro Bono Net, the New York Court’s Access to Justice Program, NYC Family Court, the Court’s Division of Technology, and the Center for Court Innovation and domestic violence advocacy groups. At the end of her speech, Judge Fisher acknowledged that though this a huge feat, it’s not the end of the battle, and added that she hopes to see statistics on domestic violence reduced in her lifetime.

Honorable Fern A. Fisher (pictured center) with the 2015 LTN Innovation Award for Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project. LTN presented the award to the courts at a ceremony at the Courthouse yesterday. Pictured with Judge Fisher are from Left to Right: Mike McLoughlin, First Deputy Chief Clerk, Family Court Administration, City of New York; Mark O’Brien; Erin Harrison; Chip Mount, Director of Research and Technology at New York State Unified Court System; Mike Williams, Clerk of Court, Bronx Family Court.

The project leverages LawHelp Interactive (LHI), a national online document assembly service that provides support to access to justice initiatives by legal services, court, pro bono, and law school programs in more than 40 states. LHI is operated by Pro Bono Net, in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services, and together they have received generous support for this work from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation.


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.


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.


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.