Patrick Reynolds, the 2013 Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2013 AmeriCorps VISTA, reports on the September 11th, 2013 LSNTAP webinar on the use of technology to help unrepresented litigants. More of Patrick’s posts are available here.

The LSNTAP Webinar occurred on Wednesday September 11th and featured 4 presenters. After an introduction by Moderator Claudia Johnson, the LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net, the first presenter was Gordon Shaw, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Justice Project, who talked about Online Triage and the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder. Kathleen Caldwell, Website Coordinator at Pine Tree legal Assistance, presented next about how Jim’s Mailbag, A2J, and Hotdocs have increased traffic and helped website visitors.  Deputy Director Raquel Colon of Legal Services of Northern Virginia finished out the webinar with information about the SMS Texting Appointment Reminder System.
Claudia Johnson started off the webinar with a discussion about components of engaging online tools, such as interactive apps, videos, forms, chat, and checklists. She also presented a survey of what the legal aid community is doing with its online tools and discussed projects currently being worked on.  Tools that are currently in development include SMS texting, Promoting interaction with lay experts, and new mobile apps. The trend is for increased engagement to successfully reach a larger number of clients.

Online Triage Presentation

Gordon Shaw provided information about the Massachusetts Legal Help Finder, which is designed to effectively help triage intake requests by directing users to a short online form which provides links to self-help content relevant to one’s issue. This way, intake task can help focus on helping users with issues that aren’t easily answered with online content.

The questions are designed to be user specific, narrowing down info based on where the user lives, if they are a senior, the number of people in their house, and so on.  The questions also help with users requesting information that Massachusetts legal aid doesn’t cover, by directing them to right places to ask.  Please note that mapping is still in progress, and upon further review a new format might still be used.

Jim’s Mailbag, A2J and Hotdocs

Kathleen Caldwell highlighted the usefulness of lay experts (non lawyers) for contributing content and gave advice for seeking out new content generators to increase both website traffic and usefulness.  Jim Strickland, writer of Jim’s Mailbag, is a very prolific contributor to Stateside Legal, a national website focused on legal aid for veterans. A disabled Vietnam veteran with his own website and established following, Jim was eventually recruited into a partnership with Stateside Legal. Within his area of specialization (veteran’s affairs) he has been able to provide very relevant and accessible information to a large number of visitors dealing with complicated veteran related legal issues.

HotDocs were also highlighted as a useful tool for veterans, as creating a checklist generated by a LawHelp interactive survey can create an organized document for resolving common legal issues. This program is still fairly new, and is continuing to be tested in Portland, Maine. While the answers are still a work in progress, the drive to simplify continues. The last program, titled “Don’t Leave Money on the Table” helps to connect veterans to the 30 most common programs offered by the VA, to help people sort of what benefits they may be eligible for and navigate through the complicated tangle of different programs and benefits.

The most basic lesson Kathleen Caldwell stressed was to plan ahead extensively and think about what your visitors are looking for and what will work best for them before building a feature. Once a tool is created, frequent testing can make a big difference and remaining open to feedback is also of upmost importance.


SMS Appointment Reminder System

Raquel Colon spoke about a program to reduce the number of no shows and missed appointments with an SMS texting appointment reminder program for clients. The program is designed to increase efficiency by reducing the amount of time spent resolving the issue, and rescheduling missed appointments. The campaign extracts information from the KEMPS case management system to place automated calls and text message reminders. One very important concern is Domestic Violence related cases, where it may be unsafe for a client to receive a reminder. The system is designed with fail safes to avoiding messaging flagged clients for safety.

The SMS reminder system is easily integrated with normal intake procedures, with the intake worker asking if the client has the capability to receive text or voice messages, and if they wish to be exempt from the reminder system.  Future developments will include Spanish language reminders, and usability testing should commence in October.


Claudia Johnson ended the webinar with an overview of lay advocacy tools, which may become more important in the near future.  New York, California, and Washington State Bars are considering a modification of legal practice rules which would increase the amount of intervention non attorneys are allowed to contribute. Successfully utilizing technology can increase the volume and reach of these lay experts, and lay advocacy is already taking place to a certain extent.  The field of Health Care was mentioned as an example to emulate, with used as an example, a website with in depth discussion boards and lay experts answering questions and providing detailed resources, under the moderation of a doctor.

Interdisciplinary Apps were also singled out as an emerging development. Application partnerships with non legal aid focused groups could have great benefits, covering a wide range of topics on issues like elder abuse or unemployment.

A full recording of the webinar is available on YouTube. The next Pro Bono Net hosted webinar will be held on October 23rd, and will be on Innovations and Technology Enabled Pro Bono.