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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 (http://www.probono.net/LHI) 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 (cjohnson@probono.net) or Mirenda Meghelli (mmeghelli@probono.net) 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, OKLaw.org. 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 http://www.washingtonlawhelp.org/dissolution or http://www.lawhelpny.org/consumer.
  • 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 cjohnson@probono.net.

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

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