Claudia Johnson is the Program Manager for LawHelp Interactive (LHI) at Pro Bono Net. Under her stewardship LHI has grown to be the largest and most used online form platform in the US. In this capacity Claudia supports a network of legal nonprofits, pro bono programs, and other groups creating, funding, and using online forms to improve their work and make it better for those without lawyers to create legal documents for free. Claudia practiced public interest law for 15 years in California and Philadelphia before joining Pro Bono Net. She has been recognized throughout her career for her contributions, most recently receiving the Promoter of Justice Award by the Washington Access to Justice Board. She has also received the Fastcase 50 and Women in Law honors. Here are Claudia’s thoughts as she reflects on attending ITC this year and how her experience at the conference has changed over the years.

If you look at the #LSCITC twitter feed you can see how vibrant and diverse the Innovations in Technology Conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation (LSC), was this year. I started going to the conference in 2008 – and back then we could count the number of women in attendance on two hands, and the people of color (POC) participants with only one hand. This year I was so happy to see so many new participants that bring new life experiences and perspectives to the Access to Justice Community.

In large part I believe this has to do with the ATJ Fellowship program that LSC has supported, which is now is going into its fourth year. This program has increased the participation of law students from non-traditional backgrounds and is mentoring them to become the technology access to justice leaders of the future. Many fellows presented in multiple panels, including Miki Nakamura who did her fellowship at Legal Aid of Hawai’I and presented on her navigator project and LaDierdre McKinney, who is the first woman of color online form developer at Michigan Legal Help.

From a document assembly perspective, it felt like a large percentage of the attendees were LawHelp Interactive alumni. Many of them are now leading on their own and it was great to see so many of them contributing beyond just forms in the tech and innovation field. For example, Angela Tripp, Jonathan Pyle, Quinten Steinhuis, Matthew Newstadt and Michael Hofrichter all led panels on their own and contributed significantly to the conference.

Prior to the start of the conference this year, LawHelp Interactive had two trainings. LHI trained staff from 10 programs and courts who hailed from California, Alaska, Texas, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. Since 2017, LHI has trained approximately 100 developers through the online training series in the fall and the live training in January. Many of these new developers are now managing successful form projects and are part of the larger LHI community including contributing to LHI monthly calls.

We had newer members of the LawHelp Interactive community join us. Laurie Garber, from the Northwest Justice Project, is leading the largest automation project to date. She has created forms that are rising in use at a rapid pace. She did a great panel with Mirenda Meghelli, Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Partnerships Manager, on A Tale of Two Washingtons: Launching Successful Court Automation Projects.

In terms of the Pro Bono Net network, it was well represented and we were able to connect one on one during a well-attended session highlighting developments in Pro Bono Net’s State Justice Communities program. We also connected with many of our current and former partners on projects. They will always be partners in innovation, sharing and closing the justice gap. Many of us gathered impromptu at the ITC reception, which led to the picture below.

Substantively, the Innovations in Technology Conference did not disappoint. There were a lot of great panels and talks that challenged us to think grandly. The influx of new disciplines, including law school students, bloggers, design experts, and the participation from other countries, particularly Canada – greatly increased the dialog. For me the most gratifying part of the conference was to see how the idea of using technology to level the playing field for those without legal representation is no longer a radical or strange idea for a lawyer to pursue. It is now a movement that has buy in and intellectual momentum and force. It is a movement that will leave our nation a more just society, more inclusive, and more well thought out than what we had before the TIG program started or from when I joined this group of innovators in 2008. I left the conference feeling that legal technology and access to justice are now together forever – and I know that the future is bright. The foundations we have laid, the lessons we learned, and the trust we have built will ensure that future and create a more peaceful and just America.

Thank you to the LSC TIG staff and all of LSC for organizing a conference that is showing us the way to move forward together as a community.

The 2020 Innovations in Technology conference took place in January, earlier this year, in Portland, Oregon. This annual conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation, brings together technologists, legal aid staff, courts, funders and many others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.

Tim Baran is the LawHelpNY Technology Innovations Manager at Pro Bono Net. After two decades in the legal profession as a law firm library director, legal technologist, and marketing director, he now engages the community the community to identify problems and collaboratively build solutions to help close the justice gap and improve access to affordable legal services. Here are Tim’s thoughts on attending ITC this year and moderating a fun, actionable panel.   

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Innovations in Technology Conference is like summer camp for justice advocates in the civil legal aid community – lots of learning, lots of fun, and lots of relationship building – year after year. The opportunity to present at the conference offers a handy way to access these three components – learning, relationships, and yes, fun. I was privileged to present with a killer panel on Communication Tools and Practices to Optimize Internal Collaboration and Engagement. The panel included Susan Choe, Executive Director of Ohio Legal Help; Kristen Sonday, Co-founder & COO of Paladin; Rodrigo Camarena, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network, and me.

Our session, as described below, was based on our own experience and feedback from the community about successes and challenges communicating and collaborating across programs, departments, and stakeholders.


How can we work better together, leverage institutional knowledge and expertise, and foster meaningful relationships to more effectively pursue our mission of serving communities in need and addressing the access to justice gap? One way is increasing our productivity and community engagement by using communication tools to share and collaborate. This is especially important when working with a distributed team as more organizations provide the opportunity for staff to work remotely.

The panel brought people together from a range of organizations and companies to offer insight and advice on the tools, best practices, and processes used every day to communicate and collaborate, manage projects with internal and external stakeholders, and address security and privacy concerns and safeguards. Tools that were discussed and demonstrated included Slack for interoffice communication, G Suite (Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides) for collaborating, Basecamp, Jira and Trello for managing projects, and GoToMeeting and Zoom for video and audio chats.

Communication and Collaboration Tools

Each panelist led the discussion on a couple of tools and we all weighed in with our perspective and experience. This was a show-and-tell session – we trusted the venue’s WiFi and was rewarded with a seamless hour of demonstrations. Here’s a brief overview of the tools we covered, some of which you may already use, and others you should consider taking for a test drive.

SlackSlack seemed to be a popular tool for the crowd, mostly due to its seamless group and 1-on-1 chat and video capabilities, ability to collaborate across multiple organizations in one workspace, and handy plug-ins. With integrations like Zoom, GCal and Google Docs, internal polling, and the most important, Giphy, Slack is a one-stop shop for communication and resource sharing. Plus, its freemium model makes it an attractive option for centralizing group chats. Tim even estimated that during his time at a legal technology startup he cut down on 80% of internal email by moving to Slack!

G Suite – If you’re one of the 1.5 billion gmail users, you have free access to Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms. It’s arguably the most powerful and accessible productivity suite out there and of course, the most affordable. A couple of outstanding features is the seamless and intuitive ability to collaborate on the creation and editing of documents, spreadsheets, and slide decks and accessibility since everything is saved to the cloud. Our panel used a Google Doc to plan our presentation and would have created a slide deck if we weren’t insistent on the session being all about live demos. This is an invaluable tool for teams.

GoToMeeting and Zoom – The verdict is in, and WebEx is out in favor of popular newcomer Zoom and reliable GoToMeeting. With an intuitive UX/UI and simple phone app, Zoom makes it easy to join conversations on the go, share screens, chat, and record. The free Zoom plan gives you 40 minute sessions with 100 participants.

GoToMeeting does one thing and does it well – online meetings where you communicate via audio or video, give a presentation by sharing your screen, exchange chats with participants, record for future viewing, set up recurring meetings, and more. They also offer a free version with a 40-minute limit and only 3 participants. You’ll want to spring for a Pro account starting at $12/month.

Trello – Based upon the audience, Trello is a popular simple intuitive project management tool. Trello has a number of project management templates that you will find handy and collaboration with other team members is easily done through the creation of a team and shared Trello boards. If you are looking for an easy to use project management tool and or even a simple task tracker for yourself, it’s worth giving Trello a try. Trello has a free version in addition to options to upgrade to Business Class and Enterprise.

Basecamp – By a show of hands, only two members of the almost 100-strong audience indicated that they use Basecamp. I think they’re missing out.

Basecamp is a project management tool that keeps you and your team organized and in the loop. We all work on projects all day every day and it’s a lot more efficient and productive to have one place where you can access documents and files, messages and tasks, meeting notes, and communication threads. For me, the standout feature of Basecamp is it gives you what you need and not more. Too many project management tools are overly complicated with an abundance of features which hinders the adoption. Basecamp offers a flat fee of $99 per month for unlimited users and projects + a discount for nonprofits. They also offer a free 30-day trial. Check it out!

Jira – Like Basecamp, Jira is a project management tool but it shines as a powerful issue tracking collaboration tool between program and technology teams at nonprofits. If you’re managing the development of a technology project or looking to address bug fixes and maintenance on an ongoing basis, you can sign up for a free version and kick the tires before deciding to upgrade. If you decide to upgrade, make sure to contact Jira directly for non-profit pricing.

Our session was recorded and should be available on LSC’s YouTube channel soon. If you missed the conference, video recordings of some of the sessions, including Jim Sandman’s inspiring opening plenary, are available now!

Thanks to the panelists who shared their knowledge and special shout out to Kristen Sonday and Susan Choe who contributed to this post.

The 2020 Innovations in Technology Conference took place in January, earlier this year, in Portland, Oregon. This annual conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation, brings together technologist, legal aid staff, courts, funders and many others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.

It should be no surprise that natural disasters exacerbate everyday legal problems. Resolving these problems can play a key role in helping families get back on their feet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides assistance to disaster relief victims, but the process of applying for Individual Assistance can be highly complex and difficult to complete.

Pro Bono Net teamed up with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement, and Carmen Lopez, a designer, to make navigating the Individual Assistance application process easier. Using Pro Bono Net’s advocacy expertise, CUP’s unique method of community-engaged design, and Carmen’s design prowess, our team developed Figuring out FEMA, a pocket guide for people applying to FEMA’s Individual Assistance program.

The Individual Assistance Program is federal disaster assistance that has been made available to state or territories to supplement their recovery efforts. This program makes federal funding available for emergency work and to individuals and businesses owners who sustain damage as a result of a disaster. Unlike typical disaster relief materials, Figuring out FEMA utilizes popular education-style visualizations to convey the critical information that victims need. This legal empowerment approach to disaster relief strives to simplify the post-disaster experience rather than complicate it.

I spoke in-depth with Jeanne Ortiz Ortiz, Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net, and Yasmin Safdié, Director of Programs at CUP, about the process behind creating this powerful resource.

To start us off, what is Figuring out FEMA?

Jeanne: Figuring out FEMA is a mini pocket guide that Pro Bono Net developed in partnership with CUP. I like to describe it as a Know-Your-Rights resource for disaster survivors anywhere in the US. It not only provides helpful information, but also legitimizes people’s experience after a natural disaster. It covers the basics of the Individual Assistance program application process for communities that have been impacted by disasters. The goal of this guide is to break down the application process for the first few days and weeks after a person’s house or property have been destroyed. We want to provide a simple, accessible, and reliable resource for when people are trying to figure out how to get help.

What inspired this collaboration between Pro Bono Net and CUP?

Jeanne: Pro Bono Net has been involved in disaster response efforts since the 9/11 attacks. Our work in this field has allowed us to understand the challenges, issues, and best practices in disaster legal aid and recovery, and connected us to some of the best legal aid organizations and attorneys involved in this work that help us understand the consequence of legal response work. After the 2017 disasters, we were seeing those needs and challenges amplified across the US, especially in Texas, Puerto Rico, California, and Florida. We knew of the Center for Urban Pedagogy and that they had an open call for community organizations to apply for projects, so we decided to apply for the Public Access Design program.

What did Pro Bono Net have in mind when you first applied?

Jeanne: Initially, we wanted to create something for the Puerto Rican diaspora who were relocating to New York because of Hurricane María. We wanted to create something that would facilitate an understanding of the FEMA application and appeals process, since FEMA was extending the benefits deadline for Hurricane María survivors. After several conversations about the potential of the project, we decided to broaden our reach and create something for disaster survivors across the United States.

Yasmin, what was CUP’s role during the design process?

Yasmin: During the design process, CUP facilitates the collaboration to make sure everyone can bring their different expertise to the table, including the expertise organizers have about the issue and community members have about their own lived experience with that issue. Our goal is to make a project that is stronger than any of us could make on our own, and that can only happen if everyone can be part of the conversation.

What did the design process with CUP entail for Pro Bono Net?

Jeanne: After Pro Bono Net was selected for the project, we scheduled a teach-in with CUP’s team to give an overview about disaster legal aid, and how a pocket guide like this one could complement disaster relief efforts across regions. I also sent [CUP’s team] some supplemental materials and resources that would be helpful for them and Carmen, the designer. Then, Carmen came in and she talked us through her design style and some of her past projects. CUP created a scoping document based on the teach-in and their own interpretation of the information that would serve as a template for the guide. That document was initially 10–12 pages and we had to narrow it down to approximately 6 pages. We scheduled several meetings after that to go over the scoping document. We asked a lot of questions like “What do we have right? What do we have wrong? What do we absolutely need to include? What can we drop? What do we want people to have at the end of the pocket guide when they finish it?”

Then all of that led to Carmen creating wireframes and incorporating some of the [scoping document] text and her own understanding and design elements to the guide. We had a semi final spread and then conducted our first user testing session. We incorporated that feedback into our next discussion. Then we [had] our second user testing session and then did the same thing again. And then we worked on final touches and edits.

Yasmin, how does visualization make complex policy issues or legal processes more accessible?

Yasmin: If you look at most policies and laws, you’ll find that they are incredibly lengthy and often written in confusing legal language that is hard for most people to understand. Visualization enables us to break down the important elements of the policy, law or process and describe them in a way that is accessible and applicable to people impacted by the laws and policies. In our process, we spend a lot of time narrowing down the major elements that need to be conveyed because they are most important to people impacted by the issue, thinking through hierarchy of information, and expressing them in a way that is relevant to the lives of people who will use the materials. The visualization enables us to further explain the complex policies and laws by actually showing through illustration instead of words and organizing information in a way that is easier to understand than say a bulleted word document.

There is a lot of research showing that visuals and well organized information can help us build “maps” in our brain in a way that helps us not only understand complex information better, but makes it easier for us to remember it later when we need it.

In addition, visualization enables us to reach a wider audience and people who are more visual learners. It also enables people to see themselves in the process we are describing and hopefully becomes more meaningful and applicable to them.

Besides incorporating clear visuals, how else did the team ensure accessibility?

Jeanne: CUP did an excellent job making the text accessible.This process was interesting because we wanted to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible, but the tricky part was that we had limited pages and text to do that. We also needed to balance the information with the images and other design elements in the guide so creativity was something we needed to integrate constantly. CUP’s team were gurus at shortening text. They’ve done this with multiple projects, so they’re really good at that.

Disaster relief is an issue that cuts across many forms of systemic inequality. How does CUP incorporate equity into its design work?

Yasmin: We incorporate equity into our design work in several ways. First we work on issues that are identified as important by the communities that are directly impacted by them. We see our work as using a “resource-ally model,” where our skills and services are applied in support of issues and solutions that are identified by communities and not by us.

We ensure the organizations that work with us are either led by or working directly with the community impacted by the issue the project is about. For most of our projects, we have a jury made up of designers and advocates who chose the projects. This helps hold us accountable to the wider design and advocacy community.

In addition, there are several times throughout the design process where there is a chance for more community members who are directly impacted by the issue to help us understand their experiences and what information would be important to include and later to give feedback both on content and design. This helps hold us accountable to creating something that speaks to the audience who will use the materials, represents them accurately, and is clear and easy to understand. In addition, we have conversations and provide trainings for designers in how to illustrate different communities without using stereotypes and unintentionally harmful imagery. Lastly, we are intentional in creating spaces to work with designers who have historically and systemically not had equitable access to design spaces.

What impact do you hope this pocket guide will have within the disaster relief community?

Jeanne: The application process with FEMA and other disaster assistance applications can be overwhelming. Most people want to move on as quickly as possible from an often traumatic event. Once people feel like they’ve hit a lot of roadblocks or barriers, they may feel like it’s not worth it and withdraw from the process altogether. It’s a truth that a lot of people in disaster relief and recovery know and share.

I’m excited to present this to the broader justice community and other advocates interested in sharing this as a tool for action. My hope is that this is something that our partners can use and share with their communities in the event of a disaster. In terms of someone who picks this up and sees this, my hope would be [that they say] OK, this is something I can do. I’m not alone in this process. I have a better understanding of the process. And I’m going to go for it. I’m going to check out this resource, or look up legal help in my area, or find more information about a FEMA appeal. That’s my hope. That’s the ultimate goal. If it’s one person who feels empowered and encouraged to go through the process and understand it a little bit better, then that’s a success story for me.

Looking for more resources about disaster legal aid? Check out Pro Bono Net’s Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center.

Interested in applying to one of CUP’s open calls? Sign up for CUP’s mailing list here.

Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Fellow, Katie Lam, originally posted this blog on Medium, read it here

In late November, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in partnership with Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and Beytna Design hosted an Equity Design for Legal Empowerment workshop. Led by Beytna Design’s Tania Anaisse, the workshop focused on the role of power and inclusion in the design of legal empowerment initiatives.

Three Pro Bono Net (PBN) team members participated, including myself, PBN’s Program Director Liz Keith and IAN Director Rodrigo Camarena. As part of our OSF-funded Tech for Legal Empowerment initiative, we also had the opportunity to invite project collaborators from Alaska Legal Services CorporationMake the Road New York and Georgetown University Law Center to join us. Together, we spent 2 days in sunny San Juan collaborating with legal aid leaders and designers from Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Argentina, Ukraine and Germany to learn the fundamentals of Equity Design.

Workshop participants grouped around posters to check out each other’s work

Moving Towards Community-Led Engagements

Within the nonprofit sector, community participation in product or service design often takes the form of sending out a survey for feedback, or soliciting input from other organizations serving the community. Traditional human-centered design takes this effort one step further by embedding regular feedback loops into the product or program development process.

In both cases, the community informs the project or design process, but they still lack decision-making power and meaningful ownership over the process itself. How can a design engagement or legal aid intervention move from being community-informed to being community-led?

Equity Design (or Liberatory Design) offers a model of engagement that not only treats communities as partners, but as leaders in the design process. It also recognizes that designers and organizations carry our own set of implicit assumptions and biases that impact how the design “problem” gets framed and interpreted, which can in turn reinforce existing inequities or power imbalances. Equity Design challenges traditional design by factoring in how power impacts a person or community’s lived experience.

By exploring the different ways that social position, current, and historical realities shape lived experiences, designers can help transform power in favor of a community’s real needs. In doing so, designers become better equipped to design with, not for communities.

Taking a closer look at “Design Manifestos” that each participant made

Day 1: Unpacking Equity and Exploring Power

We kicked off Day 1 of our workshop with a series of short lectures that parsed out the difference between equalityequity, and oppression.

One key purpose of understanding these terms is to avoid reproducing inequities. Instead, interventions or programs should be designed towards freedom from oppression.

For the first half of the day, we walked through historical examples of how systems have been designed to exclude. We discussed how utilizing human-centered design thinking without taking power into consideration is often ineffective and can cause serious harm.

Photo of a slide from the workshop describing the flaws of traditional design thinking

After walking through the theory of Equity Design, we examined our own identities and social position through a few exercises. We were then assigned the challenge of designing a “space of belonging” for a partner. Using the framework we had just learned, we applied our training to the traditional design sprint. We broke up into pairs and jumped into interviews, ending the day with paper prototypes and reflections.

Day 2: Measuring Community Participation

Having completed a design sprint on the first day, we spent Day 2 of the workshop learning practical ways to infuse community participation into the design process. Tania introduced the idea of community participation in equity design as a spectrum, with traditional human-centered design on one end and community-led design on the other.

With this framework in mind, we walked through activities that help teams move from traditional design and closer towards a community-led model. A community-led model prioritizes the expertise of a community’s lived experience by giving the community multiple opportunities to shape and change the design process according to their needs, with final decision-making power ultimately in their hands.

A spectrum of public participation produced by the International Association for Public Participation. This graphic provides a useful metric for measuring to what degree one’s program or intervention is community-led.

After Tania demonstrated examples of community participation, we learned how to identify the many types of power relationships that exist between people and/or institutions. We mapped the different power relationships between our issue area’s stakeholders, paying special attention to how one type of power interacts with one another. We ended the day designing our own engagement and used the same mapping technique to reveal how power is unevenly distributed within our own contexts.

Equity Design and Legal Empowerment

Both traditional human-centered design and traditional legal aid strive to make the world a better place. As a methodology, Equity Design aligns well with legal aid’s mission of closing the access to justice gap.

But without applying a power analysis approach, both traditional design and traditional legal aid delivery models run the risk of maintaining power imbalances, even as both methods aim to make positive social change. Privileging the decision making of “experts” like trained designers or lawyers can be more disempowering than empowering. Equity Design and legal empowerment deserves our full attention because both share an important understanding: that community members are the true leaders of change and the power to define that change must be shifted accordingly.

The 2020 Innovations in Technology Conference begins Wednesday, January 15th in Portland, Oregon. This conference, hosted by the Legal Services Corporation, 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 many of our program and technology staff in attendance. We’re also presenting in panels and workshops on topics ranging from access-friendly online court forms to legal-technology partnerships for victims of crime and much more.

The Legal Services Corporation will be livestreaming select sessions throughout the conference including “Communication Tools and Practices to Optimize Internal Collaboration and Engagement” with Pro Bono Net’s Tim Baran and Rodrigo Camarena.

Prior to the main ITC conference, Pro Bono Net is offering two days of LawHelp Interactive Training on Monday and Tuesday, January 13th and 14th, to train advocates on how to develop interactive legal documents and court forms that increase opportunities for those without an attorney to achieve justice. There will be two types of trainings, the first being a two-day beginner training (January 13th and 14th) as well as and advanced training on January 14th.

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

Wednesday Affinity Lunch – Big Data in the Civil Justice Context

  • Alex Clark, Montana Legal Services
  • Carlos Manjarrez, LSC
  • Claudia Colindres Johnson, Pro Bono Net

Wednesday, 1:30pm-2:45pm

Made by Legal Aiders for Legal Aiders: A How-To Manual for Website Accessibility

  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net
  • Kris Surette, Legal Services Vermont
  • Kristin Verrill, Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc.

Wednesday, 3:30pm-4:45pm

Technology Innovations for Civil Legal Aid Clients and Victims of Crime: Stronger Together

  •  Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Rochelle Hahn, Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project; Massachusetts Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime Initiative
  • Meg Garvin, National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School
  • Quisquella Addison, Pro Bono Net

Thursday, 10:30am-11:45pm

A Tale of Two Washingtons: Launching Successful Court Form Automation Projects

  • Mirenda Meghelli, Pro Bono Net
  • Reece Flexner, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center
  • Laurie Garber, Northwest Justice Project
  • Rita Blandino, DC Courts

Thursday, 4:15pm-5:30pm

LawHelp/ Network Session: What’s New and What’s Next for 2020

  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Quisquella Addison, Pro Bono Net
  • Jeanne Ortiz, Pro Bono Net
  • Shah’ada Shaban, Legal Services of Northern California

Thursday Affinity Dinner (requires registration) Document Assembly, Mother’s Bistro and Bar

  • Claudia Colindres Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • Mirenda Meghelli, Pro Bono Net

Friday, 8:00am-9:15am

Improving Statewide Website User Experience through Content Improvements

  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net
  • Tara Saylor, Tara Saylor & Company LLC
  • Alex Clark, Montana Legal Services Association
  • Kristin Verrill, Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc.

Friday, 8:00am-9:15am

Communication Tools and Practices to Optimize Internal Collaboration and Engagement

(this session will be livestreamed)

  • Kristen Sonday, Paladin
  • Tim Baran, Pro Bono Net
  • Rodrigo Camarena, Immigration Advocates Network
  • Susan Choe, Ohio Legal Help

Friday, 9:30am-10:15am

Connecting Imagination to Impact: Frameworks to Design and Measure Digital Innovations

  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • Tara Saylor, Tara Saylor & Company LLC
  • Rodrigo Camarena, Immigration Advocates Network

Friday, 11:15am-12:30pm

We Can Work it Out: Breaking the Impasse Between A2J+Tech Enthusiasts and Skeptics

  • Ariadna Godreau, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico
  • David Rodriguez-Andino, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico
  • Nikole Nelson, Alaska Legal Services Corp
  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net

Figuring Out FEMA – New resource helps natural disaster survivors apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 

Pro Bono Net, in partnership with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and designer Carmen López, is pleased to announce the release of “Figuring Out FEMA,” a pocket-sized visual resource for disaster survivors. “Figuring Out FEMA” is part of CUP’s Public Access Design program, a series of projects that use design to make complex issues accessible to people most affected by them. The guide can be downloaded for free at

“Figuring Out FEMA” includes information on: 

  • How to apply for FEMA’s Individual Assistance program 
  • Who can apply for FEMA help 
  • Understanding the application process and loans disaster survivors may be eligible for 
  • Preparing for FEMA inspections and avoiding contractor scams 
  • Appealing a FEMA determination letter 
  • Where to find legal help 

“Recovery after a disaster can be overwhelming and long-lasting,” said Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, at Pro Bono Net. “We created Figuring Out FEMA to support disaster survivors in that journey, and point them to resources that can help. We are grateful for CUP’s partnership, team, and work in making this project a reality.” 

“Gathering documents, filling out applications, and also dealing with the many issues that are created by a disaster result in frustration, exhaustion, and a lack of time to research what FEMA is and how survivors can obtain assistance. This guide allows survivors to understand the process with a quick glance,” said Shrushti Kothari, Disaster Relief Unit Staff Attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid. 

“After a disaster, many survivors have an overwhelming amount of information to process in the midst of great loss. This pocket guide provides clear, helpful tips and information that simplifies what is a very complicated process,” said Julie Rattray, Disaster Legal Services Pro Bono Coordinator at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles. 

“The complexity of the FEMA application process is a major barrier for survivors of a natural disaster to get the assistance they need,” said CUP Executive Director, Christine Gaspar. “We were excited to work with Pro Bono Net to create such a needed tool that uses engaging visuals and clear language to break down a confusing system and create a pathway to action.”

Pro Bono Net would like to extend our special thanks to Yasmin Safdié and Clair Beltran at CUP for spearheading the project, along with partners and organizations for their invaluable feedback in the creation of this resource, including Shrushti Kothari at Lone Star Legal Aid, Carla Krystyniak from the Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and Lone Star Legal Aid, Brittanny Perrigue at Texas RíoGrande Legal Aid, Krista Scully from the Alaska Bar Association, Julie Rattray from Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, and staff and community members from Red Hook Initiative and Long Island Cares. 

To order a physical copy or for a free digital download of “Figuring Out FEMA,” visit

Interested in learning more about this project? 

  • Join us for a webinar, “Figuring Out FEMA: A Trauma-informed Resource for Disaster Survivors” on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 1:00 pm ET by registering here
  • Check out this interview with Pro Bono Net’s Jeanne Ortiz and CUP’s Yasmin Safdié about the process behind creating Figuring out FEMA.

About the Center for Urban Pedagogy 

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement, particularly among historically underrepresented communities. CUP’s work addresses the need of communities struggling to understand complex public policies and decision-making processes that impact their lives, from affordable housing to labor rights. By collaborating directly with these communities to create simple, accessible, and visual explanations, CUP provides individuals with the tools to claim their rights, advocate for their needs, and fight for social justice in their communities. 

About Carmen López 

Carmen is a design researcher and social innovator with the heart of an artist. She combines her visual communication skills, design thinking and ethnographic research to create services, products, and relationships with the goal of empowering people and making their lives better.  She is a graduate from the Design for Social Innovation Master’s program at the School of Visual Arts and her work includes design projects with Dalberg, the United Nations Foundation, and Matter Unlimited. 

About Pro Bono Net 

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit dedicated to building cutting-edge digital tools and fostering collaborations with the nation’s leading civil legal organizations. Pro Bono Net’s comprehensive programs enable legal advocates to make a stronger impact, increase volunteer participation, and empower the public with resources and self-help tools to solve legal issues.  


Jeanne Ortiz Ortiz 

Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager 


Phone: 212.760.2554 ext. 456 


Author: Mark O’Brien, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Pro Bono Net

We held a very special event recently to celebrate twenty years of Pro Bono Net. My co-founder Michael Hertz previously wrote about how the idea for Pro Bono Net came about, and as this week is Pro Bono Week, I thought it would be suitable for me to follow up by sharing some of the highlights of our event, and to thank all of our fantastic speakers who took the time to celebrate with us.

Our mission at Pro Bono Net is to increase access to justice for the vulnerable in society through innovative uses of technology and collaboration. While we feel that we have made huge progress on this front in the past twenty years, it was important to us when planning this event to ensure that we use our celebrations to engage our supporters and partners in conversations about new strategies we can use to bring the power of the law to all.

Our first speaker, Lawyer and Disability Rights Advocate, Haben Girma, the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, is inspirational in her belief that “anything can be made accessible.” As she opened her speech, Haben gave us her first example of how the world can be equally accessible to her by taking the time to educate the audience on the technology she uses to help her communicate and to make her aware of audience reactions.

Haben shared with us a number of examples of how she has been able to do things that people assumed she never could, such as dancing or surfing, all because there have been others who have taken steps to remove barriers on her behalf. Haben pointed out that it can be easy for everyone to “choose inclusion” by refusing to accept oppression and instead to advocate for justice and remove barriers for others.

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Haben’s message speaks closely to that of Pro Bono Net. We believe that justice is a fundamental human value and we work to ensure that people know and can exercise their rights, have their voice heard, and challenge inequity and discrimination. For that to happen the law and our justice system must be accessible and useable by everyone. We grapple with many different types of accessibility issues related to our use of technology in service of our mission, including literacy, language, culture as well as the issues facing someone like Haben who is deaf and blind. For anyone interested in learning more about Haben I highly recommend you pick up her book “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.”

Following Haben was our panel, “Funding Access to Justice: Can New Innovations in Legal Financing Close the Justice Gap?” facilitated by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin and including panelists Heidi Dorow, Ralph Sutton and Benjamin Elga.

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The panel gave us an overview of the legal finance market and discussed why companies access this funding. They also shared with us the many ways in which public impact litigation is funded today and looked at what different models are emerging from various sources of funding, while focusing on the topic of litigation funders. It was a lively exchange on a topic that could be a major innovation for many organizations connected with Pro Bono Net. Finding new capital to support strategic advocacy and public interest litigation could be a game changer.

Our keynote speaker for the evening was Brad Smith, President of Microsoft. We are very grateful to Microsoft, Brad and our board chair Dave Heiner for all of their support over the years and we were delighted that Brad was able to join us for our celebrations.

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Brad also spoke about “closing the gap” when it comes to supply and demand in legal services. He shared his thoughts on society and technology, telling us the stories of three people he learned from in the course of researching the digital impact around the world for his book “Tools and Weapons.”

Like Brad, we believe that while technology can and is used by some as a weapon, it is a tool that is a cause for hope. The future of technologies such as artificial intelligence, when combined with groups like Pro Bono Net, who are committed to innovative human and values-centered design practices and are sensitive to the needs of people facing life-changing legal situations, means that technology has the opportunity to close the justice gap in our society.

The evening closed with a Q&A session for Brad moderated by White & Case Chairman Hugh Verrier, with some interesting questions coming from our audience. Thank you to everyone who offered a question throughout the evening and thank you to all of our speakers who kindly took the time to celebrate with us and share your knowledge and stories.

Our board and staff were honored to celebrate twenty years of transforming access to justice on this evening with so many supporters, partners and friends. You all have been an integral part of the work we do and we are very grateful. Please continue to celebrate with us through this anniversary year, and join us in bringing the power of the law to all for the next twenty years!

Thank you again to our Corporate Event Sponsors and all of the supporters who made this event possible.

Clio; JP Morgan Chase & Co; Wolters Kluwer; Validity; LawGeex; LexisNexis; intapp

This blog was originally published on our LinkedIn page. For information and highlights on Pro Bono Net’s 20th Anniversary event, please visit

In Oklahoma, survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence often seek help from their local Family Justice Centers. To shield themselves from their abusers, survivors rely on a range of support staff at the Centers for assistance filling out legal forms. One critical form is called a Petition for Protective Order (PO). POs provide protection for survivors by telling abusers that they must stop their violent and harassing behavior. POs also allow law enforcement to intervene on a survivor’s behalf before a violent event occurs.

Destiny and Crystal, Navigators at Palomar, Oklahoma City’s Family Justice Center

Although filing POs is an important legal step for survivors, the process of completing these forms also forces survivors to painfully repeat their stories and specific details, sometimes a dozen times in their search for legal support and assistance. For advocates at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma (LASO), the harmful repetition of filling out these forms demonstrated an urgent need for a new and more thoughtful system. After a Tulsa County judge reached out to LASO for help automating the PO process, LASO decided to team up with Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive online forms program to create a new practice of completing and sharing the information needed to create POs.

Using LawHelp Interactive’s expertise in developing online forms (LawHelp Interactive helped complete almost 42,000 domestic violence documents in 2019 alone), as well as help from Asemio, a community data systems company, LASO developed a tool that takes a trauma-informed approach towards filling out critical protective orders for survivors. This project was supported by funding from a Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant, a funding program that helps legal aid programs develop, test, and replicate innovative strategies to more effectively meet the legal needs of low-income Americans.

I spoke in depth with Margaret Hamlett Shinn, a lawyer and Community Education & Pro Se Coordinator at LASO, and Tara Saylor, an independent evaluator, about their experience developing and evaluating this tool.

What role does LASO play in its community?

Margaret: Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is a statewide, nonprofit law firm. We have 18 offices across Oklahoma. Oklahoma, like every state, is largely rural with a few couple of major population centers. Most of our rural offices cover 8 or 9 counties. LASO is the main civil legal services provider for folks that can’t afford a lawyer. We partner with community agencies to have lawyers embedded at domestic violence safety centers, employment agencies, every place that we can find that it would help remove a barrier for someone who needs to maintain income, be safe, or get back on their feet.

Tell more about the work LASO does at domestic violence safety centers.

Margaret: When someone comes into a family justice center, they typically have a myriad of issues. The survivor may or may not want to file any legal action at the point, so we kind of stay in the background until there is a need for legal services. The center provides advocates who can help people navigate different systems like counseling, nurse examiner services, law enforcement reports, and human trafficking support services.

…when someone has suffered a trauma, typically like the ones inflicted in a domestic violence situation, the brain takes over in a way that we’re not accustomed to.

We provide two roles. First, we help advocates interview survivors in a more trauma informed way as they prepare the forms needed for a Protective Order. After that step, our lawyers look at cases where intervention may be needed, such as divorce, child custody, paternity, some other type of legal intervention.

How have survivors historically had to complete the PO process?

Margaret: Over the years, paper forms have developed and the court now requires a set of standard paper forms, which includes 8 forms. But in order to complete these forms, there is a packet of about 17 different pages of materials. There is a lot of handwriting and a lot of repetition. In some cases, filling out these forms means writing your name on the top for filing purposes, other times it’s providing the abuser’s name over and over again. Survivors can’t just tell their story one time, to one advocate, or fill out one very short form.

That sounds exhausting. How does this process affect survivors?

Margaret: I’m not an expert by any means, but I do know that when someone has suffered a trauma, typically like the ones inflicted in a domestic violence situation, the brain takes over in a way that we’re not accustomed to. It really goes into fight or flight mode and is trying to assimilate all of the things [someone needs] to survive. Really basic things become obscure. To avoid retraumatization, it’s important when working with a survivor to let them tell their own story and proceed in places that they allow you to, and to avoid continually referring to the pieces of trauma unless there is a need to. It’s more important to then continue on with the true help that someone needs. Typically at violence centers, that’s safety planning and answering questions like, “How do I proceed from here? Where do I get shelter?”

How does this tool help minimize retraumatization?

Tara: One of the most obvious ways that this tool reduces retraumatization is to shorten the PO process. Typically the paper PO process takes between an average of an hour to 2 hours for a victim to complete. But with the introduction of the LHI Connect tool, we observed that this time was reduced dramatically. With the tool, the average victim was completing the PO in only 45 minutes. By reducing the time that people take to retell their story and reducing the number of times that they have to, for example, write out their perpetrator’s name, it just naturally leads to less [retraumatization]. The electronic version gives the victim an opportunity to tell their story as they want to tell it. An advocate or navigator can go into the Connect system and fill out pieces of the PO very quickly and seamlessly in the order that the victim presents it. It’s harder to do that on paper.

How did your team design this tool to take a trauma-based approach?

Navigator Rhiannon Dennis and Billy the Police Officer at the entrance to the site of the Tulsa Family Safety Center in the Police/Courts Building in downtown Tulsa.

Margaret: First, we engaged the expertise of LawHelp Interactive’s Claudia Johnson. Having worked with Claudia for many years, we could count on her expertise working with all of the tools LHI offers. We wanted to develop an interview-style tool that would elicit information from survivors in a natural way, while also taking into consideration that everyone is different after experiencing trauma.

We ultimately went with the tool that allows the most flexibility for the navigator to move through the interview. We worked with LHI to integrate data from the Salesforce data management system at Palomar OKC. The Salesforce integration allows data management systems and databases like Salesforce to transfer information directly into an LHI Interview in a LHI Connect Point. This avoids the repetition of hand written forms and creates a unique way to manage review and printing of the PO’s prepared at a Safety/Justice Center. This new process makes it easy for a navigator or advocate to take a look at a case and find any holes the paperwork might be missing, assigned a matter for review by another, or close the file.

How else does this tool improve the PO process for survivors?

Tara: A victim will spend at least 3 hours in a Family Safety Center in Oklahoma. She’ll meet with multiple parties that can help her, which is a wonderful concept. Essentially all of the partners who can assist with the domestic violence case coalesce around the victim as opposed to the victim having to run all over town. That is such a huge benefit. But if there is a drawback, it’s that when the domestic violence survivor presents at a Safety Center, she may not realize that she will meet with an advocate, a navigator, a police officer, a nurse, a lawyer. And so that can be a really time-consuming day for victims. To add the PO process onto a victim is a lot. So I think it’s important to understand the context and why shaving the PO process down to 45 minutes is really significant in and of itself.

Was there anything that a survivor or navigator said that stood out to you during the evaluation process?

Tara: When we designed the data collection for this project, we were very sensitive to the fact that a survivor isn’t really served by meeting with an evaluator after hours of domestic violence assistance. So we were really careful to think about not just how can we reduce trauma in the PO process, but also how can we prevent trauma in the evaluation process. I purposefully did not meet with any survivors. But I did meet with advocates and navigators who work directly with survivors. What surprised me the most was how much time saved was reported. To save almost an hour, that’s perhaps a third or a quarter of the time a victim is there.

We also did a short survey for survivors to fill out, if they wanted to, after they completed the paper PO. I was especially interested in respondents who had previously filled out the paper PO. We asked whether respondents have previously filled out a paper PO so we could understand the difference between that experience and this new experience. Survivors commented things like “This was so much easier, it was calmer, it was more streamlined. It was better and faster.” All of the survivors comments were really positive. So I found really inspiring because this is a group of people who have filled out a PO both ways and much preferred the new way.

How else did the team ensure that the process become more accessible?

Margaret: One of the things we wanted to do was to translate the interview itself into Spanish in case someone comes into a center who wants to fill it out themselves. We have a pretty large Spanish speaking population in Oklahoma, so we translated not only the interview itself, but also the paperwork into Spanish and English on one page. We were told by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office that when someone is served who is a Spanish speaker, [the perpetrator] often runs straight to the victim to interpret [the document]. So it puts everyone in jeopardy. When someone is served, they receive an official copy and they immediately see that document in their own language. The defendant or respondent is being served with papers that state exactly what the issue is and why they have to go to court and what they need to do in their own language.

What else LASO has done to support the development of this tool?

Margaret: We have implemented the use of the forms automation (not the integration) at two other Safety/Justice Centers in Oklahoma. The Tulsa Family Safety Center (FSC) with advocacy partners, Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS). The FSC actually helped develop the concept initially and participated in the development and enhancements made to LHI Connect. We have also implemented the forms automation with ProjectSafe, serving survivors in Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties in Oklahoma.

We’ve begun reaching out to other counties in Oklahoma who have Safety/Justice Centers or DV advocacy providers. Each of the 77 counties in Oklahoma have judges and sheriffs who want something to look a little differently on the forms or service information. With this tool, we can customize what a county might need so that if someone comes to me in Tulsa county but I know that they’re filing a PO in Pawnee county, we are able to have the forms and all of the information correct for reach county’s preferences, including the information the sheriff’s need for Service. This will be a lengthy process and but the tool is flexible enough to allow for this type of customization of one single automated interview.

What are you most excited about in rolling out this tool?

Tara: I’m really excited to see how the integration that they developed for this project is going to be used in totally different types of projects. The National Alliance for Hope and three family justice centers in Tulsa, New Orleans and Oregon, might use this. It’s just really exciting to see a project that’s been really focused in Oklahoma have a potentially national scale. The sky’s the limit in terms of how this integration with Salesforce can be applied to other legal problems. I think that’s very exciting. I just continue to be inspired by the creativity of LASO and Pro Bono Net in creating these tools that really have the ability to make a significant change in people’s lives.

Margaret: [The SalesForce integration developed] free code that’s available on Github. It could be used not just for the domestic violence context, but it is pretty impactful in the domestic violence context because the upshot is when one part of the system moves more efficiently, the human side of it has more time and capacity to really help people. For a navigator or advocate to have more time to work with someone to ensure some safety, then that’s to me the most impactful part of it. Any place we can expand the skills that the lawyer brings to the table in an efficient way for the benefit of other people, not just in our own community, that’s a good thing.

Interested in learning more about how you can use LHI Connect and integrate LHI forms with standard legal aid or advocacy case management systems? Contact Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, at

Pro Bono Net is celebrating twenty years of transforming access to justice. In honor of this milestone, our current Vice Chair, Ed Walters wrote an amazing blog about how Pro Bono Net utilizes technology to amplify and extend the reach of legal services to those who need it most. This blog was originally posted on Ed Walters’ LinkedIn page.

Pro Bono Net turns 20 years old this year, and millions of families, legal aid clinics, bar associations, courts, and other partners will celebrate this milestone anniversary. Over the years, this nonprofit has powered legal aid clinics and law firm pro bono efforts alike and helped countless people through some of the most difficult challenges of their lives.

Since the founding of Pro Bono Net by Mark O’BrienMichael Mills, and Michael Hertz in 1999, our nation has a much better understanding of the access to justice crisis. We now know that four out of five people with a legal problem will try to address that problem without the assistance of a lawyer, and we know that unrepresented people fare far less well than those with the help of a legal aid clinic or lawyer.

We also know that traditional pro bono services – volunteer legal services provided by licensed attorneys – provide critical support to people who need help, but they cannot cover enough ground to systemically address this crisis.

So at its twentieth anniversary, we understand better than ever the need for some way to amplify and extend the reach of legal services. Pro Bono Net has used software to coordinate the pro bono work across many different groups providing legal assistance: in legal aid clinics, law firms, and courts.

But Pro Bono Net has also used software as a force multiplier for good. It helps nonprofit legal aid professionals around the country to triage requests for help, stores answers to frequent questions, allows Web delivery of help into rural communities without clinics. Starting in the early days of the Web, Pro Bono Net saw that the Internet could allow us to help people at scale, beyond the old limitations of one-to-one representation, and so has helped to scale assistance nationwide. Pro Bono Net’s offerings such as Law HelpLaw Help InteractiveImmigration Advocates NetworkImmi, and Pro Bono Manager, are available through more than 40 state legal aid organizations and courts, and online everywhere.

The pro bono hours of lawyers are important, and scarce. Pro Bono Net’s tools helps firms to coordinate and measure those scarce hours for maximum impact. But there are not enough pro bono hours for lawyers alone to solve the access to justice problem. That’s why Pro Bono Net compliments the nonprofit work of lawyers with powerful software to power legal aid clinics and to help courts provide direct service to self-represented litigants.

At its 20th Anniversary, Pro Bono Net has connected people, coordinated the pro bono efforts of thousands of people, and created technology solutions to scale legal help and to meaningfully bridge the access to justice gap. I hope that the celebration of their team’s work next week scales nationwide as well.

Ed Walters is the CEO of Fastcase and serves as the Vice Chair of the Board of Pro Bono Net. On Pro Bono Net’s anniversary, you can find out more about its work and mission at, and you can contribute to its mission at

Hello! My name is Katie Lam and I am Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Fellow. With support from the Open Society Foundation, Pro Bono Net is partnering with civil justice communities across the nation to advance the strategy and practice of technology-enabled legal empowerment efforts in the US. Over the next year, I’ll be sharing our about our work here on Pro Bono Net’s blog.

In March 2019, members of the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), a program of Pro Bono Net, and organizers from Make the Road New York’s (MRNY) Workplace Justice program held a co-design sprint to explore what role technology could play in improving the wage recovery process. This sprint resulted in ¡Reclamo!, a digital legal tool designed to make it easier to identify if someone has been a victim of wage theft.

Wage theft runs rampant in New York, with nearly 2 million workers experiencing wage theft in NYC alone. Researchers estimate that low-income and hourly employees working in places like restaurants, construction, and nail salons are cheated out of a cumulative $3.2 billion in wages and benefits. Of these workers, undocumented immigrants are especially at-risk of exploitation, retaliation by employers, and severely lack access to justice.

Wage theft victims who try to recover their wages often struggle to, especially without a lawyer. In addition, lawyers who do help them often find themselves caught up in necessary paperwork that doesn’t require legal expertise.

“Carlos approached an attorney at Make the Road NY to help. Only after Carlos was represented by an attorney, and they resubmitted the claim, did the DOL start investigating his case…” -from an interview with Carlos, a MRNY community member.

A growing movement of legal empowerment advocates and researchers have found that for community members like Carlos, relying entirely on public interest lawyers is an inefficient way of resolving workplace injustices. ¡Reclamo! strives to increase efficiency and recover stolen wages by empowering workers and non-lawyers to independently file wage theft claims. For lawyers, such a tool could reduce severe bottlenecks in the wage recovery process and allow attorneys to focus their legal expertise on critical tasks instead.

I spoke to Rodrigo Camarena, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network, about his experience leveraging co-design to enable access to justice.

¡Reclamo! was recently selected as a 2019 Worker’s Lab Innovation Fund Finalist. 



What inspired IAN to collaborate with MRNY on this project?

Last fall, I read an article in El Diario where one of MRNY’s Workplace Justice advocates was quoted saying that worker intimidation and retaliation had risen in the Trump era. Anecdotally and in terms of clients coming in, there was a sense that employers felt emboldened by this president to intimidate and threaten workers who asked for their wages or who asked to be paid a fair wage. That angered me, so I reached out to Cristobal Gutierrez, who was quoted in that article and said, “Hey, we’re IAN, we use technology to help immigrants and their advocates advance immigrant justice. Can we chat?”

Were you familiar with wage theft before reading this article?

I was familiar with wage theft as a recurring problem among immigrant communities, but I found it worrying that employers are using this opportunity in this era to further exploit people. I also thought that wage theft is an issue we can tackle locally without requiring changes in federal laws, so I felt like this was an opportunity to take action.

When you first started this conversation with Cristobal, did the topic of human-centered design come up pretty quickly?

Initially, we wanted to learn as much as we could, so we did a lot of observational engagements. We went over to Make the Road and tried to learn about their process. We wanted to put ourselves in their shoes and see what they dealt with on a day to day basis. Through that period of watching and observing them, and getting to know Cristobal and their ideas around how to work in a smarter way, co-design emerged as a sensible strategy.

Why use co-design?

Even though we are immigration subject matter experts, we are not labor and wage-hour experts. So I think in this case, and like in other cases, we really needed to leverage the expertise of people who are doing the work on the ground. It felt natural to include Make the Road’s attorneys, paralegals, and worker organizers in the design process so they could educate us on the issue and we could help them identify opportunities for technology to play a role.

Was there a key lesson that you took away from the process?

One lesson we learned was even though we were working to think of a new intervention or a new way of approaching a problem, we kept getting fixed in how the process currently works and what rules we need to follow to file wage theft claims. It took us a while to think outside the box. For us, that meant not really addressing the wage theft form itself and instead, being more strategic about what ultimately needs to happen for workers to have access to justice. In this case, that means the ability to file wage theft claims in a secure and efficient manner. So while we were thinking about recovering wages, it took us a minute to really think about other strategies and how technology may play a role.

What advice do you have for fellow civic technologists around building trust?

We spent a lot of time listening and building the relationship. We went out to MRNY’s offices a couple of times and sat with their members and listened to their challenges. We didn’t come in there saying, “Hey, we have all of the technology to solve every problem.” We just wanted to learn more about the issue. We approached the challenge together. We didn’t come in there with a set of ideas that we wanted to impose. It was a much more generative process.

¡Reclamo! tackles a problem associated with access to workplace justice, immigrant justice, and economic justice. Why did IAN and MRNY prioritize legal empowerment as a remedy during the sprint?

Filing the wage claim form is just one part of the puzzle. Ultimately, the work is about educating workers on their rights. It’s about informing workers so that they know that they have power and agency and that collectively, we can change laws and the status quo. Scaling or accelerating the filing of wage theft claims is a component of workplace justice, but the ultimate goal is achieving structural change. In this case, that process starts with legal empowerment.

What do next steps look like for ¡Reclamo!?

We are actively fundraising so that we can build and test a beta version of ¡Reclamo!. We’re focused on supporting workers in the construction industry. We’ll start with construction, release a beta version of the project, test it a lot, try to break it, and see what happens from there.

What excites you most about ¡Reclamo!?

I’m excited for ¡Reclamo! to become a household name. I want workers to share it. I want worker advocates to feel like it’s their own. I want to hear stories about ¡Reclamo! saving people time, that the process of reclaiming wages wasn’t as scary since you can approach it from your cell phone or from a computer lab at a library. I want to help demystify the wage theft claim process and really give people a sense of power and being able to come forward. As an immigrant or undocumented worker, it’s extremely difficult to come forward and communicate that you are a victim of wage theft, especially in this climate, and so once people have that confidence and trust, I want workers to be able to use it and reclaim what is theirs.