Mirenda Meghelli is the LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator at Pro Bono Net, where she works as part of a team to support and grow initiatives using LawHelp Interactive, an award-winning national online document assembly platform operated by Pro Bono Net in partnership with legal aid, pro bono and court access to justice programs across the country. Mirenda has been spearheading the LawHelp Interactive rebuild project, along with Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology and Operations.
LawHelp Interactive (LHI), Pro Bono Net’s award-winning online legal document assembly platform, allows low-income individuals without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. It’s also used by volunteer attorneys, legal aid advocates and court staff seeking to work more effectively and provide innovative models of service delivery.
Thanks to grants from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant program to Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Booth Ferris Foundation, Pro Bono Net has finished a complete overhaul of the current LHI platform that modernizes and streamlines the application architecture.
LHI-powered forms are being produced and used in court and legal aid office settings, at homes, shelters, and in public libraries, for remote legal assistance where advocates may be miles away from a client they are supporting, and in large group clinics where a number of participants complete forms simultaneously with advocate and volunteer support. The forms are available in over 40 states, and in many places available in multiple languages.
Released in April of this year, the rebuild platform promises to be a vast improvement, while still maintaining the previous system’s functionality. We interviewed Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator, about the LHI rebuild and her important role in the process.
Can you give me a brief background on LawHelp Interactive?
LHI became a project of Pro Bono Net in 2006 and since that time, the project has grown at a rapid pace – from 76,000 documents completed in 2007 to more than 509,000 forms completed in 2014. The LHI team maintains a national server where these forms are hosted. We also train and support local legal aid, pro bono, and partner courts design the forms on LawHelp Interactive. Legal experts make the templates that are used to create the forms and documents with HotDocs and A2J Author.
The service is being used in ever more creative and compelling ways to empower self-represented litigants and increase the capacity of legal services and pro bono attorneys. Interactive forms enabled by LHI are now used at remote court and law library kiosks, in online and brick and mortar self-help centers around the country, and in large group clinics. None of these models of service existed 10 years ago; however, this increasing activity is taking place on a system that reflects legacy architectural and software choices made almost a decade ago.
LawHelp Interactive increases opportunities for people to get justice on their own. It also improves efficiency for access-to-justice programs. LHI has grown quite rapidly in the past few years, and yet it was still running on the same technology. We definitely needed to upgrade.
How many states use LHI? Courts? How many users per year?
Over 40 states use LawHelp Interactive. In 2014, more than 509,000 forms we assembled on the LHI platform. We are used by courts, legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, volunteers and individuals from all over the country. Users can visit www.lawhelp.org, find their state and subject matter to see if there are available forms and they will be sent to LHI. People are asked a series of questions, and then their answers are used to tailor their documents. They can use the site anonymously or create an account and save their answers. The site is used by legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, and people representing themselves. In some states, forms created by LHI can be e-filed to a court or fax and filed.
What was the need for the LHI system rebuild, and how did the project get started? And why now?
The rebuild started in 2013 with Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant funding to Blue Ridge Legal Services (BRLS) in support of the project. With all of the new ways that the LHI platform was being used, and the sheer increase in the number of users, it was definitely time to update the system. Working with BRLS, Marlabs, The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), as well as long-time LHI contractors including Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Associates, and Kaivo, we were able to rebuild the LHI technical infrastructure into a single technology stack creating a more reliable and scalable system. Internally, Claudia Johnson, Liz Keith, Mark O’Brien and the LHI tech team including Alice Pucheu, Kanchana Hegde, Greg Tenzer and Doug Carlson all contributed significantly to this project as well.
Can you tell me a little about your role in the project?
In consultation with BRLS, I’ve served as the program lead on the rebuild project where I worked with the LHI team and contract rebuild developers, Marlabs, to roll out the new LHI technical infrastructure. This involved participating in regular, sometimes daily calls, with developers and the technical team as the project progressed, handling grant and administrative aspects of the project, liaising with LHI partners who tested the system and offered valuable input, and working with the external and internal rebuild team to make sure we reached project goals.
It was really interesting and exciting to be a part of a rebuild of this kind. Our partners and end users utilize LHI to do important work and the system is a means through which access to justice can be increased. This new platform better supports this important work.
Who else was involved in the project and what were their roles?
Many people have been involved in the launch of this project. Allison McDermott was the original program lead for the LHI rebuild and worked with Jim Wiegand, who previously served as PBN Technical Director, to scope out the project. Ahuva Shabtai, who served as business analyst for LHI, coordinated much of the project including overseeing the documentation phase before the development work began. Alice Pucheu, Pro Bono Net’s Project Manager, has also worked to move this project forward and has been the primary person supporting partners in transition to the new system with respect to LHI widgets, e-filing, and CMS integration projects. Claudia Johnson, LHI Program Coordinator, Mark O’Brien, PBN’s Executive Director, and Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, have provided guidance on business/program aspects of the project and the LHI technical team and contract rebuild developers under the leadership of Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology & Operations, were responsible for much of the development, testing, and troubleshooting of the LHI rebuild environment.
Longtime collaborators Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Kaivo also played an integral role in transitioning to this new technical infrastructure, and HotDocs Corporation provided invaluable technical assistance on key aspects of the new system and supporting current and new HotDocs interviews in the the rebuild environment Finally, LHI partners who provided feedback and engaged in community testing of the new system provided a tremendous help in the launch of this new system.
Beyond the rebuild project, LHI is supported day-to-day by a longstanding partnership between Pro Bono Net and Ohio State Legal Services. Together we have received generous support for our LawHelp Interactive program from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation.
What were the biggest challenges this project faced?
As part of the rebuild, we migrated an incredibly large volume of user and form data from the old infrastructure to the new one. Migration of data from any legacy system is always challenging as it involves ensuring that there is no corruption or loss of data during the migration. In the case of LHI, this work has been complicated by inconsistencies in legacy data due to changes in validation rules over a 10-year period of operations. As a result, we needed to develop manual processes to analyze and resolve missing or malformed data required within the new system. This challenging work affected the project timeline and project costs.
What are the top 2-3 differences between the old system and the new? Tell me about some of the new features?
While the plan of the rebuild was to replicate the existing system functionality with minimal enhancements, there are a number of differences in the new system benefiting the different LHI user groups. Notably, load balancing has been implemented with the new LHI system. This basically means there are three servers operating at once for LHI increasing reserve capacity and allowing the usage of the two other servers if one server experiences problems.
Another major difference is that LHI now operates as a unified technical stack & database. The old system’s architecture consisted of a number of distinct technologies maintained by different people. Streamlining LHI into a single technical stack and database makes maintenance and troubleshooting of the system much less complicated and improves the ability for LHI to integrate with other systems.
Finally, we introduced a more simplified uploading and updating process for forms developers to upload their content into the LHI server. This change was implemented given template developer feedback on the upload and update process over the years and during a rebuild focus group.
When did the new system go live, and how can I access it?
The new system went live on April 20, 2015 and can be accessed via www.lawhehelpinteractive.org. It is the same website address as before and old users are able to log into their accounts from the same location. To use the LHI platform, users can create an account which can be done from the main website page or complete an interview anonymously.
With all of the new upgrades to the platform, accessing and filling out the interviews is better supported for users in all of the 40 states utilizing the platform. Backup servers ensure that thousands of users can access the system at the same time and access their compiled documents based on their interviews quickly!