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Connecting Justice Communities

Technological Innovation in Public Interest Practice and Access to Justice: An Interview with Claudia Johnson

Posted in Legal Services, Technology, Webinar
Stanley Ramdhany Pro Bono Net Development & Communications Intern Summer 2015

Stanley Ramdhany Pro Bono Net Development & Communications Intern

 

Stanley Ramdhany is a senior at Columbia University majoring in Sociology with a particular interest in the field of law and society.   He interned at the New York office of Pro Bono Net in the summer of 2015 as a Development & Communications Intern. 

On July 16, 2015, I had the privilege of attending a webinar hosted by Lauren E. Aguiar and Susan B. Plum at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom LLP entitled “Innovative Uses of Technology in Your Public Interest Practice.”  Skadden Arps is part of our Leadership Circle, an elite group making a significant investment in the work of Pro Bono Net to increase access to justice. The webinar was presented by and addressed towards Skadden Fellows, distinguished lawyers devoted to innovative public interest work who are recipients of a fellowship from the Skadden Foundation.  Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net’s Program Manager of Law Help Interactive, was one of the panelists on the webinar, and graciously discussed some of the issues raised during the event with me.

In the field of public interest work, Claudia Johnson is renowned as one of the first law professionals to address the union between technology and legal aid.  On the topic of how she first entered the field, Claudia stated, “I decided to go to law school at U Penn, and there I fell in love with public interest work, by working with DV victims in Northern Philadelphia. At this point, I was very interested in national origin discrimination and LEP advocacy, so I did my Skadden Fellowship on language access for Medicaid/disabled communities with focus on LEP groups.”  It was there that Claudia first focused on the union of legal services and technology:  “I wanted to have a way to track patterns by health care plan, zip code, and client demographics. So I was looking for a relatable multidimensional database—in 1997. That did not exist in legal services, so we had to build our own.”

For Claudia, the focus on LEP communities is a personal investment.  “I am one of the few Central American public interest lawyers I know in the US. I grew up in El Salvador and due to the civil war, my family moved to San Juan PR. […] I am usually the only Latina in the room, the only person who speaks languages other than English at home, often the only first generation immigrant.”

Claudia has spent her whole career in public interest work, having achieved other important successes with technology.   She spent eight years in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she “had the chance to work at VLSP with Tiela Chalmers who is now on our Board, and also with Haydee Alfonso who is now leading the legal advice line at Bay Legal. At Bay Legal, the LAL changed the way law was practiced in the Bay Area using 1930s technology in a good way, so that confirmed my interest in technology as a game changer to bridge the gap.”

Claudia later joined Pro Bono Net as the Program Manager of Law Help Interactive in 2008.  She stated that she joined PBN “to make online forms a ‘go to’ tool to improve access to justice.”  Very satisfied with her work thus far at PBN, she added, “The number of states using LawHelp Interactive has more than doubled since I started. Our usage rate is fantastic, and every day legal aid groups and their court partners rely on online forms to serve hundreds of persons per day. LHI is now integrated with court e-filing systems, legal aid CMS systems.”

Left to Right: Susan B. Plum, Director, Skadden Fellowship Foundation; Brooke Richi-Babbage, Founder & Executive Director, Resilience Advocacy Project; Adam Stofsky, Executive Director, New Media Advocacy Project; Dora Galacatos, Executive Director, Ferrick Center for Social Justice; Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, Pro Bono Net.

Left to Right: Susan B. Plum, Director, Skadden Fellowship Foundation; Brooke Richi-Babbage, Founder & Executive Director, Resilience Advocacy Project; Adam Stofsky, Executive Director, New Media Advocacy Project; Dora Galacatos, Executive Director, Ferrick Center for Social Justice; Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, Pro Bono Net.

Like Claudia, the other panelists at the webinar represent innovative and successful ventures in uniting technology with the delivery of legal aid to those most in need.  Each panelist in the seminar presented aspects of their work in legal services and public interest projects which related directly to technological innovation.  Claudia presented alongside Brooke Richi-Babbage, Founder and Executive Director of the Resilience Advocacy Project, Adam Stofsky, Executive Director at New Media Advocacy Project, and Dora Galacatos, Executive Director of the Ferrick Center for Social Justice.

The focal issue of the webinar, as stated by Claudia, is that “there aren’t enough lawyers for all of the people that have legal needs.”  These panelists advocate technology as a means to bridge the gap in access to justice between the disadvantaged populace and the limited number of lawyers available.  In particular, Claudia outlined three forms of traditional legal services that technology can supplement: information and referrals, advice or counsel in the form of online services, and legal representation.

Claudia specifically advocated for online services such as videos and web chats or forums.  When I followed up with her afterwards on these ideas, she discussed their utility in relation to filling out legal forms online: “Videos and graphics supplement the forms.  […] Before they start the form, they can watch a video about what the form will do for them, and what they need to complete it. Once they get the notice of hearing, they can watch a video for that. The beauty of videos is that they can be short and to the point. A good video can convey a lot of information in 2 minutes. Videos can be stopped and rewatched. So I think that videos that supplement forms (not inside forms) are the way to go. Also forms and webchat—not to answer questions about how to fill out a form, but to guide people to the forms and help them find other resources about the process the forms invoke are also a great combination.”

Even simple graphics do a great job of translating complicated legal procedure into universally comprehensible information.  Reviewing Pro Bono Net’s own use of graphics in its online services, Claudia remarked, “the mini-guides that LawHelp.org has created do this extremely well. But originally, I think it was the icon designs that Pro Bono Net first introduced in the early 2000s in its LawHelp platform that were genius. Those icons have survived 15 years, and replicated across the country. I hope the mini guides will continue to be created for the high volume areas of law.”

The utility of graphics and videos in facilitating the delivery of legal information was made salient in the comments of other panelists at the webinar also. Brooke Richi-Babbage underscored how the Resilience Advocacy Project used videos produced in conjunction with Adam Stofsky’s New Media Advocacy Project to explain the barriers faced by young urban fathers in the New York court system.  Visual media plays the dual role of making invisible individuals visible to legal services providers and making information accessible to navigate the legal system.

This observation led the panelists to emphasize the importance of knowing the context of access to justice in a given community.  On one level, this means networking with other public interest organizations in the area.  Claudia mentioned Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog, where she serves as a commentator, as one such resource for the most cutting edge methods of technology integration in access to justice.   She also praised The Access to Justice Index, which gives metrics of where a state is ranked in access to justice in different categories, such as for LEP communities and those without lawyers.

The final topic addressed by the webinar was the issue of data and cyber security.  From my discussion with Claudia I learned that this is an especially delicate matter for legal services professionals who integrate technology into their work.  Claudia referenced the 2012 Model Rules of Professional Practice, which she interprets to mean that lawyers cannot be ignorant of tech security if they intend to use it to communicate with their clients.

Remote interaction between lawyers and clients is a trend Claudia forecasts for the future of the legal profession.  She argues that “by and large for most poor people, if they are going to be lucky enough to get a free lawyer most of them will still need to schlep to the court or the legal aid office, take the afternoon off from work, spend time and money to get there, park and walk and figure out what to do with the kids, to work with the lawyer. Through hotlines, advice is done over the phone and via fax and that is an established model. The challenge now for public interest law firms is to develop remote practices using online and hand held technology.”

However, there is a trade-off between security and convenience as there is in all areas of online services.  For Claudia, she encourages lawyers to think carefully about how they will employ technology in their communications with clients: “I don’t imagine clients who retain a lawyer to advise them expect lesser protection when they use Gmail or text messages to communicate with their lawyers. Clients are not aware there might be trade-offs between convenience and cyber risks. And I don’t know if lawyers tell their clients or give them the choice and the pros and cons of using SMS texting, email, or new and emerging technology to communicate with them about confidential matters or even if they give the clients a choice. They should.  In practice, I don’t know if retainers now include standard language on methods of communication and options for clients describing the trade-off between convenience vs. security. I hope so.”

Others in the panel had advice on the topic: firms and non-profits in the legal sector should identify the types of information being held internally, control who has access to it and know which systems are most vulnerable.  However, the issue of cyber security remains unavoidable if the legal profession is to move forward with continued integration of technology, and Claudia is right to start the discussion now.

The uncertain future aside, Claudia is optimistic about what organizations like Pro Bono Net had accomplished already.  “These concerns should not stop innovation. We just need to be thoughtful about it and clear and purposeful,” she advocated.

And indeed, I feel that panels on the integration of technology into legal services and public interest practice fulfill this goal of being thoughtful about innovation.  I hope to see more from Claudia and others in the field on the subject of access to justice and technology to promote remote services soon!

 


 

 

 

The Skadden Fellowship Program, described as “a legal Peace Corps” by The Los Angeles Times, was established in 1988 to commemorate the firm’s 40th anniversary, in recognition of the dire need for greater funding for graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the poor (including the working poor), the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights. The aim of the foundation is to give fellows the freedom to pursue public interest work; thus, the fellows create their own projects at public interest organizations with at least two lawyers on staff before they apply.