Category Archives: Access to Justice

Posts related to providing equal justice to all Americans

Peter Does Not Approve

Peter Does Not ApproveLast week, at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, I co-led a session on “Leading in Uncertain Times” with my friend Dahna Goldstein. At one point, while discussing layoffs, an attendee asked a question that I heard as “Aren’t layoffs a good opportunity to lose the organizational dead weight?” and before I had time to edit my reaction, I just blurted out “I don’t approve!”, getting quite a laugh from the room – a good feat when one is discussing layoffs. On Monday, my nptech doppelganger, Steve Heye, blogged about the conference and included the meme to your left, leaving me to conclude that there is no better excuse for a long overdue rant blog!

So here are some other things that I don’t approve of:

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law

  • Unequal pay. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, a day so named because if one were to take the 93 days of 2017 that to that date and add them to the 365 days of the full year, that would be the number of days that a woman has to work to earn as much as a man doing the same job, per the current wage gap. And, as Lily Ledbetter pointed out at the “Salesforce World Tour” event that I was at, lower pay means many things, including lower retirement earnings. Salesforce shows a lot of leadership here – they have now twice made salary adjustments to address this gap. One three years ago when they first acknowledged that they, like most companies, and particularly tech companies, engaged in this discrimination; then this week, after buying out 14 companies and inheriting their equal pay problems. Here’s hoping that other tech companies start following their lead!
  • The Internet of Things. If you gave 50 monkeys 10 years to write software designed to internet-enable appliances, automobiles, and consumer electronics, they would probably come up with a more ethical and secure product than we’re seeing from the current bunch of manufacturers. We’ve had the dolls that talk to the children and then broadcast all of their responses back to the manufacturer; the TVs that do the same thing. We’ve had the hundreds of thousands of cameras hard-coded with the same password, which were subsequently hacked so that the devices could be used to take down half of the internet. We’ve had the vibrators that sent their users moans and squeals back to the
    40492213_9650d24cf4_m

    Picture by Pete Toscano

    manufacturer. And this week we got a device that checks to see if your garage door is closed from a manufacturer who will brick the gadget if you give them a bad review on Amazon. It’s not just the complete disregard for security that allows bad actors to say, hack your car and steer it off a cliff – it’s the bad ethics of the former retailers/now service providers who can void your investment by simply unplugging their server – or deleting your account. This whole futuristic trend needs to be regulated and run by people who know what they’re doing, and aren’t completely inept and immoral.

  • The Walking Dead. My son and I watch this show religiously, and we’re beginning to wonder why. As one of my heroes, Joe Bob Briggs, used to say “There’s too much plot getting iThe Walking Deadn the way of the story!” I’ve read the comics (or, more accurately, the compendiums), that take me a bit past the Negan storyline, and they do things much, much better than the show by keeping the story moving without stretching out the violence to completely cringe-worthy extremes. Bad things happen, but they propel the story, as opposed to drowning it.
  • The White House Budget Proposal. I try and keep the politics subdued on this blog, but that’s hard to do when the proposed budget zeroes out funding for the Legal Services Corporation, where I work. It’s hard to see how our patriotic mission – pulled right from the constitution – isn’t worthy of the relatively small amount of federal funding that we receive. We insure, as best we can at our funding levels, that Americans have equal protection under the law. Because, in most jurisdictions, Legal services Corporation Logothe court only appoints an an attorney in criminal matters, not civil matters like foreclosures, family law, domestic abuse, and consumer fraud. Defunding LSC would unfairly deprive a vulnerable populace of the access to justice that our country was founded on. They’ll be at the mercy of unethical landlords, banks, and abusers who can afford attorneys. The courts are overwhelmed with defendants who are poorly prepared to defend themselves, but have no other choices if they can’t get legal aid. We’re optimistic that Congress, who sets the budget, will reject this recommendation and continue to fund us, but it’s shocking that the White House can’t see the core American principle that we seek to protect.

There are plenty more things that I disapprove of, like the overhead ratio, beer made with cherries, and don’t get me started on any recent Batman or Superman movie! What’s irking you these days?

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

How I Spent My 2015 Technology Initiative Grants Conference

I’m back from our (Legal Services Corporation) 15th annual technology conference, which ran from January 14th through the 16th  in San Antonio, Texas.  It was a good one this year, with a great location, good food, great people – nearly 300 of them, which is quite a record for us. There were plenty of amazing sessions, kicked off by a fascinating keynote on international access to justice web app partnerships. Slides and videos will be up soon on LSC’s website. But I did want to share the slides from my sessions, which all seemed to go very well.  I did three:

Are You Agile

I kicked off the first morning doing a session on agile project management with Gwen Daniels of Illinois Legal Aid Online. My slides provided a basic overview of project management concepts, then Gwen did a live demo of how ILAO uses Jira and a SCRUM methodology to develop websites and applications. Having studied agile more than actually practicing it, I learned a lot from her.  The combined slides will be up on LSC’s site. I pulled my intro from this broader presentation that I did at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in 2013:

Shop Smart: How A Formal Procurement Process Can Safeguard Your Investments

On Thursday, I summarized everything I know about software and vendor selection, writing proposals, and negotiating contracts into this dense presentation on how to purchase major software systems.

Security Basics

And on Friday, usual suspect Steve Heye and I led a session on security, factoring all of the things that we think orgs should know in an era of frequent, major breaches and distributed data.

I’ll hit some of these same themes in March at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I’ll be speaking on contract negotiations (cloud and otherwise) and information policies (with Johan Hammerstrom of CommunityIT. See you there?

Hackcess To Justice

Hackcess to Justice LogoRegular blog readers know that landing my job at Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal aid to people in financial need, was not an accident.  The mission of providing representation to those who need it, but can’t afford it, is one that I targeted for over half a decade before getting this position. I’m passionate about the work of our grantees, because there is something about social and economic injustice that offends me at my core, and I consider it my responsibility and my privilege to be able to do work that attempts to alleviate such injustice.   That’s my best explanation, but you should hear my boss describe the problem. As a lawyer, he makes the case, but he makes it in plain, clear English, and he makes it powerfully.

The setting of this 13 and a half minute speech is completely appropriate for this blog.  The first “Hackcess to Justice” hackathon was held in Boston on August 7th and 8th at the annual American Bar Association meeting. The goal of the hackathon was to create apps that address the needs of people seeking representation or representing themselves in civil courts. The projects are based on the recommendations that came out of the technology summit that LSC held in 2012 and 2013.  The report, linked here, is a good — and not too lengthy — read. And the winners creatively met those goals, with apps that help write wills, determine whether you need legal help, and point you to legal resources in a disaster. Robert Ambrogi, one of the three judges, blogged about the winners, too.

I’m proud to work for an organization that not only thinks strategically about how we use technology, but strategize about how the world can use it to address the problems that we were founded to help solve. And I’m very happy to work at a company where the leadership gets it — technology is more than just plumbing; it’s an enabler.  Deployed correctly, it can facilitate solutions to extremely challenging problems, such as the severe justice gap in the United States.

Jim says it best, and I can’t recommend enough that you take the quarter of an hour (less, actually) to hear what he has to say.

Jim Sandman’s Opening Remarks at the Hackcess To Justice Hackathon, August 7th, 2014

Notes From Here And There

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Long time no blog, but I have good excuses.  Moving cross-country, even with a modest family of three, is no picnic, and we are now, over 13 months since I was offered the job in DC, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since summer, I’ve been frantically house hunting and, since December, busy relocating (for the third time) to our new, tree-laden home in Reston.

This, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing or totally neglecting my nptech duties. So here are some things to look forward to:

#ntcbeer. First and foremost. The annual Nonproft Technology Conference runs here in DC from March 13th to 15th, and the 6th Annual #ntcbeer will take place, as always, the night prior (Wednesday, 3/12, 7pm).  This year we’re at the Black Squirrel, a bar that’s a 15 minute stroll from the hotel (in the trendy Adams Morgan district) with three stories and 80 craft beers, which one would hope will meet the requirements. But I’m willing to bet (seriously!  Who wants to get in the pool?) that we will top their max standing room of about 200 people.  Here’s my logic: we averaged about 175 people last year in Minneapolis and the year prior in SF.  Minneapolis likely would have been bigger but a lot of planes were delayed by weather.  This year, we’re in DC, and that means two things: first, this is the largest center for NPOs in the world.  A lot more of the attendees live here. Second, it’s a very social place.  So I think that it’s not only likely that we’ll top 200; I don’t think 300 is out of range. We’ll have the Facebook page up in a week or two and we can hammer it all out there.

Also, #ntcbeer has sponsors this year.  We’ve been bought out by Blackbaud. (kidding!). Blackbaud and CommunityIT will be on hand with snacks and possible giveaways.  We’re figuring all of that out. Sponsorship is good, because this year we did manage to find a bar that doesn’t require a financial commitment up front, but I don’t think that will be possible in SF next year, given what a hard time we had finding a location in 2012.

Related, details to come, is that, prior to #ntcbeer on the 12th, I’ll be hosting a pre-conference workshop on IT Leadership with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz.

As to that writing, keep your eyes open this week and next for NTEN’s release of “Collected Voices: Data-Driven Nonprofits. I spent 2013 participating in NTEN and Microsofts’ Communities of Impact program, where I joined 17 other nonprofit staff in diving into the challenges of managing, maximizing and sharing data in our sector.  We had two in person, two day meetings; numerous calls with bright presenters; active and professional facilitation by Julia Smith, NTEN’s Program Director; and this is the final product.  In addition to a few case studies and short pieces, I contributed an article on “Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems”. As this is really the focus of my career, whether it was unifying the database backend and building a portal to all client data at a law firm in the 90’s, or developing an open source retail data warehouse at Goodwill, or migrating/connecting all of LSC’s grantee data and documents to a Salesforce instance at my current job, this is the work that I think I do best, and I have a lot of best practices to share.  So I’m somewhat proud and happy to be publishing this article. it will be a free download for NTEN members.

Speaking of LSC, I’ve been busy there as well. We held our 14th annual technology conference two weeks ago, with record attendance. Among the crowd were frequent collaborators of mine like Laura Quinn of Idealware and Matt Eshleman of CommunityIT. It was a great time, with a lot of valuable sessions and discussions on data, internet security, and business process mapping.  We held a “Meet the Developer” session where our grantees, for the first time, got to speak directly with the guy that programs our online applications and give him some direct feedback. I attended in order to both facilitate and act as a human shield.  😉

The conference followed the release of our report on the two year technology summit that we hosted.  This consisted of two gatherings of leaders in the access to justice community from legal aid law firms, the courts, the ABA, the State Department, and the NLADA, along with key application developers and strategic thinkers.  We worked on a goal:

“to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.”

Currently, the research shows that only 20% of those that qualify for and need the legal assistance that our funding provides are being served by the limited pool of attorneys and resources dedicated to this work. The report makes the case that 100% can receive some level of assistance, even if that isn’t actual legal representation, by innovative use of technology.  But we are working on the assertion that some help is better than no help, which is what 80% of those who need help get today.

The key strategies include:

  • using statewide portals effectively to connect people to the available resources
  • maximizing the use of document assembly to assist individuals in preparing court forms (a goal that lives or dies by the standardization of such forms, which is currently a big challenge)
  • Expanded use of mobile and SMS (many of the people who need assistance lack computers and smartphones, but can text)
  • Business Process Analysis, to insure that we are efficiently delivering any and all services, and
  • Expert Systems and intelligent Checklists, in order to resource individuals and attorneys to navigate the legal system.

As I mention here often, the right to an attorney only applies to criminal cases, not civil, but the peril for low income families and individuals from civil lawsuits is apparent.  You could lose your house, your children, your job, or your health if you can’t properly defend yourself against a wealthier accuser.  Equal justice is a cornerstone of American ethics. Take a look at the best thinking on how technology can help to restore it.

Finding Aid To Improve Find Legal Aid

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in January of 2014. LSC is Legal Services Corporation, my employer.

FLA-example.PNG

Hands down, the most popular feature on LSC’s website is our Find Legal Aid lookup, which directs you to the LSC-funded legal services provider in your service area. I’m happy to announce that we’ve given this lookup a refresh while simplifying its use. But we didn’t do it alone, and the story of how we got this project going is one that I really want to share with our community.

As I’ve blogged about before, our service areas are a unique geography that doesn’t lend itself to easy data integration. This became a problem when we started looking at the possibility of sharing our data with the hacker community, in hopes that they would use it to develop apps that further equal justice goals. Simply put, our territories sometimes run within county and city boundaries, making it difficult to align them to standard geographical data. This also meant that our Find Legal Aid tool was a complicated piece of code that was never entirely accurate (it was right 99.8% of the time, and, otherwise, the people who answered calls could redirect someone to the proper legal services provider).

Our desire was to have Find Legal Aid work the same way that any major retailer’s “Find a Store” lookup would, with no more input required than a zip code. We didn’t have the internal expertise established to do this on our own. So we learned of a group called the DC Legal Hackers, and we introduced ourselves. DC Legal Hackers is one of a number of Legal Hacker groups in the US and Canada. Legal hackers work at the intersection of law and technology, looking for ways to improve public access and address inequities in the system via the web. Access to Justice is one of the areas that they focus on. When the group held their first hackathon, we pitched revamping our lookup as one of the projects. Glenn Rawdon, Jessie Posilkin and I attended the hackathon on a Saturday and assisted where we could. We watched as some brilliant people took the shapefiles that LSNTAP made of the LSC service areas and mashed them up in such a way that, by about 2:00 in the afternoon, we had a working prototype.

It took a bit more time for LSC staff members Peter Larsen, Christina Sanabria and Alex Tucker to take it from prototype to a fully-functional application. We gained a lot more internal expertise in working with mapping technology. It’s important to note, though, that this took time, building the skillset as we completed the application and kept up with other priorities. These projects work best when the deadlines are loose.

We did face some choices. The lookup does not return office addresses or info about branches. We assume that the service providers may prefer to start with telephone screening before directing the public to a particular office location. We are contemplating adding links to online intake systems and statewide web sites relevant to the results. And we’re looking to see if a SMS text-based version of Find Legal Aid might be easy to produce.

We’re grateful to DC Legal hackers for taking us halfway there, and over the programming hump that was beyond us. There’s a great community out there willing to work with us.

Hacking For Justice

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer, and “TIG” stands for “Technology Initiative Grants”.

Welcome to the new LSC Technology blog, hosted here on the TIG site, and written by TIG and Information Technology staff. To kick this off, I wanted to report on a fun, exciting, and long overdue initiative we’re on: making our non-confidential data available to hackers.  Let me be clear here, for those of you who have any bad associations with the word, that  a “hacker” is not a computer criminal or spy.  The term has been misused to connote such things, but the original and current definition of a hacker is simply someone who likes to take things apart and rebuild them better, or take things apart and make new things out of them. Most recently, hacking and hackers have been tied to the community of civic-minded web application developers who want to take publicly available data and make it accessible and relevant to their communities. And that’s the group of hackers that we’re discussing.

Hackers hold Hackathons, extended sessions where hackers get together to collaborate on projects. At the first LSC Tech Summit, United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park addressed the group and urged us to model the behavior of the Department of Health and Human Services by holding hackathons and letting developers build the rich demographic applications that tell our story.

June 1st is the National Day of Civic Hacking.  Across the United States, “Hackathons” will be held in cities of towns, and the attendees will show up with their laptops, connect to the wifi, and create map mashups using tools like Google Maps and a collection of public data sets. The About section of the website describes it like this:

“The event will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs from all over the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.”

We’re busy analyzing our data sets, many of which are already available via our web site, but not in the most flexible formats. We’re also working with friends and partners like ProBono.Net to identify more legal aid data, on the assumption that the richer the data set, the more inspiring it will be for the hackers to work with. And I’m looking into other ways to make this information available, such as submitting it to the U.S. open data repository at Data.Gov. A big tip of our hat is due to Kate Bladow, who alerted me to the Civic day of Hacking to begin with, aware of how great it would be if we could get our data sets there on time.

Two questions for you:

  1. What kind of mapping mashups would you like to see done with LSC and related data? We can’t tell the developers what to do, but we should be able to tell them what people would love to see, and hopefully inspire them.
  2. Are you a developer? Whether you’re a C++ maven or just somebody who figured out how to save a Google Map, you might enjoy and benefit from participating in the hackathon.  Do consider it.  I’ll be attending the Baltimore day on June 1st. See you there?

My Birthday Campaign: Justice For All

And Justice For All

Image by Steven Depolo

I’m sure that you’re all familiar with birthday campaigns: this one is a little different. For my birthday, coming up on June 1st, I want you to do something for me and a cause that is very important to me.  But I’m not asking for money, I’m asking for your voice. Here’s the deal:

Legal services (aka legal aid), is the offering of free legal counsel and services to those who can’t afford an attorney otherwise.  Many Americans know this, but they have no idea why it is so important. They might ask, “What’s the big deal?  In America, everyone has the right to an attorney” and the answer is that the court only appoints attorneys for those who can’t afford one in criminal cases.  In civil cases, that’s not a standard protection.  Here are some examples of civil cases:

  • A bank forecloses on a house.  The family living in the house has no place to go and can’t afford an attorney.  Even if the foreclosure is not legally justified, without legal help, they’ll lose their home.
  • An abusive parent hires an attorney and gains custody of the children.  The non-abusive spouse has no job and no resources to defend his or her claim, leaving the children in the hands of the abusive parent whom he/she divorced to protect the children from.
  • An Army Reservist is fired from his or her job. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects service people from wrongful termination due to their armed forces commitments, but, without “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to mount a legal defense, what can an unemployed reservist do to address the firing?

These are all examples of common civil cases, and the challenges that our poor and working poor citizens have in accessing the justice for all that is promised in our constitution, our founding principles, and the pledge of allegiance that I remember reciting every school day in my youth (this is a birthday drive — I’m old!).

And, aside from addressing these injustices, consider what highly available legal aid for the poor can do to improve the quality of life in the community. In addition to misunderstanding the need for legal aid, there’s a poor understanding of how legal defense supports many nonprofit causes.  Our orgs do great work, but often undervalue the effectiveness of legal solutions in addressing systematic problems like poverty, disease and environmental injustice.

And this is what it boils down to:

Our nation is founded on the right for individuals to defend themselves from persecution.  That defense is contingent upon skilled legal advice and representation being available to every American, regardless of circumstance. My employer, Legal Services Corporation, tracks mountains of data on the effectiveness and impact of legal aid providers, and our research tells us that only 20 percent of those who qualify, financially, for legal aid are actually getting legal aid.  In the current economy, that translates to millions of people with no access to justice.

So here’s what I want for my birthday: I want you to tell everyone that you know what legal aid is, and why it’s important.  Make it clear that civil law lacks the level of protection that criminal law provides, but civil lawsuits can tear apart families, remove basic rights, and make people homeless. Explain that we can’t, as a nation, promote our democracy while we let it flounder, by depriving the increasing number of poverty-level citizens the freedom that our constitution promises. Freedom needs to be constantly defended, and many are deprived of the resources to defend their own.

Blog about this. Tweet it! Post it on Facebook and Google Plus.  Link to the resources I’ve provided in the links, or use some of the sample tweets and quotes below.

Hashtag: #Just4All

Most importantly, come back here, or ping me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and let me know how it goes. Tell me any good stories you collect about people who really didn’t know, or people who did, and were possibly saved by a legal aid attorney, or desperately needed one and didn’t know where to look.

For my birthday, I want the world to know that, in America, freedom isn’t just a perk for those who can afford an attorney; it’s a right for all. And we still have work to do to secure that right.

Sample Tweets (add more in the comments!):

Right to an attorney not guaranteed in civil cases; homes, families, + jobs are at risk for poor. #just4all

How legal aid saves lives + families: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/us/16gideon.html?_r=2& #just4all

Is legal aid one of your NPO’s strategies? http://publicwelfare.org/NaturalAllies.pdf #just4all

Only 20% of those who need legal assistance receive it: support your local Legal Aid program. #just4all

Quotes:

 “Equal access to justice contributes to healthy communities and a vibrant economy. No community thrives when people are homeless, children are out of school, sick people are unable to get health care, or families experience violence. Likewise, when a person’s legal problem is addressed in a timely and effective way, the benefit ripples out and helps that person’s family, neighbors, employer, and community.”
   Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia
 
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists…it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice
 
“The failure to invest in civil justice is directly related to the increase in criminal disorder. The more people feel there is injustice the more it becomes part of their psyche.” 
 —
Wilhelm Joseph
Director, Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland
July, 2003
 
“But more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them help themselves.”
President Richard Nixon, 1974
 
“Equality before the law in a true democracy is a matter of right. It cannot be a matter of charity or of favor or of grace or of discretion.” 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, sometime in the mid-20th century

 

TIG Takeaways: First Impressions Of The Legal Aid Tech Community

Last week I attended two events sponsored by my new employer, Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The first was a two day Technology Summit, where a group of 50 thought leaders gathered to develop a plan for addressing the demand for legal aid more dramatically by making strategic use of technology. That was followed by the three day Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference, where 220 or so Legal Aid staff came together to show off their projects, prep for LSC’s next round of technology funding, and discuss the future. For me, these two events were a crash course in who’s who and what’s what in the world of legal aid technology. I learned much more about LSC’s role in the sector (and my role, as well). And  I found it all inspiring and challenging (in a good way!)

The Tech Summit was part two of a process that began last June. We sought to address the following mission statement, developed at the prior meeting:

To use technology to provide some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.

Attending the session were 51 judges, American Bar Association leaders, state court strategists, fellow legal aid funders, key legal aid technologists, technology providers,  Executive Directors and staff of legal aid organizations, among others.  We prioritized five areas of service to focus on in a five year plan:

  • Document Assembly – the automation of form creation and the work to standardize the data they collect
  • Expert Systems – online querying to determine legal outcomes and the proper use of same (are these client or attorney tools?)
  • Remote Services Delivery – can each state have an online portal that eliminates much of the physical challenges in seeking representation?
  • Mobile Technologies – what assistance and services can be delivered on smartphones and tablets?
  • Triage – how can we further automate the complex processes of determining eligibility and matching clients to resources?

These were all worthy goals with some key inherent challenges. For instance, we want to standardize forms across all state courts, but that’s not necessarily a priority for the courts, and we don’t have much authority to set priorities for them.

Much of our work supports self representing litigants, but there’s still a bias against having people represent themselves. As LSC CEO Jim Sandman pointed out during his address to the TIG conference, most Americans don’t realize that the right to an attorney is only a given in criminal cases; it isn’t applied to most civil cases.  So you can have your house improperly seized by a bank or suffer from domestic abuse, but access to the justice system has an entry fee in the thousands of dollars if you can’t find a volunteer attorney or represent yourself.

As the Tech Summit and TIG conference went on, it became clear that another challenge lies in finding the resources to maintain and replicate the innovative technology projects that LSC funds.  TIG grants award innovative use of technology, but they’re basically startup funding.  We’ve seen remarkable projects funded, including flexible call centers and web sites that effectively automate triage; key integration of case management, phone and other systems; development of document assembly platforms that dramatically increase efficiency. Now we have to figure out how to increase the internal tech capacity and drum up additional funding in order to sustain and share these efforts across the sector.

I was not only impressed by the creativity and dedication of the legal aid tech community, but also by the role my organization plays in sponsoring these events and so thoroughly assisting with the grant process.  I don’t think that many foundations put this kind of effort in coaching and supporting their grantees through the application process.

Finally, I learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities ahead for me in my new job, as CIO at LSC (I love how that rolls off the tongue. I also laughed when my wife pointed out to me that her initials are “LSC”). Those boil down to the ways that I can use my position and my network to drum up resources for legal aid tech. Wherever possible, I want to work with our legal partners, such as the courts and technology vendors, to develop standards; where appropriate, I want to assist Legal Aid orgs in their efforts to collaborate and solve technology challenges; and I want to support the community in strategically using technology to overcome our functional and service-oriented barriers.

To that point, I think that the tech summit goals are worthy goals that I look forward to working on.  But the key to their success lies in the facility of using technology at the ground level.  We need to build that capacity, and much of that can be done if we can standardize our use across the sector and more easily share our successful efforts. At the conference, I spoke with one ED who was partnering his statewide org with a neighboring state to hire a shared CIO.  Another group of three legal aid orgs in the same state were planning to combine their technology.  These are efforts worth championing, and I hope to see more like them.

A few final, related notes:

(Great) Mission Accomplished

Great News! I’ll be joining Legal Services Corporation as their Chief Information Officer in January. Those of you who read my Looking For A New Job post in August know that I had some pretty strict requirements for the next gig, and this one meets and/or exceeds them.

LSC is the nonprofit that allocates federal funding to legal aid programs across the country.  From their web site:

LSC is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation. Established in 1974, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. LSC distributes more than 90 percent of its total funding to 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with more than 900 offices.

Great Mission: Long time friends know how motivated I was by Goodwill’s mission of helping people out of poverty, and as important as the environmental work that I’ve been supporting for five years is, there was a part of me that missed the component of direct assistance to people in need.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to support Earthjustice’s work.  I am an environmentalist, and I will continue to put money and resources toward supporting that cause.  But causes are both emotional and intellectual things, and social justice/helping people in need strikes a more resonant chord in me than the environmental work did.  I think it ties to the type of ethic that brought my mother to her work running a clinic for pregnant teenagers in downtown Boston.

Great Challenges:  Three things thrilled me as I interviewed for LSC.  First, data management is a critical work process.  Not only are grants based on data that communicates about the performance of the grantees’, but the organization is, in turn, measured by the effectiveness of the grantees.  There are compliance and communication challenges that will require some creativity to address. Data strategy is what I do best, and I can’t wait to get started on the work at LSC.

Second, the first thing we discussed in the first interview was the priority to move to the cloud.  As with any large org, that’s not a slam dunk, but as I believe that the cloud is where we’re all headed, eventually, it’s great to be working for and with people who get that as well.  It was a hard sell at my last job.

Finally, LSC does more than just grant funds to legal aid NPOs, they also support the strategic use of technology at those organizations. When I left a job in the early 90’s as a Mailroom Manager/Network Administrator, I did so because technology was my hobby, so I wanted to do it full time.  For the last six or seven years, my “hobby” has been supporting small and mid-sized NPO’s in their use of technology, through this blog, Idealware, NTEN, Techsoup and a number of other orgs that have provided me with the opportunities.  Once again, I can fold my hobby into my day job, which has to be as close to the American dream as it gets, right?

Great Additional Challenge: Getting there. As my new job is 3000 miles form my current home address, I’m going to be relocating, in stages.  I start in January; my family will follow me out when the school year is up this coming summer. If any of my DC friends know of a good six or seven month sublet or roommate opportunity within commuting distance of Georgetown, I’d love to hear about it.

Longer term, we’ll be looking to find a place in northern Virginia that, like our lovely home here in CA, has ample space for an active family of three and enough trees and nature surrounding it to qualify as a Natural Wildlife Federation backyard wildlife habitat.  Oh, and isn’t too grievous a commute to DC…

This isn’t a small step for me and my family, but it’s absolutely in the right direction.