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:
- There were plenty of familiar faces at these events. Along with Legal Aid friends that I knew from NTEN and other nptech circles, Laura Quinn, CEO at Idealware, was a Tech Summit attendee, offering a valuable nonprofit sector perspective, and the TIG Conference keynote was by the always-brilliant Beth Kanter.
- On Friday, I joined ( or lurked on) a panel titled “Wormhole to the Future”, where six of my newfound colleagues discussed the most bleeding edge tech and how legal aid can make use of it. The presentation, masterminded by Jeff Hogue of LawNY, is here.
- Richard Granat of DirectLaw and Marc Lauritsen of Capstone did this excellent keynote presentation on self-help Systems and Unauthorized Practice, which illuminates the types of challenges that we discussed at the summit.
- Stephanie Kimbro of Burton law wrote her tech summit summary in a much more timely fashion than I did.
- And, in related news, Tech Summit attendees Stephanie and John Mayer of CALI just won Law Technology News Innovation Awards. Congratulations!