Connecting the Dots between ELawyering and Legal Services

This week I was honored to provide a plenary presentation at this year’s Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference in Albuquerque. The title of my talk was “Going Virtual to Expand Access” and my purpose was to provide the attendees with an overview of how private practice lawyers and law firms are using technology to delivery legal services online.

I discussed the current state of the legal marketplace, where it is heading, and the changing expectations of clients in a more Internet-driven world. At the end, I posed a few questions for the audience that we then took into a break-out session.  Marc Lauritsen  joined us virtually to brainstorm these issues. The questions I posed for legal services organizations were:

How will you:

- Identify candidates for online delivery?

– Match lawyer volunteers with prospective online limited scope matters?

– Integrate online delivery methods?

– Address technology and security concerns in serving clients online?

– Use tech to collaborate with private practitioners, law schools, and legal SaaS providers to increase access to justice?

The legal aid sector has been hit hard with federal budget cuts. President of LSC, Jim Sandman, provided an inspiring and educational speech
during the conference that really made me more aware of how much of a crisis this funding cut is in terms of providing “justice for all” as the US Constitution dictates.

Many legal aid offices are faced with having to make cuts at a time when the public needs more assistance than ever. I was struck by how something as fundamental as providing Justice ended up competing for funding with other programs, such as NASA, and that someone has to do serious lobbying to compete for the legal services corporation’s slice of the funding. So if the federal funding is shrinking, what other solutions are out there that will make up for this loss and continue to expand access to legal services for the public?

Many at this conference believe technology is a huge part of the solution and everyone I spoke with was eager to find ways to use technology to
improve their services and expand their reach. Integrating a secure client portal or other web-based practice management system into their operations that would provide clients with online access to their lawyers might save time and cut costs and allow their lawyers to practice remotely. Completely web-based communication would not be possible for many of their legal cases, but even in those cases, the technology could still be used to cut out one or two in-person meetings, or just to provide the client with a greater feeling of control over their legal matter by providing 24/7 access to notes from the lawyer, reminders, documents, etc. that might cut down on phone tag with the office.

Many of these organizations seem to already be using document assembly and automation programs such as those provided by LawHelpInteractive or the A2J Author to provide self-help assistance to individuals through their legal aid websites. A representative from Orange County California, the creators of Legal Genie, were in attendance. During the breakout session we also talked about the potential of startups such as LawGives, which has the goal of connecting volunteer lawyers with legal aid organizations through the use of an online platform.

Another suggestion we had was for more collaboration with elawyers – lawyers with virtual law offices, lawyers whose practices run on technology
and who understand the cost and time savings that cloud-based applications can provide. If we can find a way to digitally connect legal services orgs with virtual lawyers, then I think the legal services sector would see an increase in the number of lawyers who want to volunteer their time to handle pro bono cases.

But it has to be online and the lawyers need to be provided with the necessary forms and instruction to unbundle the work and provide it to the
client and/or the legal aid offices online. Most of this work would not be full-service representation, but could still make a significant contribution to legal services sector and also provide assistance to self-help litigants who would then proceed on their own. The system of referring appropriate cases to a volunteer – either pro bono or “low bono” work and allowing the virtual lawyers the ability to work with those cases online from start to finish seems to be one missing piece of the puzzle in most states’ existing programs.

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not have a strong background working in the legal services sector, and I do not handle as much pro bono work
on my virtual law office as I would like to. I do estate planning work so there is not as much need in my practice area as there is in others.  And I lack the training to do the work that is needed.  Like most lawyers, I am still swimming in law school debt and I have a mortgage and a young family and, as priorities go, making sure that these things are taken care of tends to push everything else to the wayside. I know I’m not alone in this dilemma of wanting to serve but having trouble finding ways to fit in the training necessary to do the work and then shopping for the cases to handle. It may be easier for lawyers in larger law firms to do more pro bono volunteering, but for a solo or small firm, we have to factor it into our careful business balancing act.

I recently asked my virtual firm of fellow solos on ABA’s Solosez what technology they would like to see that would encourage them to do more volunteer work. Of course it differs from state to state depending on what resources they already have available, but I got some interesting feedback to share with the LSC TIG folks.

Here are a few of the technology tools that were suggested by other solos interested in using tech to provide pro bono services:

– Fill-in forms; downloadable documents in Word format that can be edited and submitted by the lawyer

– More adoption of efiling by the courts

– Listservs to answer basic questions; links to sample pleadings

– The ability to work on appellate cases where the lawyer could go online to review all of the documents in the case file and discuss with the other lawyers who had worked on the matter before the volunteer

– Provide specific research on issues in an ongoing case provided that the case files and communication could be conducted online

– A drop box system with templates and relevant research that legal aid and other volunteer lawyers could contribute to

– Online sign-up to volunteer for cases

– Allowing unbundling of case matters where appropriate and not requiring full-service representation in all cases even where it was not necessary or desired by the client

– Send the lawyer prepared documents electronically in a format which is editable. Hard copies have to be completely redone if there are errors which is too time consuming.

– Separate phone or other communication systems for the attorneys and the clients so that volunteers don’t have to spend so much time providing voice mail messages and waiting for responses when trying to work for clients.

– Free use of internet research services when working on volunteer cases

– An online version of small claims court. Arbitration or mediation of small claims, but broader, with a public mandate,
and a low barrier to access.

– Team up with other volunteer lawyers so that there is not only one lawyer on a case. For example, one lawyer could just write the briefs, or just research or be the negotiator, etc. while other volunteer lawyers are assigned other portions of a case. All of them could communicate online regarding the matter.

(Thanks to Jeena R. Belil, Carolyn Elefant, Jeffrey Burack, Jon Michael Probstein, Emilie Fairbanks, Monica Elkinton, Brian Lehman, Koren Boyd, and Ed Burcham for these suggestions.)

The hopeful message I took away from the conference is that many of those working in legal services are eager to look to technology as a necessary solution for increasing access to justice.  Virtual law practice in different formats will be a key component of this that will require both the adoption of secure client portals and online delivery methods by their local and state offices. But it will also need to include better online collaboration with virtual practitioners to fill the gap and expand access to justice.

Comments

  1. Great stuff and totally agree.

    This country was founded to give all equal access to justice, and while many systems we have make sense in theory, I’ve been hearing from countless individuals who are strapped for time and money and who can’t deliver the service or level of “justice” that people deserve (long wait times, poor quality results, poor level of information available).

    I think you’re totally right that technology can ease a lot of these problems, and I think the biggest obstacles are honestly training and people’s willingness to give them a shot. Technology nowadays is not as expensive, so that’s the excuse; it’s time to open ourselves up to realizing that what “worked” before isn’t really working on a wide scale, we aren’t perfect, and we can benefit from new methods and new techniques all the time. “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”

    Thanks again for sharing and for caring about these problems and aiming to educate and make a difference. I too am in your camp and am working on a project called Ridacto that aims to use artificial intelligence techniques to help people improve their legal contracts (bringing better access to justice in the transactional sphere to start with, hopefully preventing some litigation while we’re at it).

  2. Thank you for this interesting post. Besides private practice, many institutions could use the technology tools you list at the end to provide pro bono services. For example, I think they are under-utilized by law school clinics. Are there any other suggestions?

  3. I have spoken with several law school clinics about adopting more technology that would allow for online delivery of legal services to their clients. I believe that there are a handful that are in the process of exploring adoption of legal SaaS solutions for this purpose.

    I also wonder what would happen if a county courthouse adopted such a system and provided access for pro se litigants that came in the door. There could be a kiosk in the courthouse. Then volunteer attorneys could connect with them online to provide basic self-help guidance where they had experience. Would county clerks find this a useful aid or would it create more work for them?

    When I first began my virtual practice, I sat down with the clerk in my local courthouse to find out what the process was for pro se individuals in family law who were seeking a divorce. When I described the assistance I was going to provide online, the clerk was very excited about the potential to have that process digitized in some format so that she did not have to explain the process and provide the same forms over and over again in the course of her work day.

    I guess it depends on the practice area, client and willingness of the court administration to implement such a system. The costs would not be that astronomical – in fact, the time and cost savings might actually be one of the benefits. But I would think it would help a significant number of self-help individuals navigate through the system. I’d love to hear the opinion of someone who works in court administration about how this might work.

  4. Claudia Johnson

    I thank you for polling your colleagues and sharing some of their ideas on this topic of cross-collaboration between private virtual lawyers, pro bono, and legal services. Some of the ideas are already happening or about to happen in some states. #1 and #4–are taking place in So.Cal, where self help centers are using LawHelpInteractive to share answers created in self help centers with pro bono lawyers or supervisors in other locations. In terms of research, some law schools have projects were law students are assigned to pro bono cases to do the research required for the pro bono case. In addition, some Bar Associations that run pro bono projects make available a research account to their pro bono attorneys for their pro bono cases. I am very intrigued by the idea of creating a secure communication portal for lawyers and clients after the initial in person meeting. I also agree with you that LegalGenie is a good model. Overall, I think that Orange County Legal Aid has been a trend setter in many different ways, including their creationg of I-Can!, their small claims advisor being placed at their site, and their hotline and EITC project. The collocation of court services, pro bono, and legal aid services in a place where the community resides, and their use of technology to increase the ease of referral and communication and to track and inform resource allocation is a trend other regions should emulate. http://www.legal-aid.com/ I share here a blog where I share my vision of using technology to create greater collaboration between the court, the private bar, and the legal non profits. http://accesstojustice.net/2012/01/05/claudia-johnson-blogs-on-location-of-services-where-the-poor-now-are-in-the-suburbs/ I hope that the dialog with the virtual law practice communicate continues in the year to come–as I am sure many good ideas can be nurtured to eventually become innovations and eventually standards. For full discretion, I am the program manager at LawHelp Interactive at Pro Bono Net. I am sorry I missed you presentation at the Conference. I have heard many positive reviews from those who were there.

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