Yes, it’s true: you should probably be using technology right now in your legal services program. It’s time to think beyond the word processor. Technology can directly help both our clients and the people we turn away. What’s more, it can help us sell our message better to the people who fund our work.

In the past, I’ve been a sometime-skeptic about legal technology. The biggest reasons for my skepticism were the cost, complexity, and risks of even a successful project sitting unused. You may share some of those fears.

It’s worth the risk. Technology lets lawyers work at the “top of their license”. With the right technology, clients can enter more information on their own and lawyers can speed up the boring work. Without technology, it’s hard to imagine that we will ever be able to reach the 2/3rds of clients we turn away every day, let alone the bigger number we may fail to reach if funding for legal aid is cut.

Some of the smartest people in the room on access to justice issues agree that technology is going to play a starring role in bridging the gap between the growing demand and shrinking supply of legal services. Why is now the right time?

  1. Technology can cut across partisan lines. Both Republicans and Democrats appreciate a smart and efficient solution. 
  2. More of our clients can access technology than ever before. Already, two years ago in 2015, more than 50% of households earning less than $30,000/year had a smartphone.
  3. Technology is easier to use than ever. The new systems, like Netflix and Siri, learn from us and get better each day.
I can’t describe everything that technology can do, but here are just a few projects that have caught my eye in the last few months. I recently presented a few of them for the Housing Coalition meeting. If you want see the full slide deck from that presentation, click here.

JustFix.nyc – a web app to help tenants, with or without lawyers

JustFix stole the show at the Technology Initiative Grant conference in San Antonio this year. Their attractively designed and simple to use app lets tenants document their housing case on their smart phone, communicate with their landlord and the city, and coordinate with housing advocates.

Here are just a few images from the slides that they shared with us for a recent presentation:

I’m hopeful that Greater Boston Legal Services and others can help fund and work on a version of JustFix for Massachusetts. A special aspect of their work is their community-led development. The idea for JustFix came out of a panel of 400 low-income residents of NYC and JustFix has worked very closely with that group to plan, design, and test their product. It’s an exciting model for future legal tech projects.

Putting it all together: Document Assembly

the best document assembly tools are like a lawyer interviewing you instead of you staring down the 1040 in the face

Document assembly is less flashy, but it’s the bread and butter of legal services. It can also be surprisingly affordable. If you’re a lawyer reading this, how much of what you do is related to forms? Do you ever copy and paste pleadings? If your answers are “a lot” and “all the time,” then document assembly could probably help you.

Another name for document assembly is the guided interview. The most popular such tool in the world is probably one you already use once a year: TurboTax. The best document assembly tools are like a lawyer interviewing you instead of you staring down the 1040 in the face. You never need to know how the form itself works, you just answer simple questions. A tool like TurboTax helps people who file their own taxes, but it also lets a single lawyer or VITA volunteer speed up their work and help dozens of people a day complete their taxes.

You may already use document assembly if you work in legal services. We use HotDocs in the Housing Unit at GBLS. The old document assembly tools needed you to sit in front of a computer and purchase a license for each lawyer. Law Help Interactive and A2J Author help legal services programs offer guided interviews available online, for free. Both Illinois and New York State have been leaders in this area, automating hundreds of forms that can be used by pro se litigants. Here’s an example of an A2J Author guided interview created by Illinois Legal Aid Online (click to see a larger version on the original site):

 What does an A2J Author guided interview look like?

A new version of A2J author is in the works that will include support for smartphones and tablets.

At Greater Boston Legal Services, I am currently working on moving our guided interview system for eviction cases online with one of the original developers. It was first developed more than 30 years ago with work from both Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and GBLS. For the first time, after we bring it online, advocates across the state will be able to use it without needing to purchase and install software on their desktop computers. In the near future, we hope to also to make a simplified version that tenants without a lawyer can use completely on their own.

Artificial Intelligence

In 2011, IBM’s Watson won Jeopardy and brought The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to real life. Past the flashy TV appearance, Watson is already starting to do real work for doctors. IBM has trained Watson to help doctors diagnose patients, catching diseases and treatments that a flesh and blood doctor might miss.

The results of IBM’s big gamble are early, but promising. Can a computer do the same thing as Watson in the legal field? The Houston.AI project from the Legal Server team suggests that the answer is yes. The Houston.AI project targets artificial intelligence at the problem of legal issue spotting, intake, and triage. Already Houston.AI can recognize documents and listen to clients using plain language to describe their legal problems. After uploading a picture or writing out your problem, Houston.AI can figure out what type of legal problem you have, offer resources, and tag your intake so that it can be referred to the right place. A project at the LSC TIG Hackathon lets legal services organizations use Houston.AI in Drupal, a popular website product.

Legal Server is not the only group working on bringing AI to legal services programs, but it’s the one that seems to have the most ready to share so far.

Along these lines, I really liked what I saw that our neighbors in Maine, at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, have been doing with their own online intake triage. The difference is that this type of triage needs the user to tell us what kind of problem they have. Clients don’t always think of legal problems in the same categories that lawyers do. Artificial intelligence, with machine learning, offers the promise of fast, accurate triage that doesn’t require the end-user to know what their problem is.

What’s next?

There is so much to the story of technology in legal services that I couldn’t possibly cover it all in one short blog post. Of course, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s own Statewide Website Project offers the first line of support for pro se litigants. A few other interesting ideas include the use of story mapping (where client stories are displayed on a map) as well as broader uses of GIS and mapping, the WriteClearly project I’ve already mentioned on this blog, checklists, data scraping and more. I may turn this blog to more of these topics in the next months.
Recognizing the role that technology can play in our work just might help us all work at the “top of our license” and serve a bigger population than we ever have before.

Leave a comment below! You could share how you use technology now, or a problem that you wish technology could solve for you in your legal work.

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