The maximum amount a single person can earn and still qualify for free legal help is just over $15,000 a year, and for a family of four that increases to only $30,000 a year. With a few exceptions, someone making $16,000 is on their own. Even if you do earn less than $15,000, you only have a 1 in 3 chance of getting help. There are not enough lawyers in legal aid organizations to help everyone who qualifies. The notes in this article were used for a panel that I will participate in at the Social Law Library on May 15th, but this version includes some additional notes and annotations.

The scale of the problem is too big for us to hire our way out, with just the “eligible” pool (those making less than 125% of the federal poverty level) who don’t currently receive help reaching 54,000 individuals in Massachusetts alone. But technology can be part of the solution in at least three different ways.

  1. It can help people access the court without a lawyer.
  2. It can help each lawyer serve more people.
  3. It can make the court system itself easier to use.

Help for Pro-se Litigants

Think about Jane, a tenant whose basement was just flooded. Her landlord refuses to fix the problem. Jane withholds rent and the landlord decides to evict her. Jane’s landlord will have a lawyer. Jane gets turned away by legal services. She’ll have to do this without a lawyer. What can she do?

Jane can go online and open a guided interview for evictions. The guided interview works just like TurboTax does for someone who doesn’t have an accountant. It’s not a lawyer but it can help her respond to her landlord’s case, counter-sue him for the basement flood, and help her file a motion to dismiss. Jane can access this interview from her smartphone, a library, or the court service center.

If Jane lived in New York City, she could access a web app that would let her take photos of the flooded basement with a time and location stamp, document each time she contacted her landlord to get the repairs made, and get a complete case file that’s ready to print and bring with her to court. We don’t have anything like that for the Boston area right now.

Towards a Client Co-Production Model

I have been developing technology for social change for the last 15 years, beginning with my work on the Indymedia.org open-publishing site that predated YouTube, Flickr, but I thought I was leaving that part of my life behind when I went to law school. It’s only in the last few years I’ve started to combine my technology role directly with my legal services work. It’s exciting work, and it’s felt a bit like a window into a secret world. Other lawyers I’ve spoken with that have a hidden tech side describe the same feeling of excitement.

At Greater Boston Legal Services, I’ve been a lawyer and a programmer and systems administrator all at once, but I hadn’t put them all together. How did I miss this? How have so many lawyers missed this and continue to miss the role technology can play in reaching 100% access?

I think as a new lawyer I and many others have been too focused on the direct service model. As a new lawyer, the image of a lawyer as making objections and fighting in court is a seductive one. It’s hard to imagine our work as other than artisan and absolutely specialized. What would a model that expanded the capabilities of each lawyer look like?

Legal services today is a chef sweating over a single meal in a Michelin star restaurant. We spend time and effort on producing each beautiful, perfect case. It might take dozens of hours of work. But at that scale, we just can’t feed everyone. People are starving. We can help so many more clients if we follow the model of Blue Apron, giving our clients the ingredients and recipe to help create their own successful legal case.

With technology we can tailor our level of service to the capabilities and strengths of the litigant. A lawyer might intervene when a client has gathered information and entered data on their own. Online intake modules, including those in the case management system that GBLS is just migrating to, Legal Server, can let clients with basic technical skills enter information about themselves and their legal problem once, saving work for an administrative assistant or (more likely) legal aid attorney and getting faster service for the client. Texting a request for an update to a client can keep this workflow going throughout the case. For example, a client might be asked to enter information online that is needed to respond to a discovery request.

Document assembly products like HotDocs can take information that is standardized or structured, and make the process of producing forms for many clients streamlined and efficient. It can produce a more professional document with personalized pronouns, plurals, and fewer irrelevant sections, and greatly reduces the errors that usually come from cutting and pasting.

What Does the Access to Justice Technology World Look Like Now, and How Will it Change in the Near Future?

The biggest transformations in our industry are going to come with artificial intelligence. It may be hard to believe but this is not pie in the sky: it is around the corner. Does anyone remember IBM Watson‘s appearance on Jeopardy? There is an app under development today that can identify a client’s legal problem from their own plain language description or a picture they snap on their phone of a legal notice. It uses the same machine learning as Watson. One such app could even evaluate the strength of a case and determine if it has a fee-generating statute and can be referred to a private attorney. The Legal Services Corporation is partnering with Microsoft to build a state-wide triage portal that will direct litigants to the right level of service. That kind of triage, aided by AI, may one day significantly speed up intake procedures.

The other type of project that exists and is under development is a topic-specific platform, like the eviction defense system I’m updating for GBLS now, and like another project GBLS is supporting to help crime victims obtain U-Visas. The eviction defense system has been used internally at Greater Boston Legal Services for the last 25 years, but the ability to take it online will greatly expand its use. In particular, I plan to use it at a weekly eviction clinic for low-income women at Rosie’s Place beginning this summer. The U-Visa project started as a student project at an MIT class, has been shepherded by a passionate Tufts student, and will allow applicants to record affidavits (mostly about domestic violence) without needing to be able to read or write in any language or to speak English. There can be a hundred different apps like these, tailored for a specific litigant or advocate use case.

Barriers to success

Funding is a major challenge with these projects. Some of these projects are like small startups, but there’s no venture capital out there to fund this work. Although they may save staff time, just as was true with the first computer systems, it’s hard for legal aid programs to fit the funding into existing budget categories. It’s sometimes easier to visualize the benefit of adding another attorney than paying $100,000 a year for software that promises to save the work of two or three or a dozen staff, especially when the software isn’t used by other legal services programs yet. If a project helps a lot of litigants who don’t qualify for legal aid, it’s hard to count that service in reports to grantors.

There’s a lot that can be done to improve the court system’s ease of use as well, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

We may be on the cusp of a major transformation in the law and the way that we deliver legal services. It will take some real work and commitment to change. But the result can bring us closer to a system where everybody has a chance of a fair outcome in court.

Further Reading

Legal Aid turn-away rate from the most recent Boston Bar Association report:

Percentage Turned Away by Area of Law: Family Matters: 80%, Employment: 74%, Consumer: 70%, Totals: 64%, Other: 63%, Housing: 56%, Immigration: 52%, Federal Benefits: 50%, Education: 40%, Healthcare: 40%

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