I am working on a project to develop a guided interview for tenants who are facing eviction. Briefly, a guided interview is a TurboTax-like interface that asks a user questions and drafts a letter, form, or pleading that might be printed out or electronically filed with a court.

This is meant to be a user-friendly interview that can be used in a clinic setting, at a non-profit that has experienced advocates but no lawyers, or by a tenant at home on their own. When I started this project I had the most experience with HotDocs, but it did not seem like the right choice. HotDocs has a venerable history, but also a venerable appearance. It’s fast to use if you’re an experienced advocate who uses it every day, but it’s intimidating to get started with even as an end-user.

I tried to do a survey of the most likely to be used tools for nonprofits developing pro se interviews, which ended up leading me to review 4 different products. There are more options that you might consider, including Tyler Guide and File (a commercial product that the courts in Massachusetts are using), or the newer and much-hyped DoNotPay Bot. For a legal services provider, I don’t see benefits to choosing those over one of the products reviewed below.

Summary of the tools for non-profits

Name Cost Customizable End-user friendliness Developer friendliness Stability
HotDocs Need to buy developer license, discounts for legal aid, host for free on LHI No Medium, looks old fashioned, non-linear workflow Pretty easy to develop, some limits for big projects (variables can’t be manipulated programmatically). Graphical with text-based scripting. Very stable, backed by major company.
A2J 6 Free to develop and host on LHI No Good (easier than HotDocs), appearance a little dated. Road metaphor, linear workflow Pretty easy to develop. Graphical with text-based scripting. Currently in a buggy state, but has big team of developers addressing issues. Problems over last year with maintaining release deadlines.
Docassemble Free to develop, do need to pay for hosting or self-host. Open source. Yes, module system, can do anything Python can do, use arbitrary JavaScript or CSS Looks modern, linear workflow. Text-based development with online IDE “playground” that has template questions. YAML format is complex but partially human-readable. Mature, but developed by one person. Bugs are quickly fixed.
QnA Free, open source. Can be embedded in existing public website. Yes, can be modified. “Chat” metaphor is easy to understand for short interviews. Simple text-based development environment. Format is human readable. Mature, but limited scope.

Goals

Each of the tools have slightly different niches.

HotDocs is great for building a library of forms that an attorney, paralegal, or advocate can use to save time when drafting repetitive pleadings. Even on the web it uses a dated grey appearance circa late 1990s, but it reliably gets the job done. Complex interview logic is possible, but it is not a full-featured programming language, which means sometimes repetitive scripting and workarounds for responsive features. A nonprofit’s forms can be hosted for free on LHI’s website, but expect to pay HotDocs for a developer’s license ($100/ea for non-profits) and if you want to connect to your case management system, expect to pay 4 to 5 figures and a yearly maintenance fee to LHI. The web platform uses JavaScript, but is not truly mobile friendly and there are some limitations on the web, including occasional glitches with cross-browser support. It’s the only tool I listed that has a corporation behind it.

A2J Author was originally meant to be a user friendly overlay on HotDocs, but is now a standalone tool hosted by LHI/ProBonoNet. It has a graphical interface for editing with additional scripting ability with a syntax and capabilities similar to HotDocs, but has a slightly hokey road and avatar metaphor that can’t be adjusted. It’s one of the more popular platforms for building guided interviews for pro se litigants because of its funding by the Legal Services Corporation, so there’s a good community of users to turn to if you run into problems. A2J has a linear workflow so works best when assembling a small number of forms with each interview. The latest release of A2J, A2J 6, brings HTML5 compatibility and mobile accessibility, but it has been delayed several times with serious bugs as of September, 2017.

DocAssemble is a labor of love by a solo developer at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. As an end-user, you get a visually attractive linear interview, electronic signatures, machine learning, SMS interview support, and responsive design that works on the desktop and on mobile devices. As a developer, DocAssemble is initially intimidating. Interviews are written in a relatively user-readable text format called YAML, but an online “playground” lets you insert example code that you can modify for your needs. There is no such interactive editor for the templates, but the template syntax is simple to use. Sometimes the choice of keyword names and syntax is unintuitive, but the documentation is extremely comprehensive, and the developer is responsive with bug fixes and advice. DocAssemble must be hosted by you, but a Docker image makes it relatively simple to install on popular cloud platforms such as Azure, AWS, Linode and DigitalOcean. Azure and AWS both offer discounts or free credits through TechSoup for non-profits. DocAssemble is open source which makes it very flexible. Custom Python modules can be added, and the use of a full-featured programming language at the core means complex interviews can be maintained without repetitive spaghetti code. Because DocAssemble is object-oriented, interview variables can be organized logically and intuitively, and the semantic meaning of a variable can be stored as a property of the variable, rather than having to be inferred from the name. This may sound like a small deal, but for larger interviews, organization is key to making the system maintainable. The downside is learning the syntax which is more difficult than the other 3 platforms, even for simple interviews.

QnA is another solo project, a chatbot tool that is meant to be embedded in a website and does not need independent hosting, designed by a developer at Massachusetts’ Committee for Public Council Services. Despite being text based, it might be the easiest to learn, and the simple bubbles are visually attractive and easy to use. However, it doesn’t currently offer the features needed for more complex or longer interviews. It’s great for guiding a website visitor to content or drafting a simple letter and is a good way to add interactivity to your organization’s home page.

Which should you use?

As you get deeper into developing guided interviews, the complexities of text-based vs graphical editors fade away. To do any interesting logic in the interview (which is after all, the point of using document assembly rather than a Microsoft Word template), all of the platforms require you to be a programmer. DocAssemble and QnA don’t hide the complexity, which means a steep learning curve you only have to climb once. With HotDocs and A2J, you can get started somewhat quickly, but the graphical interface can only take you a short way before you run into its limitations and must climb that same steep hill.

I’m throwing my hat in the ring with DocAssemble for this project, but I’ll continue to use and update the Eviction Defense System that GBLS commissioned with HotDocs. I chose DocAssemble because of the promise of its open source nature and customization options, which will allow us to adapt with the times, and the attractive default appearance of the interview. The tradeoff is a steeper learning curve and relatively minimal hosting costs. Well-worth it to me.

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One thought to “Choosing the right platform for pro-se guided interviews”

  • Pieter Gunst

    Thank you for this article!

    I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences using DocAssemble once you’ve had a chance to further develop your project and see some more of the opportunities and limitations of the system.

    Reply

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