The LSNTAP / PBN webinar on October 23rd, covered many topics relating to the use of technology for pro bono engagement, and contained a great deal of practical advice for new projects to keep in mind, learned over the course of several distinct projects. The presenters for the webinar from Pro Bono Net were Mirenda Watkins, the LawHelp Interactive Coordinator, Adam Friedl, the Pro Bono Coordinator, and Liz Keith, the LawHelp Program Manager, as well as Carolyn Coffey, the Supervising Attorney at MFY Legal Services. Adam Friedl began the presentation with the often inaccurate maxim “If you build it they will come” and pointed out the risk of assuming that every exciting new tech project will be a success. While a sense of energy and excitement over an innovative tech project may be important to its success, Adam Friedl pointed out that careful planning, patience, and a number of other considerations must also be taken into account. Three goals of tech enabled pro bono were explained the first being helping pro bono programs by increasing volunteer engagement and education, the second being aiding pro bono lawyers with enhanced support tools and access to specialized expertise and creating new ways of volunteering, and the third being assisting clients by providing more resources more efficiently to underserved communities.
Mirenda Watkins gave the first presentation on Technology Tools with the Power to Enhance Pro Bono Initiatives. The major example described was LawHelp Interactive, which makes extensive use of interactive forms, primarily using HotDocs and A2J Author in an interview format. The interactive legal forms allow users to create legal documents that are both standardized and acceptable by courts, but also personalized to their particular case. LawHelp Interactive also aids pro bono volunteers by providing them with specialized information that may be outside of their area of expertise, and allows pro bono attorneys to more efficiently screen potential clients. The online availability of these forms also allows for remote sharing to overcome physical barriers, and allows reusable information (such as birth date) to be carried over rather than repeatedly reentered.
The next section of the presentation consisted of advice regarding how to build and sustain such a program, and getting volunteers to enthusiastically embrace the use of LawHelp Interactive forms and interviews. Perhaps the most important practice to remember for driving engagement for this, and other tech projects is creating partnerships. Working with court support staff to ensure that the forms are acceptable was of vital importance, and working with organizations such as libraries was extremely helpful for increasing awareness and accessibility with regard to LawHelp interactive resources. Mirenda highly recommended involving partner organizations early in the planning process, and staying willing to compromise to see the partnerships succeed. Over ambition was also stated as a potential detriment to many projects, and starting tech projects on a small scale with achievable results is a good start that can be built up later as needed. Ongoing training should also be maintained, in order to keep volunteers and attorneys up speed with the resources. Consistent evaluation is also vital, as it can definitively show the successes of the resources, as well as pointing out potential flaws or areas for improvement.
The section on the New York Family Court Remote Volunteer Attorney Program was presented by Adam Friedl. The program was designed to help expand the reach of the Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program to connect with dramatically underserved populations. While the Family Court Volunteer overall helps to answer questions and gives free unbundled legal advice to unrepresented litigants, the program had some difficulties. Certain areas were proving difficult for volunteer attorneys to reach, and Staten Island in particular was proving difficult due a lack of dedicated personnel, lack of physical space set aside for the program, and most of all by the area’s relative geographic inaccessibility. The remote program overcomes this by utilizing videoconferencing and remote IP printing so that attorneys in Manhattan can serve litigants in other locations without leaving the borough.
The project has been very successful in Staten Island and is now expanding to reach other counties in upstate New York. Several factors contributed to the success of the project, the most important being the policy of keeping things as simple as possible. Collaborating with the IT personnel in each county was also seen as vital, and getting the local court administrations and bar associations invested in the success of the project also helped a great deal. Adam Friedl did however bring up possible challenges that should be kept in mind, which included political disputes and regional divisions, and the need to adapt and utilize different staffing models to take into account differing circumstances county by county. Another large challenge is maintaining a high level of energy and enthusiasm for the project and keeping involvement a positive experience for the volunteers and litigants alike.
Carolyn Coffey then gave a talk showcasing the NYC Consumer Debt Defense Project. The consumer debt defense project was meant to help individuals being sued by debt buyers in New York City, 95% of whom reside in low or moderate income areas, and only 2% of whom are represented by counsel. A great number of these lawsuits are very sloppy and shaky cases against low income individuals, usually for less than $2,000. The Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office or CLARO provided weekly walk in clinics, held in courthouses to help litigants by providing legal advice and document preparation assistance, and was staffed by pro bono attorneys and law students. The enormous success and popularity of the program however, created problems as clinics began to overflow, and more complex documents such as MSJs began to bog down service speed even more. The solution to these challenges was to begin utilizing document assembly resources from LawHelp Interactive.
The use of document assembly resources by both advocates and pro se litigants has managed to vastly increase the speed at which CLARO can do its job. The standardized forms work to generate modifiable Word documents with contextual information applied to each case. Aggressive debt buyers with fake, sloppy, or missing documents can be countered by the Demand for Document and Debt Verification Letters that the interactive forms create. The success of this tech-enabled project hinges on the significant speed increase from the days of handwritten forms and notes. It helps to support less experienced volunteers in areas that may be beyond their area of expertise. While some there was some measure of reluctance by individuals who felt comfortable with the old methods, and challenges faced due to the need to train volunteers with the new software, CLARO has still benefited greatly from the new tech methods.
The final presentation of the webinar was on Mobile and Remote Innovations to Support Pro Bono Engagement, by Liz Keith. The first project illustrated was the Pro Bono To Go project being pioneered in Minnesota, where a mobile version of ProJusticeMN.org is being developed and will feature settlement checklists and client interview guides to support advocates. The mobile checklists are valuable for helping to get the most out of settlement opportunities, which can rise unexpectedly in court. The mobile version of the settlement checklist helps to identify pitfalls or problem areas that may be missed by inexperienced attorneys, or those working outside of their areas of expertise. The mobile interview guides provided by Pro Bono To Go can be used to streamline and improve sessions in walk in clinics with volunteer attorneys. Other mobile projects include Apps which connect attorneys to information about volunteering, and screening Apps to help non legal volunteers such as nurses and social workers identify potential clients.
Remote service models for pro bono were also featured, specifically programs such as LiveHelp, Virtual Legal Clinics, and Remote Document Reviews, which all have the benefit of overcoming geographic barriers that would previously have inhibited pro bono engagement. In addition to providing information find and referral assistance, LiveHelp volunteers provide a range of other services that vary from state to state. The types of LiveHelp volunteers also vary from state to state, ranging from to librarians, to law students and private attorney volunteers. Perhaps the largest issues that should be considered when using volunteers for LiveHelp is the fact that they require an investment in training and supervision on an ongoing basis in order to ensure quality. There are however, numerous benefits to using volunteers. A New York LiveHelp pilot program, which mainly utilized law student volunteers, found in a survey that LiveHelp volunteers felt they were more likely to volunteer for pro bono service later in their careers as a result of their experience with the program The flexible schedule that the remote nature of LiveHelp allows volunteers to adopt also provides them with a much greater opportunity to volunteer for busy individuals who may not have a large amount of time available. The LivePerson platform used by many states can also be useful for reporting and administration purposes, and achieved chatlogs and other services can help project managers with supervision and support.
The presenters Liz Keith, Mirenda Watkins, Carolyn Coffey, and Adam Friedl can be reached by email if anyone has additional inquires. A full recording of the webinar is also available for those who are interested. The next webinar in the series, Beyond Online Intake: Looking at Triage and Expert Systems, will be held on December 4th, 2013.