How do you best help an existing ecosystem?

How can a justice technology company best deploy technology to increase justice? Not in a vacuum, that’s for sure.

This month, we’re thrilled to be releasing Paladin (beta) for legal service organizations. The culmination of over 12 months of collaborative research, consultation and design, the tool is now available to those organizations working with Paladin’s existing partners.

Using a simple referral mechanism designed to aid in the recruitment and placement of pro bono matters, legal service organizations (LSOs) can now create a single, centralized referral record that can be intelligently distributed and placed within their firm and corporate partners.

The ability for referring organizations to interface directly with the pro bono systems of their partners is the latest step in the evolution of Paladin as a pro bono network (learn more about our evolution from a marketplace, to stand alone software, to a network) and our first step in directly supporting the important work of LSOs. By applying technology in this way, we believe that we can help channel the limited resources of those in the pro bono ecosystem to what’s most important: delivering high quality, impactful representation and assistance to individuals and organizations in need.

So, what is it? How did we get here? And what’s next?

Research Phase One: Law Firm Co-Development

In the Summer and Fall of 2018, the Paladin team ran a co-development process with key law firm partners Dentons and WSGR to understand where we could best apply technology to help alleviate some of the pain points in the pro bono ecosystem. Through process mapping, stakeholder interviews, prototyping, and eventually building, we were determined to find the most effective way to help lawyers do more and better pro bono.

What struck us most was that the critical pain points felt by firms and in-house teams in the management of their pro bono programs were mirrored almost exactly by their LSO partners. Specifically:

  • There was far too much administrative overhead and duplicative work to coordinate the placement of a pro bono referral.
  • There was no “single source of truth” regarding the status of an opportunity.
  • Neither law firms nor LSOs had a way to easily match lawyers with opportunities that were of interest to them.
  • Both wanted to maintain and focus on what they believe is the most important aspect of pro bono: the relationships. With each other, and with their clients.

Too. Much. Admin.

For firms and in-house teams, pro bono opportunities originate from multiple sources, including LSOs, individual attorneys, and existing relationships. Each source of origination triggers a different process for dissemination, approval and placement.

That said, LSOs are the primary facilitator of pro bono work within law firms. These inbound opportunities are received in multiple formats (including widely distributed case digests, individual emails, phone calls) and often sent to multiple parties simultaneously. For LSOs, crafting a referral summary often involves duplicating data entry and maintaining records across multiple systems (case management, referral spreadsheets etc). Within firms, each request from a partner LSO triggers a different process internally for dissemination, approval and placement. These processes differ from firm to firm, office to office, and even partner to partner.

This problem, while inefficient at a micro level, becomes acute when viewed with a systems thinking lens, particularly at scale and with U.S based programs managing high volumes of requests from multiple partners. All of this time spent referring a matter is time not spent actually doing the work.

The illusive “SSoT”.

LSOs have limited insight into the activity or status of an individual request as they seek to place it. Firms, too, have no real-time insight into the activity or status (that is, whether something is available or unavailable) of an individual matter distributed to multiple firms.

This lack of real time information has implications at each stage of the referral life cycle.

In particular, both LSOs and firms shared the frustration experienced when an attorney puts their hand up to work on a matter that has already been placed. In addition to being inefficient, the process is discouraging for those attorneys interested in working on something only to be told it is no longer available — problematic, given it’s these attorneys both pro bono partners and LSOs very much need to be encouraged to take on more pro bono. Beyond that, once work has commenced, following up on the status of a case and closure reports is… tough, to say the least.

We’ve come to refer to this lack of status clarity throughout the pro bono ecosystem as not having a “Single Source of Truth” (which we awkwardly acronym as SSoT). In building tools for the pro bono ecosystem, our goal is to provide this Single Source of Truth, so all parties have greater clarity.

Technology is cool, but relationships matter.

Identifying and targeting well suited attorneys with relevant opportunities relies on the institutional knowledge and individualized efforts of pro bono counsel and LSOs. While resource intensive, this institutional knowledge and associated relationships are fundamental to successful pro bono programs.

Positive relationships between firms and LSOs, and LSOs and attorneys, are central to the effective operation of the pro bono ecosystem as a whole.

So while pro bono coordinators and LSOs want attorneys to have real time access to opportunities based on their interests, expertise, skill sets, and availability, this cannot replace the important role both coordinators and LSOs play, nor the relationships they cultivate.

Research Phase Two: LSO Consultation and Design Sprint

One key output of the initial research phase was that further consultation with LSOs was required. Another design sprint! Twelve LSOs spanning five jurisdictions generously shared their processes and experiences, insights and feedback.

Further echoing the key themes of the first phase of research, we confirmed:

One size does not fit all.

The workflows, practices and policies of each LSO are unique and disparate. While there are best practices (see, for example, the OneJustice best practice guide) and commonalities (a preference for referral case digests vs one off emails, for example) the varied nature of pro bono programs means that referrals are managed in a similarly varied way. This must be recognized and provided for in any solution, taking into account the experience, subject matter expertise and focus of each unique LSO.

Control = Trust.

The ability to retain where, how and who can review pro bono opportunities is critical. While placement of pro bono matters is the main priority, that placement must lead to high quality representation. The expertise, insights, and knowledge of the referring program as to who and how opportunities can be viewed and where they are ultimately placed is central to this. This element of control is vital in establishing and maintaining the trust and confidence of LSOs.

Time spent on admin and adoption of new systems is time away from providing services — so it must be invested judiciously.

Our research highlighted that while there’s an openness to innovation and applying technology as a means to improve aspects of the workflow, the ROI must be compelling and any adoption low risk for LSOs to consider it. The stakes are simply too high for time and energy to be placed in overly complex and ineffective solutions.

Knowing that:

  • Every organization is different, has different priorities and workflows; but
  • Everyone hates the admin involved in referring a matter

How’d we approach creating a unified system?

A brief interlude about pasta

We’ll get to the good stuff we promise. So there’s this phrase in software development called “spaghetti code”. It refers to when you look at code you’re unfamiliar with and it’s a big gnarly ball of spaghetti — it’s circuitous, decisions are unclear, and it’s hard to understand. So making changes is hard. The thing is though, it’s working (until it’s not).

A mistake more junior developers often make is to look at spaghetti-ish code, not take the time to understand it, but instead quickly declare, “this is garbage! We need to remake this spaghetti code from scratch!” Often if they do, it’ll end up taking more time, and not accomplish everything the original code did, but it’ll be cleaner… until the next person comes along and declares it too, is spaghetti.

What’s this have to do with referring pro bono?

An ecosystem and all the software/processes used by that ecosystem can look like spaghetti. One approach is to declare all those systems are unsatisfactory, throw them out, and start over. But in this case they’re not, and even if someone had the authority to throw everything out and declare everyone use something else instead, that’d take a lot of time to build all the nuances needed by different constituents. Like spaghetti code, there’s a reason the systems exist the way they do. Doing our job well means being respectful of that.

This is all to say our approach was not to “start over” from scratch, but to build something that anyone could use alongside the systems they have in place, to make the referral process faster. Everyone can enjoy their pasta however they like it.

Phase 3: Building tools for legal service organizations

Easy + structured inputs mean better preference-matching and reporting.

Great, so what does it look like?

Glad you asked. Our research showed the following:

  1. LSOs were excited to be able to create nicely formatted opportunities quickly, have a robust data structure built with their needs in mind, and be able to send these opportunities to Paladin partner law firms.
  2. But! No one wants to do that if it means duplicating their work (I mean, duh). If the solution only sends opportunities to Paladin partner law firms, and not every law firm uses Paladin (yet), then each LSO has to manually enter their opportunities in Paladin and manually enter their opportunities wherever else they’re going, and that stinks.
  3. LSOs send their opportunities to firms and solo practitioners through a myriad number of systems, and since we’re not in the business of replacing them, the solution has to work with all of them.

Enter our old friend copy + paste

The elegant answer here became: enable LSOs to use Paladin to record and manage their opportunities (robust data! Easy to use!), send those opportunities to partner law firms, and then also send those opportunities to all their pro bono resources however they normally do.

Work with firms using Paladin? Great! Work with firms not using Paladin? Also great!

By entering the opportunity first in Paladin, LSOs have a centralized referring platform. When they copy + paste those opportunities into their case digests, one off emails, or to their websites, anyone, Paladin user or otherwise, can express interest easily, and LSOs can manage their status in the same place they manage the status when sending to partner firms.

Enter your opportunities once — lawyers everywhere get a beautiful experience.

This way, LSOs can manage all their pro bono referrals in a centralized place with any and all pro bono resources and partners they choose, using any software they currently use. It means it’s easy to use, requires no integration, oh and it’s free for LSOs to boot.

A centralized system to enhance and unify, not replace

Place any lawyer who expresses interest with a single click.

A single place to manage pro bono referrals is just the start. Our hope is that being able to send opportunities to any law firm or solo practitioner allows LSOs to have better clarity into the status of their opportunities, and in the end, increase their capacity to help those in need. That’s what this is all for, right?

Over the past 4 months, a select group of beta testers (special thanks in particular to Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Legal Aid Chicago, and the Justice & Diversity Center of The Bar Association of San Francisco’s Legal Services Program for their ongoing feedback, commitment to innovation and support) have been using Paladin as a part of a closed beta group. They are now being joined by a rapidly increasing group of organizations interested in how technology can support (not replace) their existing workflow (welcome Safe Passage Project, Open Door Legal and Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights!)

The feedback we receive from those using the tool will help us iterate, improve, and inform what comes next. Whether it’s reporting on pro bono data, better understanding lawyer preferences and needs, or helping LSOs publish their opportunities to a dedicated homepage, we’re looking forward to working with those at the forefront to help increase access to justice for those who need it most. If you’re interested in learning more, or would like to get started, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

Building for, and with, the pro bono ecosystem was originally published in Paladin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.