Legal Aid, Meet Legal Tech via Law360

Posted on 08-02-2016 by
Tags: Industry Insights & Trends , Tech2017 , legal research , LIT , legalresearch

The article below has been republished in full courtesy of Law360, written by Jonathan Petts and Rohan Pavuluri, Upsolve . 

Law360, New York (July 27, 2016, 10:16 AM ET) --  In accounting, consumers have TurboTax to complete personal tax returns. In medicine, patients have WebMD to diagnose their conditions. And in teaching, students have Khan Academy. Despite tech advances in e-discovery, legal research and trial presentation, though, the delivery of legal services has remained largely unchanged since the time of Charles Dickens. One or more lawyers researches, writes and litigates for a single client.

This “a la carte” one-lawyer-per-client model has worked well enough in business law. But it has generally failed us in providing legal aid for low-income Americans. Using this model, the legal aid clinics must turn down four out of every five clients. Waiting times of three to six months are commonplace. And because these organizations never have enough capacity to service outstanding requests, they have no reason to market their services in ways that traditional businesses do. This is highly problematic because the people who need legal help the most often don’t recognize that they have a legal problem. For example, almost 47 million Americans live under the federal poverty line, and the same number have average household credit card debt of $16,000. But Americans filed a mere 523,000 individual Chapter 7 bankruptcies last year, presumably due to lack of awareness of this avenue of consumer relief.

Because there will never be enough free lawyers to satisfy demand from low-income Americans, we need to leverage technology to allow the legal expertise of one lawyer to reach hundreds or thousands of clients at once, where possible. In particular, we must pay attention to four key areas of technology:

1. Online Self-Help Materials: A cornerstone of the lean manufacturing principles that have dominated the auto industry for decades is that a higher level employee should never perform work that can be performed almost as well by a lower level employee. This principle must be internalized in the legal aid and pro bono worlds. To maximize access to justice for as many low-income Americans as possible, free lawyers cannot spend time performing work that clients could do by themselves with the right guided materials. Legal self-help materials have been around for years, but few of them are any good. Recent research in this area has begun to show what works: pictures, affirmations and plain language. Making effective legal self-help materials available online is critical to economizing free lawyers’ time and allocating it to as many clients as possible.

2. Unbundled Video Chat Advice: Once effective self-help resources become more widely available, fully bundled pro bono representation will become unnecessary in many cases, such as routine consumer bankruptcy and uncontested divorces. What always will be needed is high-level legal advice: answering questions like "Does bankruptcy or tort litigation make sense for me?" Video chat technology must be expanded to allow lawyers to have these conversations with clients on their phones in bite-sized unbundled engagements, whenever their schedule permits. Allowing lawyers to do the most meaningful part of their job, advising clients, without getting dragged down into the messy details of fully bundled service, could do wonders in scaling pro bono participation.

3. Design Thinking: In Silicon Valley, there is an entire specialization called “user experience design,” which focuses on designing software in a way that makes it highly useable. Unfortunately, almost none of this body of knowledge has been applied to legal aid websites. Though well-intentioned, websites like just don’t look like Khan Academy. This needs to change. The city of Boston’s new website is a shining example of how public institutions can present themselves in a way that is simple, user-focused, and beautifully designed. Legal aid websites must be redesigned in the same way.

4. Online Marketing: If legal aid and pro bono resources are appropriately leveraged through online self-help tools, bite-sized video chat and design thinking, our capacity to serve low-income Americans will expand exponentially. At that point, increasing awareness of the need for legal help will become the critical task for solving our access-to-justice problem. Service providers in many industries have long advertised on social media sites like FacebookGoogle and Craigslist to educate clients about the need for their services. Helping as many low-income Americans as possible requires reaching out to people who don’t know they need help in the places where they spend time online.

Some of the prescriptions above may seem radical and inconsistent with our traditional ideal of serving each pro bono client as completely as if he were a paying one. But this well-intentioned mindset has impeded our progress in serving low-income Americans. If we’re truly serious about increasing access to justice, the solution won’t come from incremental efforts (laudable as they are) like increasing mandatory pro bono requirements by a few hours. As Cuban baseball coaches used to say, “You don’t get off the island by bunting.”

In our view, the potential for increasing access to legal aid through legal tech is limitless. We’re excited to see what the future brings.

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