TIG Takeaways: First Impressions of the Legal Aid Tech Community

By Peter Campbell, LSC Chief Information Officer

Following is a personal take on my introduction to the broader legal tech community, two weeks into my job as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation.

In January (my first month on the job) I attended two significant technology events sponsored by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC): a two-day Tech Summit  and the Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference.

For me, these two events were a crash course in who’s who and what’s what in the world of legal aid technology. I learned much more about LSC’s role in the sector, and about my role, as well. And I found it all inspiring and challenging (in a good way!).

The Tech Summit was part two of a process that began last June. The 51 thought leaders included legal aid directors and staff, judges, technology consultants, leading academics, funders, and lawyers from a variety of practice settings. At the earlier session, a number of potential strategies to maximize legal aid service through technology were identified, along with this mission statement:

To use technology to provide some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.

The summit identified these priority areas for a five-year plan:

  • Document Assembly (automating form creation and standardizing the data collected)
  • Expert Systems (creating intelligent checklists that guide clients and advocates through the steps needed for processes such as initiating or responding to court actions and dealing with government agencies)
  • Remote Services Delivery (Can each state have an online portal that mitigates the physical barriers to seeking representation?)
  • Mobile Technologies (What assistance and services can be delivered on smartphones and tablets?)
  • Triage (How can we further automate the complex processes of matching clients to resources?)

After the Tech Summit’s big-picture, longer-term focus, it was time to switch gears to LSC’s 13th Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference, where 174 people – mostly staff who are immersed in the daily nitty-gritty of legal aid – had gathered to learn how to help more people, right now.

The conference started out with a plenary from Beth Kanter, a well-known guru in social media and communications in the nonprofit sector.  Beth’s talk had two themes.  First, she showed us strategies to measure our social network activities and their success.  There was some talk of how Twitter and Facebook can be used to support fundraising for legal aid, and we had good examples of how they can be used to contact and mobilize volunteer attorneys and engage communities in advocacy efforts around our work. Beth’s second message was that we shouldn’t be afraid to try things and fail.  She suggested that a key challenge is to learn how we can discuss and learn from our mistakes without assessing any blame.

Many of the sessions showed off innovative projects, such as creative integrations between case management and phone systems, powerful examples of document assembly using HotDocs, and success stories with newer technologies like Microsoft’s Lync unified communications system. The conference closed with a panel discussion titled “Wormhole to the Future,” where six of the more creative folks in the room mused about how some new technologies, such as the iPhone’s SIRI, crowd-sourced web sites, and wearable technology might become parts of the legal process and support legal aid.”

I was moved when LSC President Jim Sandman pointed out in his address to the TIG conference that most Americans don’t realize that the statement “you have the right to an attorney” – you know, that  phrase we’re all used to hearing on TV – does not apply in civil cases.  We all know that hiring an attorney is expensive, but if you are poor and need help with a civil issue (maybe it’s 40 degrees in your apartment and the landlord won’t fix the heat, or the used car you bought died the next day yet the dealer is still demanding payment) legal aid is likely your only option.

As the Tech Summit and TIG conference went on, it became clear that another challenge lies in finding the resources to maintain and replicate the innovative technology projects that LSC funds.  The TIG program funds innovative use of technology, but it’s basically startup funding.  We’ve seen remarkable projects funded, including flexible call centers and websites that effectively automate triage; key integration of case management, phone and other systems; and development of document assembly platforms that dramatically increase efficiency. Now we have to focus on increasing the internal tech capacity in order to sustain and share these efforts across the sector.

I was not only impressed by the creativity and dedication of the legal aid tech community, but also by the role my new organization plays in sponsoring these events and so thoroughly assisting with the grant process. 

Finally, I learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities ahead for me in my new job as CIO. The bulk of that job will involve planning for, overseeing, and managing the internal LSC systems and staff.  But there are ways that I can support the broader legal aid community as well.  Wherever possible, I want to work with our legal partners, such as the courts and technology vendors, to develop standards; where appropriate, I want to assist legal aid organizations in their efforts to collaborate and solve technology challenges; and I want to support the community in strategically using technology to overcome our functional and service-oriented barriers.

I think that the Tech Summit goals are worthy goals that I look forward to working on.  But the key to their success lies in the facility of using technology at the ground level.  We need to build that capacity, and much of that can be done if we can standardize our use across the sector and more easily share our successful efforts. At the conference, I spoke with one ED who was partnering his statewide organization with an organization in a neighboring state to hire a shared CIO.  Another group of three legal aid organizations in the same state were planning to combine their technology.  These are efforts worth championing, and I hope to see more like them.