How did you become involved in legal tech?
I have been involved in legal tech since 1997. While I was at the Pennsylvania Law Health Program in Philadelphia doing my Skadden Fellowship, I wanted to have a relational database to track denials and patterns of rule violations from HMOs. Relational databases were not in use in small legal nonprofits so I worked with Ph.D. students at Penn on a modification to FoxPro that enabled us to track complaints and reports from HMOs across the state, which we could use to select our legal strategies.
In 2004, I joined Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland to design and create a centralized advice call center that would use state of the art technology to serve seven counties with 1.2 million low-income residents. Using a modern phone switch box, invented around the 1920s, we created a state of the art call center, providing on-the-spot advice in five languages in five areas of law. The implementation of a modern phone system to legal by a great nonprofit firm enabled us to double our caseload in two years and to start doing more litigation. After seeing how a well-designed centralized advice team of lawyers could change a program and a region, I became a believer in technology. The Legal Advice Line continues to be one of the best hotlines out there, now also providing health care law advice.
This application of mature tech tools to legal aid is what solidified my notion that firm management has to be proactive about considering technology that can improve the work outcomes for clients, and that lawyers and teams need to be trained and exposed to state of the art tools that might enable the firm or unit to do better work more efficiently. After that, I pivoted to online forms—technology that has been in use in the legal sector (private) for over 20 years, and that was just starting to be introduced to nonprofit firms in 2008. That is when I joined Pro Bono Net, to promote online forms and develop the national online form platform for nonprofit firms, LawHelp Interactive (LHI).
What projects have you been focused on recently?
I am passionate about the pivotal role online forms play in increasing access to justice for underserved issues and communities. Online forms level the playing field—and that is crucial to empowering regular people facing a problem on their own.
What I’m hoping will happen in the next three years is that funders of health care, social services, housing, etc. and legal aid providers and courts will embrace working with groups outside of the legal domain and start using forms and technology to bring preventative law into places where vulnerable communities go for help with other pressing needs. Since most people who have a legal problem don’t know they have a legal problem, if we have the providers in health care, education, housing, etc.—where they already have a relationship—screen for legal problems, then there is a chance of fixing the legal issue before it gets so bad it ends up in court. So, building on the models of Medical-Legal Partnerships and using risk assessment tools that include online forms with other disciplines, and using technology to have remote lawyering and legal assistance available in libraries, hospitals, clinics, social service organizations, nursing homes, and court self-help centers, prisons, treatment centers, and beyond is what we have to do. Technology and online forms allow us to cook into an interview the know-how of an expert lawyer—so other skills and professions can help prevent problems before they bloom into a full case/crisis mode. Thus we can eventually build a prevention and continuum of legal care that is outside of the lawyer/non-lawyer binary, and increase the capacity for other disciplines and professions to be part of the solution. There are many doors to justice, technology will help us open those. I did a TEDx on this topic last year.
Is there a legal tech resource of any kind that you find yourself returning to or that was particularly formative for you?
I love the paper that Roger Smith authored a few years ago on the best websites in the world. I find that he really pushed the field forward when he called our field to focus on the interactivity of legal assistance resources.
The other paper that really inspired me was a paper by Ed Marks, New Mexico Legal Aid’s Executive Director, published in MIE that talked about how lawyers have an ethical obligation to use state of the art tools to manage their practices and provide services. This was in the 2000s, about 10 years before the ABA Model Rules were changed to require lawyers to become familiar and well-versed with technology as part of their competency.
The idea that as a lawyer you should always be upping your game in understanding technology influenced me deeply. If our resources are limited in nonprofit, why not use the best tools in the nonprofit world to be more effective in our work? Is it irresponsible for me to refuse to learn or carve out time to learn about tools in use that could allow me to do more appeals or provide a higher level of service? Prepare more briefs and take more cases? Or better identify patterns of abuse against the poor and inform our strategy? Those were the questions that led me to hone in on online forms as a key technology to raise and change the practice of law in the nonprofit sector.
What technology do you think lawyers could look at in a different way that would benefit society?
I strongly believe that we need to bring high-performance supercomputers into ending poverty and discrimination. That would solve a plethora of derivate and comingled issues including homelessness, hunger and food insecurity, shortages in labor and health care professions, and all of the ills that public interest lawyers work to solve day in and day out.
These problems are hard to solve, have plagued us since the beginning, and are important to the well-being of our nation, society, communities, and families. Solving poverty and discrimination, and derivative problems, are key to our future as a country and the human race. Partnering with other disciplines and collaborating with high-performance computer researchers and experts to solve a problem of national importance is what will help us bring stability and justice to all. Ending poverty and discrimination is as complex and important a problem as any of the big science problems that are using supercomputers right now. If you added up all the money that goes to correct the side-effects of poverty and discrimination, it is billions of dollars. Can 1% of that be allocated to bring supercomputers to work hand in hand with legal aid and legal tech? I think it can be done. In other words, basta (stop). Let’s try a new approach to end these issues.
To achieve this, there would need to be strong support and a huge investment to bring that capacity into the legal aid technology world, but it would be worth it. It would lead to a huge leap toward closing the gaps between the haves and have-nots. Our democracy depends, among many other things, on avoiding major social turmoil and unrest. I survived a civil war as a child. I can tell you from personal experience we need to do as much as we can to avoid social instability.
Closing income gaps, ending poverty, ending homelessness, eliminating violence and discrimination will lead to a stronger democracy and a better use of our public dollars at all levels. We could then invest in education and programs that improve the quality of life of all. The work that Matthew Desmond at The Eviction Lab has done can start to show us the way. We should do this for all civil legal problems. Let’s bring the big iron and have the legal experts, legal technology experts, computer scientists, and social scientists join together with supercomputer experts to help us solve these problems for good. I would love to see a “National Institute on High Performance Super Computing to End Poverty and Discrimination” be created, that brought together legal tech, legal domain experts, supercomputer experts, and cyber/policy experts under one roof, to see if in 5-10 years we can have the models and tools to better allocate nonprofit resources across multiple fields. It can be done, and it should be done.
What advice would you give to other women who want to get involved in legal tech?
As a woman, you probably know that tech is riddled with problems in terms of including women and promoting them. The technology field remains one of those bastions of white males, many from higher socio-economic status. And if you are a woman lawyer and not someone with a CS degree, you will go through a lot of mansplaining and behaviors like that. Always remember that you are the legal domain expert. You are here because you know the law and what your colleagues and clients need. Your years of litigation and practice are priceless—so don’t be shy about expressing what you need the technology to do and the limits it needs to have. If you think something can hurt a vulnerable group, speak up. You are special. There are not that many public interest lawyers working on technology, so don’t be shy. Speak up, work hard, stay on top of the field and the law, and get involved. Don’t think that you don’t belong in legal tech just because you have a different approach or style or life experience or background. Be who you are and shine. Be genuine. Be kind. Be patient. Mentor others—they are the future. Share what you know. Be generous. The Access to Justice Problem is so big that we need as much diversity and as much intellectual capital as we can muster. You belong. Speak up, and don’t let the groupthink of mostly homogenous groups settle in or silence your voice.
Give a shout-out to another woman in legal tech who you admire or have learned something from!
Well, there are not many women in legal tech, and there are even fewer women of color in legal tech. In legal nonprofit tech, a.k.a. tech in the public interest, even less. Two women come to mind.
The first is Rochelle Klempner who works at the New York courts and has been the leader of the online forms called DIY. She has been pivotal to the success of the online forms in New York, including e-filing for victims of violence. Rochelle is honest, smart, and creative; she is an excellent project lead, a wonderful colleague, and the quality of her work is so amazing. Plus, she shares what she knows generously in different ways and through different forums, including publishing articles in peer-reviewed law journals.
The other person that comes to mind is Aurora Martin, who leads PopUp Justice, for multiple reasons. First of all, she is a visionary and is building a network of diverse technologists to tackle problems from the perspective of rural, marginalized communities. For example, working with two universities in Eastern Washington over the summer to have students (mostly Latino or Native American students from rural Eastern Washington) to introduce them to design and show them how they can create their own tools to address the problems their families and friends have in the fields of Eastern Washington.
The second reason is that Aurora is a woman of color like me, from an immigrant background—and there are only a few of women of color working in legal nonprofit technology. And lastly, because she is courageous. Aurora led an amazing litigation group here in Washington at Columbia Legal Services. She left her position, after working to create a state plan for Washington that made equity and racial disparity gaps the focus of all delivery services, to create PopUpJustice. PopUpJustice is way on its way to bring change to the legal tech field and so I admire her vision, her drive, and her courage to bring her perspective as someone with an immigrant family background just like mine.
There are other women in nonprofit legal tech, I can probably count on two hands, and all of them deserve a shout out. Some of them are wonderful colleagues of mine here at Pro Bono Net. Some are in Florida, Michigan, Illinois, New York, but there are not enough. All of us are doing amazing work, really improving how legal services are delivered across the US and beyond.