Michigan State University College of Law, located in East Lansing, Michigan which is affiliated with Michigan State University. (Jeff Shannon/wikipedia)
Although corporate legal departments and access to justice efforts typically sit on opposite sides of the legal spectrum, they have more things in common than one might think. Both deal with high volumes and strapped budgets, forcing them to lean heavily on legal technology.
Four women legal technologists with access to justice goals gathered last week at packed room of Michigan State University College of Law to discuss some of the ways they leverage technology to bring legal services to underserved communities. The panel discussion, organized by MSU law student and Ms. JD fellow Irene Mo, featured Tracy Davis, product director for Court Innovations; Tiffany Graves, executive director for the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission; Vedika Mehera, legal solutions architect at DWT De Novo; and Angela Tripp, project manager at Michigan Legal Help.
The panel discussed a number of their strategies that are also employed by corporate sector legal technologists, revealing some similarities and some differences.
How it's similar: Practice areas with high volumes of clients and paperwork lend themselves particularly well to automation overall, especially where filings are form-based. "We do a lot of document automation," Tripp said, adding that Michigan Legal Help has produced automated, online interviews that can help Michigan residents fill out more than 120 forms for divorces, wills, evictions, public benefits and the like.
Like legal departments, there's a lot of room for automated applications to improve efficiency. "Because our legal system is so heavily reliant on paperwork and forms, and they have to be filled out completely and correctly, document automation is a great help for self-represented litigants," Tripp said.
How it's different: Access to justice projects often lacks the safety net of comprehensive attorney oversight, and the stakes of misfiling an automated form can be costly. Mehera said some common mistakes can be avoided by coding in some simple verification tools. "You have certain checks and balances to make sure you're not making a mistake," she explained.
Largely, these "checks" analyze the information input by the user against other information in the form to check it for logical errors. "You enter a date that looks wrong based on something else you've entered, it'll flag it; if you enter an income and your numbers aren't adding up right, it'll flag it," Mehera said.
How it's similar: Neota Logic's drag-and-drop coding platform has gained a strong foothold in both legal departments and service projects for its easy construction of apps based on logic trees. Decision or logic trees use machine language to guide a user through a set of options, which can be useful for connecting users to the exact resource or process they need.
Tripp described a project that Michigan Legal Help is developing using logic trees to help connect Michigan residents to the exact service they need. While the system is still in development, Tripp said that the model will help point Michigan residents with pressing legal needs parse quickly through various different options to get to legal support services that can best help them.
How it's different: Free or capped-cost legal services are often limited to specific legal issues or client bases, meaning there is rarely a "one-stop shop" where low-income individuals can get any kind of help. Pointing people to a legal assistance provider who can actually help them can often be a wild goose chase, which is tough for those already struggling to navigate the legal system.
"You're dealing with people who are already sometimes in crisis mode. To have to direct them to 25 different agencies is just not something you want to do," Graves said.
Collaboration with Technologists
How it's similar: Regardless of industry, attorneys are rarely equipped to program or code large-scale technology projects their own. Attorneys are increasingly called to collaborate with technologists and data scientists on various projects, especially where e-discovery is concerned. Graves and Mehera both pointed to experiences where they'd worked closely with volunteer coders to put together apps and tools for community members so they can more easily get information or help with a legal problem.
Tripp noted that, while there's a lot of information freely available to help non-coders put technology tools together, attorneys would be wise to seek out technologists before diving into the coding world themselves. "Before you try to invest something on your own, do some research, because there are going to be people out there who can help you," she said.
How it's different: While legal departments and technologists can happily work in a two-party relationship, there's a third party to consider in access to justice technology: the community served by tool. "Anything that organizations think they're doing to make things easier for a certain client population has to have their input," Graves cautioned.
"What may be intuitive for attorneys may not be for others, for users of the app or any of these other resources. Making sure they're at the table and part of the conversation I think is critical," she added.