Takeaways from the 2020 Legal Services Corporation Innovation in Technology Conference

on Conferences, Future Law, Legal Tech

Takeaways from the 2020 Legal Services Corporation Innovation in Technology Conference

Over the span of four days, the Legal Service Corporation’s Innovation in Technology Conference brought together a diverse, passionate, and active group of individuals and organizations around the central theme of improving access to justice through the use of technology.

One of the most observable and critical aspects of this community of technologists, legal professionals, and nonprofits is the connective tissue binding them together – the overarching desire to improve the lives of their community members whose legal services needs are going unmet. Having a strong community geared towards meeting those legal services needs is especially important when “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.

After reflecting on our favorite topics, speakers, and panel discussions, we want to share our key takeaways and perspectives from LSC ITC ranging from bridging the access to justice chasm, to leveraging Human-Centered Design for legal services products and processes, to A2J startup real-talk, regulatory reform, and Baby Yoda.

Visionaries and Change Agents

Of the many wonderful speaker events throughout LSC ITC, arguably two of the most visionary and impactful presentations occurred within the Opening Plenary session. Both Jim Sandman’s presentation as the President of LSC on the “Five Requirements for Realizing Technology’s Potential to Improve Access to Justice” and Shannon Salter’s presentation on the efficacy of the Civil Resolution Tribunal in Canada honed in on actionable ways to improve access to justice.

“I think it is an outrage,” exclaimed Sandman, “that millions and millions of Americans year after year are unable to assert and vindicate their legal rights. This is the United States of America, and that is wrong.” These words rang loudly in the grand ballroom of the Hilton in downtown Portland, and sent shivers up the spines of all in the room who know the magnitude of the challenges legal aid organizations are going up against.

Throughout his speech, Sandman set out five requirements that if achieved, could make a significant reduction of the “yawning justice gap” in the US. Here below is a summary of those five requirements:

  1. There needs to be a “global clearinghouse of information” mapping out and evaluating the entire network of access to justice initiatives, a mechanism for setting priorities between all of those initiatives, and a host, owner, or sponsor with the capacity and credibility to create this clearinghouse.
  2. There needs to be a recognition that technology alone is not the solution to the problem of bridging the access to justice chasm, and that it cannot solve all of the complexities of our legal system. Legal process reform must occur in tandem to allow technology to reach its full potential to make the law more workable. 
  3. There needs to be increased collaboration across a broader cross-section of stakeholders and innovators. “An innovation initiative led by lawyers is an oxymoron,” and we must remember that we don’t have all of the right people at the table, while asking “who is not here from whom we could learn.”
  4. There needs to be a continual push to find solutions for obtaining more funding, as there is “an obvious and perennial need for funding.” But beyond lobbying for increased funding, there needs to also be an exploration of potential “cross-fertilization between the for-profit legal tech sector and the non-profit legal tech sector.” 
  5. There needs to be strong leadership to accomplish all of the above priorities, and we need to “systematically identify” people who have the power and the personal inclination to lead. There is a need for leaders “who will think big – who are willing to craft and implement solutions commensurate with the magnitude of the problem, and who recognize the urgency of the crisis in our justice system today.”

With the recent announcement that Sandman will be stepping down from his position as President of LSC, the open question for the community is who will fill his shoes? Who will become the big thinking leaders he outlined as his fifth requirement and carry forward LSC’s mission of realizing technology’s potential to improve access to justice.

While that question is yet to be determined here in the US, one of the big thinking leaders who is transforming the way that consumers and self-represented litigants interact with the Canadian legal system is Shannon Salter. 

Shannon developed and now chairs The British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), which is Canada’s first online tribunal focused on bringing the justice system to the public. In her keynote address to the LSC ITC crowd, Shannon made the important point that “The justice system doesn’t belong to us lawyers and judges. It belongs to the people we serve.” This sums up LSC ITC perfectly, because it reminds us that we need to develop a legal system that works for the end user – the public – and that to create such a system we need to bring in elements of Human-Centered Design (HCD) to create wholistic, inclusive processes. 

The CRT is leading the way for the future of courts with online dispute resolution, because it is providing the type of access that the public actually wants. When the CRT asked participants whether they would prefer to communicate and resolve their disputes online vs paper communications, 99.9% said they would prefer communications and negotiations to occur online. 

Providing an online, user-centric, dispute resolution first and litigation last system, has been incredibly successful in Canada, and it could prove to be a powerful model for bridging the access to justice chasm in the US legal system. But as Shannon noted, “technology by itself is not the solution to access to justice.” Change management is key, and there must be a focus on changing the culture of the legal system to ensure it really belongs to the public. 

Lessons in HCD from LSC ITC

In many of the presentations and panel discussions at LSC ITC, Human-Centered Design took center stage as legal aid leaders have moved beyond simply recognizing its benefits to actually implementing real-world solutions with an HCD mindset. 

From a practical standpoint, one of the most valuable perspectives on HCD came from Brendan Lacota of Justice Connect, who shared lessons from a 3-year HCD driven project. For those unfamiliar with Justice Connect, it is doing incredible work in Australia to close the A2J chasm by not only providing those in need with free legal services and connecting them to the best lawyers for their case, but also by campaigning to challenge and change unfair laws to help everyone. 

In his presentation, Brendan highlighted 5 general lessons from Justice Connect’s project to design and implement legal services delivery models with the public in mind:

  1. Start with the right foundations
  2. Embed evaluations and iteration from the start
  3. Genuine inclusion is tricky but worth it
  4. Lawyers love making assumptions, and they can be tough to bust
  5. Making and breaking things – and not being precious – is the only way
Curiosity about the solution and openness to different outcomes

When embarking on a journey to develop a new system of providing legal services based on actual end-user feedback, one of the vital lessons Brendan imparted was that these large projects need to allow for a certain level of uncertainty. When you design a new system using HCD, you don’t necessarily know exactly where you will end up. While you may have a general understanding that you will be providing legal services to a large population of individuals, the exact parameters of that system of aid and how your users can best be served is yet to be determined. Brendan noted that key prerequisites for HCD projects are creating a supportive internal culture that values the weight of the task, and developing a project plan and project budget that champion the realities of HCD.

Embed Continuous evaluation and iteration

Once you start with the right foundations, it is equally important to change your mindset to producing minimum viable products (MVP’s) and including feedback from your users throughout the process. Lawyers and legal professionals are constantly in search of the flawless answer to the problems at hand, and in the legal aid world, this can be inhibitive to producing pragmatic solutions that will solve problems for real people. Don’t wait to have a perfect product – get it out there and start using a better system, even if not perfect, knowing that improvements will come along in due time based on user feedback.

With your foundations and processes down, it’s also important to seek actual inclusion of the end-users who will engage with your access to justice solutions. And beyond getting feedback from who you perceive to be the best, true user of your product or process, you need to get feedback and validations from the extremes. You need feedback from people who reject your system and/or are beginners, as well as power users who interact with your system frequently. Genuine inclusion is not easy, but very much worthwhile. The question you have to ask is “Who are you talking to to find inspiration or insights?”

Who are you talking to to find inspiration or insights

By supplementing your A2J project with real-world feedback from a variety of your end-users, you can also take on the 4th lesson Brendan outlined – that “lawyers love making assumptions,” and especially ones that are seemingly irrefutable without additional evidence. “Real data from real people is the perfect antidote,” notes Brendan. The assumption that “old people don’t use the internet” quickly goes out the door, once you realize that it’s not that seniors do not like using the internet, but that your online legal aid experience with 2 point font and unnecessarily complex process flows makes them pick up the phone instead. To get past your assumptions, you also have to be willing to admit them out loud. Only then can you truly use HCD to make them clash with real data from real people. 

Waterfall Project and Human Centred design driven project

Finally, Brendan noted that making and breaking things (and not being precious) is the only way forward. By engaging in iterative processes with evaluation and feedback along the way, at the outset you have to be prepared to go back to the drawing board to improve upon and/or completely scrap your initial designs. To keep this mindset and keep moving forward, closer and closer to the end product, Brendan noted it is important to continually prototype, map out, and simulate your envisioned product until it more fully encapsulates the problems your users face and the data you have gathered. Remembering that at the end of the day, the product or process you are developing is not necessarily yours, but that it is the end-user’s, can go far in keeping HCD at the heart of what you’re building.

In addition to the excellent lessons from Brendan, another panel providing nuggets of HCD wisdom at LSC ITC was “Content: Are You Making Something Useful?” with Ericka Rickard of Pew Charitable Trusts, Hallie Jay Pope of the Graphic Advocacy Project, J. Singleton of MN Legal Services State Support, and Nicole Bradick of Theory and Principle. 

Whether you are designing an application, a website, or self help material, this panel reiterated that keeping your audience in mind and at the heart of why and what you are doing is key. Nicole started off the discussion by noting that “Information is best absorbed when both content and design communicate info together.” Just having great content is not the key to truly reaching your audience – you have to make the content mold with a design suited to get your users to actually engage with the content you are developing. 

Along with making content and design communicate together, J. Singleton hammered home the importance of developing an inclusive, plain language approach to ensure that the broadest spectrum of your potential clients can fully engage with your content. J. reminded us that when users are interacting with your content, and especially in the legal professional and legal aid, it’s important to keep in mind that (1) English may not be your users’ first language, (2) that users may be engaging with your content during stressful situations, (3) that users have different abilities and ableness, (4) that users may be new to your system (and the legal system), and (5) that there are other barriers you may not initially perceive.

Here are some of the other lessons pulled from their presentation:

  • Words and Visuals > Just Words or Just Visuals
  • Why are visuals important? 
    • (1) Law is complicated (But it doesn’t have to be!)
    • (2) Law is personal
  • How can you use visuals in your work?
    • User participation + feedback
    • Common visual patterns
    • Basic design principles
  • Content Assessment
    • Can people find it?
    • Is it used?
    • Is it acted upon?
    • Is it useful?
    • Is it having intended impact?

In her segment of the presentation, Halie Jay Pope brought it back to the most important consideration of why HCD matters in designing A2J products and processes: “There are real costs, human costs, to the way the law operates.” When there are human costs to the way the law operates, the way we develop systems to alleviate those costs must have humans at their center. 

Real Talk, Regulatory Change, and Baby Yoda

Of the more lively of panels throughout LSC ITC, the A2J Startups Panel: #RealTalk from the Founders of New Startups Working to Improve Access to Justice, facilitated by Nick Rishwain of Experts.com, covered a wide array of topics familiar for many in the startup and consulting space. The panelists, Dorna Moini of Documate, Ericka Garcia of Collaborative Justice Partners, Joseph Schieffer of A2J Tech Store, and Kevin Gillespie of Text A Lawyer, really did provide the #RealTalk anticipated, ranging from how we can more effectively push forward access to justice initiatives to regulatory issues plaguing the legal profession. 

At the close of the panel, Nick asked everyone to provide their final thoughts, and Ericka reiterated a point she made earlier that, “We’re in this together.” This rang loudly with the common theme of LSC ITC, in the sense that it takes a village to provide pro bono legal services to those in need. It takes everyone, technologists, process improvement specialists, pro bono attorneys and legal professionals, those advocating for increased funding, and forward-thinking legislators to make providing pro bono legal services possible. But the good news is that there is an amazing wealth of resources out there and that the community of access to justice advocates is larger and more diverse that we often think (all the more reason for Jim Sandman’s global clearinghouse).

Earlier in the panel one of the topics that sparked some interesting discussions was the need for regulatory change in the legal profession to truly tackle the persistent and widening access to justice gap. “The supply and demand curve is being artificially set by the bar associations,” said Kevin. Specifically, he noted that the prohibitions on non-lawyer interest in law firms, fee-sharing prohibitions, and the harsh stances many states have taken on whether certain services constitute the practice of law have greatly inhibited the innovation needed in the legal system to meet unmet legal services needs. 

By artificially protecting the legal profession with what Kevin later noted online as “unethical/protectionist” Rules of Professional Conduct, he said that the “supply-demand curve is [being] held out of equilibrium.” The often peddled myth behind the guise of protecting the public, is that lawyer independence will be in shambles if non-lawyers are allowed to have an ownership stake in law firms. Any real evaluation of this proposition cuts squarely through the fallacy that non-lawyer interest is any worse than lawyer interest. For example, what’s to say that the independence of young attorneys can’t be jeopardized by partners at their law firm, who demand they need to bill another 200 hours for the month or risk their end of year bonus. 

In addition to wading through the thorny issues of regulatory reform, the panel also touched upon what it takes to make it as a founder of a startup. Nick aptly noted that, “When you’re in the phase of a new startup, everyone wears all of the hats.” All of the founders on the panel noted that this is a critical aspect of running a startup, because when you’re just starting out and a user has a problem, you are the customer support. And when it comes to getting paid, you are the billing department (and the collections department).

Beyond the vagaries of running a business and the stamina that requires, the founders also noted the importance of knowing when and how to pivot. Dorna shared that when she started Doumate, she initially was seeking to create “Turbo Tax for domestic violence law,” but that there eventually came a point when she and realized they needed to pivot. Rather than developing a single product focused squarely on domestic violence law, Documate had the potential to take on document automation and develop powerful workflows to push data into templates and forms for an incredibly broad range of use cases and areas of law. 

Knowing when to pivot is important for a vast array of reasons, and for legal tech startups in the access to justice space it can mean the difference between closing your doors or expanding to greener pastures. 

Tom Martin of LawDroid at LSC Conference 2020

And finally, no technology conference in 2020 can be fully complete without Baby Yoda appearing somewhere in the mix. Luckily for the LSC ITC crowd, Tom Martin of LawDroid, did not disappoint in the least during his Rapid Fire Tech Talk. In his thought provoking talk on reimagining the way we deliver legal services to those in need, entitled “What if Governments Provided Legal Advice via Alexa?” not only did Tom throw in a reference to Baby Yoda, but he also managed to slip in Darth Vader and Samuel Jackson. At a time when the access to justice chasm is at one of its widest stretches in modern history, remembering to have hope and keep some levity along the way in the battle between light and darkness can help keep our eyes on the prize and stay sane in the process. 

Final Thoughts

To reiterate Jim Sandman, “it is an outrage,” that countless Americans don’t get the legal services assistance they need, and that countless more don’t even know that the problems they face are legal problems with available solutions. 

What gives us hope from our first LSC ITC experience is that in addition to the hundreds of passionate legal aid leaders, technology experts, law librarians, data scientists, and frontline attorneys who engaged with one another at this conference, there are still thousands of others working in the trenches day in and day out. 

There are technology innovations already changing the way we improve access to legal services; there are structural changes revamping archaic processes and policies in the legal system; there are individuals and organizations bridging the access to justice chasm in their communities; and there is still much work to be done.