UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Claudia Johnson of Pro Bono Net
Claudia Johnson is an inspiring example of how taking calculated risks and setting audacious goals can lead to a fulfilling life and an impactful career. When she eventually landed in the United States after living in several different countries, Claudia committed her career to serving the neediest legal consumers, working hard to devise tech solutions that scale lawyers’ services and allow them to reach exponentially more people than one-to-one legal services ever could.
We loved talking with Claudia about her dynamic career, inspiring backstory, and big dreams for the changes she hopes to make in the legal industry. We hope you enjoy our interview as much as we did!
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Claudia Johnson: I have lived a wonderful, non-linear life. In total, I’ve lived in 5 countries and 17 cities. Right now, I live in Columbia, Maryland, and Eastern Washington. I grew up in El Salvador, and when the civil war drowned our country, my family moved out. We moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In El Salvador, I grew up speaking German, Spanish, and English in that order—I benefited from a German school education, which taught me discipline and independent thinking. When I got to Puerto Rico, I was enrolled in a Catholic school, and that was quite a change. That, added with the fact that we went from well-to-do with social status and privilege to poor, and then immigrants on top of that, made that transition hard and painful, but it was really good to see the world from a different vantage point.
We were discriminated against for our accent, hair, and features, and for being “extranjeros” (foreigners) and poor. That was hard. But without all those experiences of going from privilege and social standing to nothing and being the butt of jokes, I would not be who I am today. I am thankful for the risks and opportunities my parents took to keep us together and safe, and for the opportunities and new perspectives we encountered and learned from.
In Puerto Rico, we were able to go out at night, to read any book, and there was even political comedy on TV. In El Salvador, there was no 1st Amendment and we were under martial law. The awareness and realization that free speech and freedom of thought and association existed in the US, and was protected by law, was sweet and beautiful. I was so thankful to experience that for the first time in my life. No fear, no fear of thinking, reading, or speaking. It was worth losing everything to gain that kind of freedom.
From high school, I went to UC Berkeley to study nuclear engineering. When I got to Berkeley, I felt I had found my place. I loved the intellectual curiosity and drive of my peers, the diversity, the ability to have access to all kinds of books and journals, the library, etc. Being the only Latina to enroll as a freshman in nuclear engineering was hard for the department. They felt awkward around me—to them I was a novelty. I felt a distance and a lot of stares when I was in the College of Engineering. I had no idea what was going on and did not pay much attention to that. In my second year, I decided to transfer to another department so I could pursue a more self-directed area of study. I switched to Ethnic Studies/Chicano Studies, and focused on health care systems.
I ended up winning an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and I had the pleasure of spending two summers at policy schools, one at Carnegie and the other one at Harvard. I went on to get an MPP/MPH from UC Berkeley Goldman and the School of Public Health.
I then worked with the US Senate doing policy analysis on Medicare payment policy. That was a great experience for me and I learned how policy is made from the ground up. I saw my work published in the Federal Register. I also learned to work with huge databases and do analysis that continues to be policy in action.
While doing policy analysis, I decided to go to law school. I wanted to know the outcomes of my work faster and more directly. With policy, there is a 3-10 year period before you really find out if something worked or not. In law, you know right away, and your relationship with your clients is direct and they can give you input right away. So I went to the best law school I got into, Penn Law in Philadelphia.
I loved Penn and Philly. I felt right at home and felt so lucky to commit myself full time to the study of American Law. It was the first time in my life I did not work while in school—I had put myself through all my prior education, including washing dishes when my English was blossoming in my first year of college. After working almost full time through graduate school, being able to be 100% focused on studying at Penn was an incredible privilege and I resolved to make the most of it. Penn did not disappoint—and I had the chance to surround myself with hard working and extremely bright minds. I loved learning the law this way.
Eventually I decided to apply for competitive postgraduate school fellowships, and I joined the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, Class of 97. I worked on Medicaid’s implementation of HMOs in Pennsylvania and learned a lot at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project. When my fellowship ended in 1999, I went to Community Legal Services to work on public benefits, and I was lucky to work with Cathy Carr in creating the LAL Language Access Project, which became a model project for the country. We worked on using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as an advocacy tool. In 1999, I was able to see the City of Philadelphia require that all agencies track the needs of Limited English Proficient communities and services provided. By 1999, we had already formed the National Language Advocacy Network to advocate for accommodations under Title VI of the Civil Rights act of 1964. NLAAN is a network of lawyer working together to end national origin discrimination and is still active and making huge strides.
My husband by then had moved from the University of Chicago back to the San Francisco Bay Area to work the dot com period with HealthCentral.com. So being far away (Philadelphia/Emeryville) — along with the long hours on both ends—made it hard to be long distance, so I moved to the Bay Area, where we had met and lived 6 years before. It was going back home.
I joined the Bar Association of San Francisco, and worked with their Volunteer Legal Services Program, training and recruiting pro bono family law, eviction, and consumer lawyers. My focus was on evictions and preserving affordable housing units. In that process, with San Mateo Legal Aid and the Homeless Advocacy Project we started the “Lawyer of the Day” project. We brought pro bono lawyers to help do the settlement conferences.
At first, the lawyer bar was not happy, but we did provide pro bono landlord counsel also, and over time the outcomes of the representation were positive. The project lasted almost 20 years and was replicated in other states. It only ended because San Francisco created civil guideon for evictions in the early 2000s, basically expanding the project to the full city, not just those who qualified for pro bono services.
After VLSP, the opportunity came to work with Ramon Arias at Bay Area Legal Aid to centralize the intake and case acceptance guidelines for Bay Area. In effect, it required taking 7 different organization practices and merging them into one. A full description of that project for its 20 year anniversary can be found here.
When my husband joined Bridgewater Associates in Connecticut, we moved back to the East Coast, now to Westport, Connecticut. I joined Pro Bono Net to work on beginning an online form project. I was a circuit rider and focused on partnerships with courts and legal aid to use forms. It was 2008, the country was in a major recession, and the self-represented population in courts was finally being acknowledged. I was able to promote and have LHI forms adopted and used as a solution for SRLs in 25 states by 2010.
In 2008, when I started, people did not trust forms or technology as a tool that those without lawyers could use. By 2014, we had 40 states using online forms through LHI. Online forms became a go-to tool to end and close the Justice Gap.
Part of doing online forms requires making the last mile to court filing easy. In 2012, we did the first XML to XML efiling project in Minnesota—a project solely focused on SRLs. This had never been done before. Out of that project, we wrote this guide that still brings a lot of value to those planning or starting on efiling for those without lawyers, a majority in dockets of limited jurisdiction. We continue to do efiling with partner courts, always focusing on the needs of the person without a lawyer, to lower the barriers to justice.
UC: What is Pro Bono Net? What is its mission?
CJ: Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit founded in 1999, based in New York, with offices in San Francisco, that looks to increase access to justice. Through innovative technology solutions and expertise, it builds and mobilizes social justice networks. It has multiple product lines, and LawHelp Interactive is one of them. The company has been and was one of the first groups that brought the power of the internet when it was starting to pro bono services and civil legal aid.
LawHelp Interactive is a platform and a training and best practice engine. In LHI we bring together a HotDocs document assembly software owned by AbacusNext, as well as A2J Author 6 owned by CALI at Chicago Kent. We maintain a robust, secure technical platform that has over 1 Million visitors per year and creates more than 700,000 free legal documents a year.
UC: What are some of your top pieces of advice for future lawyers heading into law school and practicing lawyers who want to get involved in helping close the access to justice gap?
CJ: 1. Be curious. Read a lot—and read in areas where you don’t necessarily have exposure, like outside of law, outside of your community/history/background. Ask questions. Be engaged.
2. Be humble. Even though law is an excellent education and gives you great analytical tools, be humble. In your teams you will have people with backgrounds in other fields. Learn from them. Don’t assume you know everything. Listen. Be kind to your co-workers. Include others and give them credit. Often, the work of women and people of color is not recognized, or is minimized—don’t be that person. Be inclusive. Be an ally. Lift up.
If you look at my path, I pursued what interested me and I feel very happy about my career and the impact I have had in the past 25 years. And I am excited about what else we can do to make our great country better. Being open to change and opportunity is hard for those of us who want to plan out a career. Be ok if plans change. In that change there will be a great opportunity.
UC: What role does automation play in improving access to justice? How can document automation in particular make interacting with the courts much easier for consumers and pro se litigants?
CJ: We will never be able to serve everyone who needs legal help one-on-one, not now, and not while civil litigation is on the rise, with consumer, eviction, and family law cases on the rise.
We will not meet the need to have one lawyer for one client in the US—not at current funding levels and not with the current federal restrictions to civil legal aid. No amount of pro bono hours can meet that need, either. Pro bono hours help, but the need for 47 million low income people facing 5 or more legal problems a year needs more than volunteers and funding.
In my heart, I believe technology is the one tool that can help us start bringing scalable solutions to a big problem of national importance. With technology we leverage expertise and move to enterprise legal services. I am inspired by the work of Richard Granat who has been a pioneer. But technology alone is also not enough. You need practitioners who have handled the cases and know the communities that are not empowered in the legal system. They need to be part of the teams creating the tools. You can’t build tech tools without experience, compassion, and kindness.
Online forms can handle a lot of complexity—and they don’t replace the judgement of a lawyer. So they are great tools to help a lot of people in need, efficiently and effectively. Instead of having a 1:1 lawyer to client relationship, you can scale up. And you can have new skills in your team, so you can support enterprise models like 2 lawyers, 3 paralegals and 1400 people helped, with 200 represented in contested cases. In our system, some forms are used over 100,000 per year. That is an outstanding investment. A non tech supported project would never do that.
Instead of spending 4 hours doing a complex pleading for divorce, you can have your clerk or paralegal spend 30-45 minutes, and then you can review in 10—because everything is standard.
And hundreds of thousands of people can use your forms, 24/7, on weekends, and be empowered to be part of the solution to their legal problem.
As a person alone with a legal problem, you can create your own document, letter, or pleading and you know it is complete. It is typed, you don’t have to worry about missing a section, and you can spend more time getting ready for court, getting organized, and getting support as you move through the case. For the courts—they can issue better orders, with more complete and legible forms, and the litigant can be more present because the form contains guidance and support.
Forms let you serve 10,000 people or more with one form that can handle multiple factual scenarios. In this access to justice crisis, the best things to do are:
1) simplify the process
2) put it in plain language and then put a form on- it
3) work in partnership with courts, advocates, and nonprofits that work with those areas of need (housing, child support, credit collection, benefits, etc.)
That is the LawHelp Interactive model: free online forms for end-users, always centered in partnership and the belief that a person has the right to clearly present their petition and raise their concerns directly to a decision making forum.
UC: Why are technology integrations important for legal aid organizations? How can they streamline providing legal services and help break down traditional data silos?
CJ: More and more, you can’t practice legal nonprofit civil law, in fact any type of law, without understanding technology and using technology. If you are a person coming into law to not have to understand technology, you need to reconsider your profession. Tech and law go together hand-in-hand. We can’t put the genie back into the bottle. So now, we have to understand tech, maximize it, and use it in the best interest of our clients and to fulfill our missions.
From case management, to training your interns and new hires, to work process, technology is now embedded or should be in your practice. With 1.7 lawyers per 10,000 people in need, if your mission is to serve those in need, technology is a must. Otherwise, to not use it to make your services scalable and high quality, it is unethical and inefficient.
The new “Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid” by the ABA SCLAID elevate technology and empower legal aid boards, executive directors, and staff to become friends with technology, to do their due diligence, to protect their client’s data and privacy, and to use it to be more efficient and effective. I was honored to be part of the tech drafting group. I think they are a big step forward and offer timely guidance as we grapple with the move to tech.
One caveat, because unfortunately I see a lot of courts and nonprofits using tools that rely on machine translation to in theory close language gaps, using machine translation alone is not the answer. If you are going to use machine translation to close the language gap with your clients and communities, please use a professional translator to review the end product. It will save your trust with the community and your brand. If you are going to care about accurate meaningful communication, do it right. Otherwise you are putting your brand and credibility at risk.
UC: Who (and what) are some of your favorite resources for learning more about what’s happening in the access to justice space?
CJ: I value so many people, and I follow
@winkiepp n and her podcast Reimagine Justice
@ATJTechFellows (I sit on their Board of Advisors)
@eLizk (we have worked together for years)
@laloalcaraz for some great Chicano cartoons and humor
And so many more. I tweet under @C2AJ as a personal project on things that interest me.
And so many others. I also read the Management Innovation Exchange Work and Journal. I serve as a reviewer for the National Center for State Courts Future Trends in State Courts, so I read the journal when published once a year. And I follow the Access to Justice Fellowship and the fellows and alumni as I sit on their Board of Advisors. I really believe in the idea of diversifying the pool of lawyers and law graduates using and developing technology for civil services.
I also read and follow all the blogs and interviews that the Future of the Profession Initiative shares and posts. I am honored to be one of six Penn alums serving in an advisory capacity.
In terms of researchers, I am a fan of the work that Victor David Quintanilla is doing from the Maurer School of Law on issues around SRL bias and documenting how judges perceive litigants without lawyers by gender and some of his other work.
There is no shortage of really talented and experienced people doing amazing work.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
CJ: “Tiempo perdido hasta los angeles lo lloran”—even angels cry over lost time. To me this is a reminder to be intentional about everything I do. Life is short, so make it real, now, fun, and do what makes it meaningful to you.
“The only constant in life is change”—Heraclitus. Change is scary for everyone. But in change there is great opportunity to learn—and everything is changing—no matter how we try to frame things as constant and linear. So embrace change, learn, grow, and adapt. Once you learn how to slow down to observe change and then speed up to embrace it, it can be so amazing where that takes you. Learning how to use time to your advantage in times of change is a very fun thing to master.
UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?
CJ: In the realm of online forms in the nonprofit sector here at LawHelp Interactive—we continue to work on efiling integrations—and we are about to go live with e-filing eviction answers in Southern California. In addition, we continue to e-file domestic violence petitions in New York, partnering with nonprofits across the state, and that project keeps growing. We now have partnerships with 5 state courts and that is something we hope we can continue to expand. We are now supporting Medical Legal Partnerships groups using LHI, and that is an area I am very interested in, since I have a public health masters, and really believe in the relationship between unmet legal needs and determinants for health and interdisciplinary approaches to meeting both types of needs.
The online forms our partners create in rural deserts continue to be a lifeline. In addition, we are working on sustainability and finding new ways to provide free forms to all who need them. Our LHI network is vast and robust and all of our partners are amazingly creative, resilient, and the forms are part of their long term strategies in delivering legal services as well as leveling the playing field for those that do not have attorneys.
This year has been busy and foundational for those of us who do tech and access to justice work. I was honored to be part of the drafting group for the ABA SCLAID Standards for Civil Legal Aid for the tech updates—not updated since 2006! That was an incredible opportunity to bring the Standards to date and update so that they reflect how technology is part of every aspect of civil legal aid nonprofits, from training, to Board support, to fundraising, to services, understanding needs, etc. These Standards will last hopefully from 5 to 10 years—and they hopefully will encourage legal civil legal aid providers to get “jiggy” with tech.
I am also getting ready to teach again at Penn Law in the Spring of 2022. The class is “Technology and Access to Justice” but with an intersectional lens. I am lucky to co-teach with Miguel Willis from the ATJ Tech Fellows. We are reviewing the course now, which we taught Spring 2021, to make it better. This course is unique in many aspects. It is taught by two people of color, so it brings in other perspectives and from two different generational perspectives. When I graduated 25 years ago, I did not have any insight into legal tech. It did not exist. Then we created this movement with hotlines in the early 2000s and document assembly in the late 2000s with support from LSC and many other national and regional leaders, so sharing the lived history on how this field was created, where we started and how we need to move forwards is something that anchors the class. My co-instructor came into law at a different time, and has been involved in bringing legal tech skills to law students since his second year of law school—so we cover a wide perspective and that makes our class fun.
Being able to teach future law graduates from a top 5 law school how to think through law and tech and leverage it to increase access, avoid systemic biases, and recognize how to remove data and other biases that creep in through groupthink and lack of representation in design, risk evaluation and all aspects of tech creation and use, is an amazing opportunity for us and the students that join us.
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
CJ: TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpgEceNtYlA
Blog Law and Technology:
Blog: Connecting Justice Communities—blog posts about LawHelp Interactive
There are multiple posts here, including highlights of the NY DV efiling project, and highlights of our Partnership with DC Courts and more.
Blogs in Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog: example: https://accesstojustice.net/2011/12/30/claudia-johnson-blogs-on-legal-services-policy-research-and-the-elephant-in-the-room/
Leveraging Technology to Provide Legal Services at Scale
As Claudia points out, it is worth losing almost everything in order to gain the unprecedented freedom our country promises. By working hard to leverage tech to serve the neediest in our society, Claudia – and other legal tech pioneers – are securing that promise for more and more of those in need of legal services every day. We loved speaking with Claudia and look forward to following her career for years to come.