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Vol. 39, No. 1

What role can technology play in access to justice—and should bar foundations help?

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Can technology be an important tool in helping to improve access to justice? Yes—but some of its innovations will likely make some lawyers very uncomfortable.

That was one key message from Robert Ambrogi, president of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and founder of Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites, when he spoke to members of the National Conference of Bar Foundations at its Annual Meeting in Boston.

The idea of using technology in legal services is nothing new; since 1996, Ambrogi noted, The Legal Services Corp. has awarded Technology Initiative Grants to organizations that are doing just that. But now there are some new developments—and increased urgency—that Ambrogi thinks bar foundations, bar associations, and other stakeholders should be aware of.

The power of portals

One tool that the LSC has been backing, Ambrogi said, is statewide, online legal services “portals” that ask a series of questions to help determine what the user’s legal needs are and where best to get help. A portal, such as the ones currently being used by Illinois Legal Aid and MassLegal Services, provides much-needed “triage” so that the client comes to the right legal services provider the first time.

“It saves staff time enormously if they don’t have to deal with the wrong people coming through the door,” Ambrogi noted, adding that Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine received a TIG grant to develop a portal that will serve all of New England.

Another tool that Ambrogi said can be used for client intake is A2J Author, which was developed by CALI. One of its primary uses is to help legal aid attorneys guide unrepresented litigants through a series of questions that will result in a legal form that meets their needs. But it need not be used for document assembly, Ambrogi said; a legal services provider could also use A2J Author during the intake process but not have it produce legal forms.

Understanding how clients use technology

Ambrogi cited data from a 2014 Pew study on cell phone use that might apply to many legal services and pro bono clients. Among those with less than $30,000 in household income, he said, 84 percent have a cell phone, and 47 percent have a smartphone.

“Smartphones are a critical way to access online information for low-income people,” Ambrogi said—which means that the website for a legal aid provider or anyone else trying to help low-income clients must be “mobile-friendly” and work on all different types of devices.

There are even legal services apps, such as iProBono, which was developed for Arkansas Access to Justice to help lawyers find pro bono cases that are of interest to them. Illinois Legal Aid also has an app, Ambrogi said, which is meant as a “field guide” for consumers and offers step-by-step instructions, FAQs, and referrals to organizations that can help.

Ambrogi also mentioned Pocket DACA, an app that helps immigrants who arrived in the United States as children learn whether they qualify for a special status that entitles them to a Social Security number, the ability to get a driver’s license, and a work permit. Pocket DACA is offered by the Immigration Advocates Network and Pro Bono Net.

There are also tools that are designed to function on any kind of phone, whether “smart” or not. One example is Clara Que Si! This “telephone talk show” was developed by an arts advocacy group called REV- in partnership with Northeastern University School of Law’s NuLawLab (which focuses on innovation in legal services), the MIT Center for Civic Media, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and similar organizations. Accessible via any phone or by text, the talk show offers a weekly tip, often delivered with humor by “Clara,” to inform nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers about their legal rights.

Questions for bar foundations, and for lawyers

The big question for bar foundations, Ambrogi said, is whether they should give grants to projects like this, encourage their grantees to develop them, or support them by some other means, given that funds are scant and might better be used for direct client service.

His own bar foundation has seen its total grantmaking drop from $8 million a few years ago to $1.7 million today, Ambrogi noted, which makes it hard to consider funding projects like this—however much he would like to see them take off.

Among bar foundations that are focusing on technology, Ambrogi mentioned the Florida Bar Foundation, which created a Technology Advisory Council, and the Chicago Bar Foundation, which provided seed money to Illinois Legal Aid for its technological innovation.

As another example of ways bar organizations can support technological advances to aid access to justice, Ambrogi mentioned a "hackathon" called Hackcess to Justice. This joint event from ABA Journal  and Suffolk University Law School took place in August, in conjunction with the ABA Annual Meeting, and brought legal professionals and tech-minded people together for an extended problem-solving session.

One attendee raised other questions: First, how are portals and the other tools Ambrogi mentioned any different from LegalZoom and other operations that lawyers tend to view less than favorably? Ambrogi, who noted that LegalZoom now wants to evolve past what it currently offers and have legal technicians who can help clients fill out forms, said that one key difference is that LegalZoom is profit-driven, whereas the providers of the tools he discussed are not.

Second, the attendee asked whether, by asking intake questions and directing people to legal information, portals and other such tools begin to verge on the practice of law. Ambrogi’s answer might be a little surprising, given that he is generally positive toward these technologies: It was a decisive “Absolutely.”

Given the huge gap in access to justice and the large number of legal needs going unmet, he explained, “protectionism” should no longer be the instinctive response by lawyers and bar organizations when they hear about tools like this.

“If we leave it all for lawyers,” Ambrogi said, “it’s not all going to get done.”