Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 2.10 on Effective Use of Technology

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A provider should utilize technology to support efficient operations and the provision of high quality and responsive services.


General considerations

A legal aid provider should utilize technology to operate efficiently and to respond to the legal needs of the low income communities it serves. The rapid and ongoing changes brought about by technology have a dramatic impact on how low income persons interact with their environment and with the legal system. At the same time, technology continues to transform legal aid practice and a provider's operations as well as the options available for providing services to the low income community. How low income persons are served by legal aid providers, how providers operate, how legal work is produced and managed and how staff are trained and provided essential support have all undergone significant transformation in response to technological advances.

Technology also plays an increasingly central role in how the legal system operates as more courts and administrative agencies rely on computer and web-based methods of operating. Increasing numbers of courts are moving to mandatory electronic filing and administrative agencies, including those who deal with low income persons, require on-line applications for services.

The tools for effective practice and for responding to the legal needs of low income communities thus are grounded more and more in modern technology. Each provider has a responsibility to plan effectively how it will use technology in providing assistance to low income persons in its service area and in supporting its internal operations, including the production and management of legal work and the training and support of its staff.

Technology planning

A provider should examine all aspects of its operation for opportunities to increase the quality and range of its service through technology. There are many ways in which technology can be used by a provider and new methods will evolve over time as technology continues to advance. There are a number of broad areas regarding which the provider should plan.

The production and management of legal work. Technology plays an increasingly important role in relation to the production and management of legal work. The provider should be aware of emerging uses of technology directly in the conduct of representation. There are also a number of applications that support efficiency and effectiveness, including case management software, document assembly capabilities and tools for legal and factual research. The provider should also be aware of the opportunities for using technology to collaborate with others including outside practitioners, other legal aid providers and non-legal organizations that serve clients.

Training and support of staff. The provider should consider ways in which technology can facilitate training of staff members in advocacy skills and substantive law and keeping them up to date on developments in the law and emerging strategies. Technology can be used to provide training materials such as manuals, background memos and sample pleadings to pro bono attorneys. The provider should consider uses of technology to link with networks of advocates and with national support and advocacy organizations to support the legal work of its practitioners.

Internal operations. The provider should also address opportunities that technology may provide to increase the efficiency of its internal operation, including software for accounting, human resources and personnel management and other such tools that may evolve. The provider should consider use of technology to enhance its internal communications through e-mail, e-mail lists, intranets, video conferencing and other similar technologies as they evolve. It should be aware of ways that technology can support its resource development and marketing efforts.

Provider policies. The provider should be attentive to the development and implementation of policies regarding the use of technology by staff and others, including issues such as use of e-mail, personal access to the web and downloading of software programs. The provider should have clear policies with regard to back-up and disaster recovery plans as well as security policies and procedures for protecting client and case data.

Expanding the range of services to clients and others in the community. Each provider should stay informed of new developments and analyze the degree to which new strategies for serving low income communities may be possible as a result of technological innovations. A provider should cultivate a commitment to innovation and should take advantage of technology that can increase the scope of services it offers to its constituents. The provider should be aware, for instance, of technologically based techniques to provide general legal information to low income persons, to support limited representation of clients and to assist pro se litigants. Technology may also support remote intake and remote representation of clients, particularly for persons with whom face to face interaction is impractical. Technology planning should include an assessment of the effectiveness of the provider’s current technology and of new technological advances that would enhance its operation and delivery of services.

Expertise to meet technology needs. The provider should assess whether its information technology needs can best be met by using staff or by outsourcing the responsibility to others. The provider should also consider areas appropriate for upgrading its technological capability to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its delivery strategies.

To make informed choices about innovative uses of technology and to embrace those changes that will in fact help it serve its clients more effectively, a provider needs access to expertise that can help it. Not every provider has the resources to hire or contract for the technological expertise needed for it to plan creatively. For many providers, therefore, it is particularly important to participate in regional and statewide technology task forces and formal statewide and regional technology planning efforts in order to stay abreast of rapidly changing developments. A provider may be able to hold down costs by collaborating with others to plan and pay for the development and implementation of technology, such as case management software.

Responsibilities of the provider regarding its utilization of technology

Responsibilities to members of the low income community. A provider should be aware of the degree to which members of the low income communities it serves have access to the technology they will need to take advantage of technologically based service strategies. While it appears that access to and use of computers is on the rise among many low income communities, there are still many low income persons who have limited or no access to the internet. Others may have access to computers but will lack training or the interest in using technology. To the degree practical, a provider should support strategies that increase access of low income persons to technology and should cooperate with other organizations that seek to increase technology’s availability and usability.

The provider should also be careful not to utilize technology in ways that limits or deters access to its services by persons in need of assistance. It should provide alternative means for access to assistance for persons who are resistant to the use of computers and other forms of modern technology.

A provider that obtains information on a website from users of the site needs to publish and abide by a privacy policy regarding how it will treat information it obtains from persons who use its systems. It must also be careful to protect from disclosure any confidential data obtained from applicants, clients and other users of its services. It should have security measures in place to protect all its electronic data from unauthorized intrusion. It should also address the special risks associated with interactions over the internet. Sensitive and personal data should be appropriately encrypted. The provider should have a policy regarding retention and deletion of data.

The provider should determine whether information that is provided by persons who use a kiosk or web-based system to obtain legal information is confidential under the ethical rules in its jurisdiction. Personal information given by a client or an applicant for service is confidential under pertinent ethical rules. However, persons who provide personal information in the course of obtaining legal information from the provider through the web or a kiosk, and who had no expectation or intention of becoming a client of the provider may not be subject to the same protections. The provider should protect the information from disclosure, but may not be able to resist a subpoena or other official request for disclosure. It should, therefore, have a policy regarding whether it will retain the personal information, and should avoid doing so in a form identifiable to the individual, unless necessary. If it does keep information that would not be deemed to be confidential under the ethical rules in its jurisdiction, it should notify the individual to whom the information pertains.

Budgeting adequate resources for technology. A provider should budget to meet its technology needs as part of the annual budgeting process. Funds should also be allocated for planned major expenditures to implement significant new technology initiatives. The budget should provide for purchase, maintenance and support of technologies used in the delivery of services to low income persons. It should provide adequate funds for internal technology needs, including: 1) regular upgrade and replacement of equipment and software, 2) personnel necessary to maintain networks and equipment, and 3) training and support of staff in the use of technology. Technology investments should be planned on a multi-year basis and should include reserve funds to allow for flexibility in taking advantage of new developments.

Using Technology to serve low income persons. A provider should be alert to the ways that emerging technologies can be used to serve low income persons directly, either by supporting their access to representation or by directly providing legal information and other needed assistance. The provider should budget not only for the equipment and software to support such efforts, but also for the non-technical expenses, such as personnel necessary for the development and updating of content.

It is also important that a provider work with others in regional and statewide systems to explore ways that technology may be used collaboratively to strengthen the overall system. A provider should also work with courts and administrative agencies to make certain that their technological requirements, such as mandated electronic filing, function in ways that facilitate access for low income persons.

Regular upgrade and replacement of equipment and software. One result of the rapid changes in the design and capability of technology is that both hardware and software suffer from speedy obsolescence that can only be addressed by regularly updating equipment and software. Budgeting should provide for upgrading equipment on a rotating basis so that all equipment is replaced approximately every three years, or as needed. An upgrade schedule for software might be shorter, depending on the product's development cycle. The actual roll-out schedule should be determined based on the number of persons affected and the likely impact of the upgrade. For example, it might be ill-advised to implement new software applications that have system-wide impact on a rotating basis. Failure to upgrade equipment and operating systems can result in a computer system that is unable to operate newly developed software that might be instrumental in helping the provider to serve its clients more effectively.

Personnel necessary to maintain networks and equipment and manage databases and other complex software. The persons who are responsible for the provider's technology need to be well qualified for their role. The provider's leadership needs to understand the business requirements of the organization and the related technical applications so that it can effectively hire and manage appropriate technology staff.

There are multiple responsibilities that technology personnel need to address, including: 1) management of the servers and network infrastructure; 2) management of desktops and related hardware and software; 3) support and training of users of the technology; 4) management of organizational databases and system-wide applications; and 5) management of technologies that are used to assist low income persons. The provider should consider whether it would be cost-effective to outsource the development, hosting, maintenance or support of some or all of these technological needs.

The staff or contractors who are responsible need to have knowledge and skills necessary to keep networks functioning and available to staff who rely on them. Equipment and networks that fail frequently can paralyze a provider's capacity to operate effectively as a law office and unnecessarily undermine confidence in the technology that is in place.

Technology personnel also need to be capable of managing the provider’s databases as well as accounting and other software, so that staff can make maximum use of the provider's knowledge base and so that critical data is not lost. Staff who are appropriately skilled and knowledgeable about the provider's software applications should be available to provide support to staff members who struggle with use of the applications.

Training and support of staff in the use of technology. As technology becomes more integral to the functioning of a provider and to the production and management of legal work, it becomes increasingly important that the provider plan and budget for training and support of staff who will use the technology. Many systems call for all necessary staff to participate in their use for them to be successful. A computerized system for checking for conflicts of interest, for instance, will not work unless the data necessary for the conflict check is uniformly entered into the system. A supervisory system in a multi-office provider that relies on case notes being entered in the case management system will not function unless there is widespread participation in entering the data.

Because some persons find it easier to adapt to technological changes than others, it is important that the provider budget adequate funds to train staff to use the technology effectively and to support those who have difficulty adapting to it.