February 17, 2016 Dialogue

An IOLTA New Year’s Resolution: Increase Technology Support

By Christine M. Fecko

According to a 2014 survey, many IOLTA leaders believe that better technology would improve the civil legal aid system in their states and agree that improving technology is their top priority. At the same time, however, few IOLTA programs reported that they earmark funding for technology, engage in statewide technology planning, or participate in national or regional conversations about technology and civil legal aid.[i] With the recent announcement of the rise in interest rates, it may be a good time for IOLTA programs to adopt a 2016 New Year’s resolution to align their actions with their intentions.

LSC Summit Report

Preliminarily, to understand how technology[ii] could transform the civil legal aid delivery system, funders should consider the December 2013 Report of the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice (the “Summit Report”) issued by the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”).[iii] The culmination of a two year effort by leaders drawn from legal services, the private bar, courts, libraries, IT development, and legal academics, the Summit Report proposes a national strategy to utilize technology “to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” Statewide web access portals for the public are the key feature of the Summit Report’s vision for achieving this goal.

Applying branching logic, these online access points would sort and direct all inquiries to the most appropriate legal resource, considering factors such as case complexity, litigant capacity, strength and representation of the opponent, the importance of the litigant’s stake in the case, and the availability of resources. It is envisioned that the design and development of the online system would be a collaborative effort by all access-to-justice partners in the state (including civil legal aid providers, the courts, the organized bar, law firms, law schools, libraries, pro bono legal services entities, and others), resulting in referrals to the appropriate partners.

Such centralized and integrated online access points for civil legal aid have the potential to offer significant benefits to clients, providers, and the civil legal aid system as a whole. Indeed, some of these benefits have been demonstrated already in the first generation of online triage and intake projects.[iv]

Client Convenience

Technology can expand the geographic and economic diversity of those served by the civil legal aid system. Online access systems reach people whose working hours conflict with their local civil legal aid provider’s office hours, as well as those who live in more remote parts of the provider’s catchment area. After implementing their online intake systems, for example, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, and Utah Legal Services found that a significantly higher percentage of rural clients originated from online than from traditional intake.

Philadelphia Legal Aid recently articulated a broader view of the increased client convenience that online systems offer:

"Our clients expect to be able to use computers and mobile devices to get things done. We need to adapt to them, not they to us. Every organization … needs to find ways to deliver good customer service within the budget allotted …

The primary task of intake is for the applicant to convey information to the legal services organization, and this is something that can be done to a great extent without the involvement of a live person. Even if applicants are disappointed at not being able to talk to a live person, they should be able to feel like they are getting somewhere … Going through an online intake interview … is a way of getting somewhere."[v]

Indeed, providers that surveyed their online users (e.g., Philadelphia Legal Aid, Utah Legal Services, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Northwest Justice Project), reported high degrees of satisfaction with the content and with the overall ease of use of the online systems.

Provider Efficiency

Increased internal efficiency, especially if it means that providers can do more with less, is one of the great hopes for online access systems. Fundamentally, online systems shift data entry responsibilities to the client applicant, which should allow providers to spend more of their time on legal tasks, as opposed to administrative tasks (a.k.a. “working at the top of their licenses”). This time savings has been measured in different ways. New Hampshire Legal Services reported a dramatic increase in the number of applicants processed and time spent by attorneys in providing legal services. Legal Aid of Western Ohio converted the time saved on intake, which it estimated at 1 to 1.5 FTE, to provide its brief services clients with more in-depth advocacy.

Other providers utilized online systems to divert low priority inquiries, such as those from criminal defendants or tort victims, away from high traffic civil legal aid hotlines. The Northwest Justice Project and Illinois Legal Aid Online used online systems to address the issue of ineligible applicants clogging hotlines and frustrating the ability of eligible applicants—especially those facing eviction or an imminent court appearance—from getting through on the telephone. Similarly, Philadelphia Legal Aid has found that its online system greatly facilitates outreach for small or time-sensitive projects and consumes less staff time than traditional outreach methods.

System Improvements

Well-coordinated and integrated online access points hold the promise of overall improvements to a state’s civil legal aid system. Examples of efficiencies include the time saved by clients, service providers, and courts in using self-help forms generated by online document assembly tools and accepted by court clerks.

Online systems could also allow the collection of greater and more consistent data about legal needs and outcomes, which could be regularly used to improve the triage and referral processes. Several LSC Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) awards in 2015 aim to do just that:

  • The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland will be developing a texting project to gather outcomes information from clients who receive brief services or attend community legal education seminars.

  • Illinois Legal Aid Online is integrating text messaging into its statewide system to expand client follow-up and survey capability.

  • New Mexico Legal Aid is improving the predictive powers of its multi-provider data sharing project.

In January 2015, the Michigan Legal Help Program, administered by the Michigan Poverty Law Program (MPLP), reported on a significant evaluation of website tools to assist self-represented litigants resolve divorce cases. After analyzing quantitative and qualitative data from over 2,900 representative divorce cases, MPLP was able to conclude that “self-represented individuals pursuing divorces in Michigan using the Michigan Legal Help website fare at least as well as attorney-represented litigants and litigants using other self-represented materials in obtaining judgments in a timely fashion.”[vi] In addition to verifying the effectiveness of online self-help legal tools, the report called for a “uniform system” of tracking self-represented litigants that would make subsequent improvements easier.

How IOLTA Programs Can Promote Improved Technology

Returning to the 2014 IOLTA survey, IOLTA leaders recognized that technology was being used to deliver civil legal aid through legal information websites, online triage and intake, and document assembly tools. However, few states reported any statewide technology priority-setting or planning. How can this change?

Follow Illinois’ and Florida’s Lead

IOLTA programs that want to improve their support for technology could look to Illinois, arguably the state that has integrated technology into its civil legal aid system to the greatest degree. From 1990 to 1998, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (which administers that state’s IOLTA program) invested between $500,000 and $1 million per year to computerize its civil legal aid providers and has been the lead investor in Illinois Legal Aid Online since its launch in 2000. Additionally, it has funded its grantees’ acquisition and transition to a uniform case management system, made incentive grants to encourage programs to make full use of automated document systems, and made special grants to automate statewide standardized forms for use by self-represented litigants.

In 2015, modeled on Illinois and with significant financial support from the state’s IOLTA program (administered by the Florida Bar Foundation), Florida announced the launch of a new statewide nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to justice through technology, to be headed by the former legal aid technology coordinator for the Washington State Bar Association and co-founder of LSC’s TIG program. The new Florida Justice Technology Center will work with providers, the courts, law schools, the organized bar, corporations, community partners, and others to develop technology products and services.

Adopt a More Modest Approach

IOLTA programs without the financial or organizational resources of Illinois or Florida can consider some of the more modest steps that programs in other states have taken toward improving technology integration in their civil legal aid systems. Here’s a sampling of other approaches taken by IOLTA programs:

  • The Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education holds quarterly technology meetings with its three grantees to facilitate planning and group purchasing. It also oversees all applications and any statewide TIG projects.

  • The Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation, working with its supreme court, is developing an Equal Access Center that would be responsible for maintaining a “hub website” to coordinate online resources, legal information, referrals, etc.

  • The Louisiana Bar Foundation/IOLTA program participates in a technology standards committee that includes providers and bar association leaders. It also funds the enforcement of standards that are issued from the committee.

  • The Michigan State Bar Foundation actively participates in a committee that includes providers and sets and publishes technology guidelines, protocols, and project priorities. It funds an online virtual training service for civil legal aid advocates. The IOLTA program also requires, as a condition of its grants, that grantees cooperate with statewide technology plans.

  • The Minnesota Interest on Lawyer Trust Account Program has funded a statewide online portal to screen and route applicants to the most appropriate civil legal aid provider and is leading an effort to secure pro bono business process improvement assistance to upgrade this system.

  • The Texas Access to Justice Foundation, with its access to justice commission, conducted a baseline survey of providers’ needs, identified minimum technology standards, awarded grants to allow the providers to attain those technology standards, and conditioned subsequent IOLTA funding on maintaining those technology standards.

In recent years, the New York State IOLA Fund has been unable to invest directly in technology improvements. Working with its access to justice commission, it has, however, picked the brains of generous colleagues in other states and shamelessly stolen many good ideas, including undertaking a technology needs survey of over 70 providers, holding a conference on technology and civil legal aid, encouraging providers to pilot online triage and intake with private funding, identifying pro bono business process consultants, and recruiting law firm IT professionals to conduct pro bono technology audits.

Conclusion

IOLTA programs can play critical leadership roles in upgrading and integrating technology into their statewide civil legal aid systems. Individual civil legal aid providers simply cannot be expected to set aside their own organizational needs to consider their statewide delivery systems, and statewide LSC grantees that could take on the task do not exist in every state. The IOLTA programs are uniquely situated to convene the public and private stakeholders who can collectively design individually-tailored plans to improve the technology integration in their individual states. With the Fed’s decision to increase interest rates in 2016, and with the expectation of more increases to follow, now is the time for IOLTA programs to strategize about how to make increased technology support a reality.


[i] In the 2014 survey of 46 IOLTA programs, most IOLTA leaders reported that they were unfamiliar with many of the recent reports and scholarship on technology and civil legal aid. Additionally, few IOLTA leaders are able to attend the LSC-sponsored Technology Innovation Grant conference, where civil legal aid stakeholders throughout the country regularly gather to discuss technology.  

[ii] This article’s discussion of “technology” refers to technology that directly supports the delivery of civil legal aid and not the internal technology functions of civil legal aid providers. An example of support for the latter technology is in Massachusetts where the IOLTA program funds and manages many technology services for its grantees, including an IT help desk, central purchasing for hardware and software, training, email hosting, case management system, word processing and document management software, and VoIP telephone system hosting.

[iii] Additional relevant reports and scholarship include: LSC Technology Baselines: Technologies That Should Be in Place in a Legal Aid Office Today (2008 and 2014); ABA Law Office Tech Report (2013); NTEN Nonprofit Technology Staffing and Investments Report (2013); James E. Cabral, Abhijeet Chavan, Thomas M. Clarke, John Greacen, Bonnie Rose Hough, Linda Rexer, Jane Ribadeneyra & Richard Zorza, Using Technology to Enhance Access to Justice, 254 Harvard Journal of  Law and Technology, Vol. 26 (Fall 2012).

[iv] David Bonebrake, Program Counsel at Legal Services Corporation, and staff from several civil legal aid providers generously shared information about existing online systems. References to specific programs are offered to illustrate the potential benefits of online systems; a comprehensive analysis of all existing online systems is beyond the scope of this article.

[v] Philadelphia Legal Assistance, TIG Final Evaluation Report, at 15 (2014).

[vi] Kerry Sheldon, Michigan Legal Help Evaluation Report: An examination of the efficacy of the Michigan Legal Help website in helping self-represented litigants successfully navigate the divorce process, at 7 (2015).

Christine M. Fecko

General Counsel, IOLA Fund of the State of New York

Christine M. Fecko has been the General Counsel for the IOLA Fund of the State of New York since 2011 and currently serves on the Technology Working Group of the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice.