As dawn breaks over Texas this morning, delegates to the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grants conference will be gearing themselves up for a final working breakfast. This conference has been very important to me: a joint Canadian-Californian session three years ago set me off on the track of following technological innovation across jurisdictional borders that led to this website. I have attended the last three, missing this one only for personal circumstances. Hopefully, a delegate will provide a fuller report. Meanwhile, this is an interim account based on watching of the video feed from the conference, in particular of one of its favourite features, the Rapid Fire Tech session which took place last night.
The first thing to say is how good live video feeds have become. I last used one to follow the celebrated Brexit case in the UK Supreme Court. The quality and reliability of the cameras was excellent – but you would expect that. They were embedded in the court. The LSC cameras were located at the back of the conference room but were enough good to broadcast the presenters clearly. The audio was excellent. The only problem for the remote watcher was the somewhat dizzying track between the presenter and the powerpoint screen – but that was probably unavoidable. The LSC was broadcasting on its Facebook page. It later puts the videos on its website: you can see those from 2016 and previous years. This year’s will be worth a browse when they go up.
Video of a conference is not, of course, quite as satisfactory as video of a court hearing. You miss the interaction with the delegates. One of the great strengths of this conference is that it is attended, on the one hand, by Jim Sandman, the impressive President of the Corporation, and others interested in the big picture but also a mix of mangers, administrators and techies engaged at the coal face. Sit down at a a table and you are never quite sure what kind of conversation you are going to have. The LSC team have a now well honed – and well delivered – package that incorporates an impressive array of sessions supplemented by extras like ‘affinity dinners’ for people with common interests to mix delegates up. They also require a US-style work rate from early morning to late in the evening – tough work for a European. It is the commitment, diversity and practical experience of the presenters that makes the difference.
A Rapid Fire Tech session has some inherent strengths and weaknesses. On this occasion, eight speakers were given six minutes each with a deck of around 20 slides automatically advanced every 20 seconds. Three years ago, this introduced a blood sport element as inexperienced speakers spent too long on the first slide and fell behind thereafter. This has bucked everyone up and better presentation has been notable since. Indeed, yesterday one presenter was even filling in seconds waiting for his next slide. Inevitably, what you get is breadth rather than depth. But, overall, the session is enormous fun; gets through an amazing amount of material; and provides a reliable index of the concerns of the audience as a whole.
Almost all the presentations reflected the practical engagement of those at the conference. Sue Encherman from the NorthWest Justice Project led off with a very grounded account of updating their whole IT system to incorporate additions such as Skype for Business and a capacity for lawyers’ mobile phones to be routed through the project switchboard. Her takeaway: ‘Keep on top of consultants: beware minimum hardware requirements’. A number covered practical ways of managing or producing content. Katrina Miller from the Florida Justice Technology Centre was concerned with the issue of security for the centre’s domestic violence victims. Her takeaway for her client group: ‘Minimise data collection and get rid of data as soon as you can; explore ways in which your users can doctor their internet history’. Anna Steele of Just-Tech, Caroline Robinson of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Jack Haycock of Pine Tree Legal Assistance talked, respectively, about ways in which content should be scanned for clear meaning, readability and gender neutrality. Chuck Hays of the Florida Bar Association talked of the use of a programme to maximise the matching of pro bono assistance to need.
Two of the most interesting presentations – at least from the perspective of international comparison – were from two not for profits – Keith Porcaro of SIMLab and Jonathan Petts from Upsolve. Keith made a pitch for using interactive forms with more sophistication and content than is usual. For example, in relation to a calculator of eligibility giving the answer ‘Yes, you qualify’ or ‘No, you don’t’, he argued that the content should be expanded so that users can see where the eligibility lines are. People, he thought, needed to know how the services work and what tests they are applying. So, they should ge provided with an explanation of why they are or are not eligible and encouraged to see what change to their circumstances might make a difference. He backed the principle of what he called ‘explanatory transparency’.
Jonathan was involved in building a programme to deal with bankruptcy where need outstripped the ability of programmes to provide full service representation. His programme was designed to encourage users to do most of the work and to provide a role for only ‘light touch attorney review’. This is remarkably similar to the way in which programmes like the English Siaro are developing. This describes itself as ‘is an online platform that allows you to gather all relevant client information prior to initial consultation in divorce and separation cases. This client information can then be accessed through a simple online dashboard, putting you in full possession of the facts ahead of your first meeting.’ This is not quite the same in detail but it is the same basic idea: take the client through a prior online process and cut the time and expense of the lawyer that checks the result.
It would be good – though obviously difficult – to develop a way in which similar innovations in different jurisdictions could be brought together. Video feeds on the web would make that possible. Now, there is an idea – an international, web-based rapid fire tech presentation bringing together the best from around the world. Too much perhaps for now but the LSC showed how useful this form of presentation can be.