What is your background?
I have had a fun and interesting life. A lot of it was not by my design. My family left San Salvador because of the civil war. By 1981, my father decided it was not safe. My parents decided it would be less of a move to go to Puerto Rico than the mainland US. I went to High School there. I wanted to be an engineer. We were really poor. It was a very painful and humbling experience but it also sensitised me to how you can go from having everything to nothing. Poverty doesn’t reduce you as a person.
My father wanted me to stay in Puerto Rico for college. But I applied to the US, and was admitted to UC Berkeley in California. I was the first Latina in the Nuclear Engineering department.. It was an experience. Until then, I had no idea that I was a minority. It was the first time that I came across the reaction of white Americans.
After college, I decided to go to graduate school. I took a joint degree program in in health care finance and public policy, also at UC Berkeley. It was very rigorous. It was very much about finding policy solution through rigorous analysis and definition of a problem, including quantitative and qualitative methods to use data to tailor and measure solutions.
How did you start your working career?
I went to the Health Insurance Association of America, a trade group for health insurers. I am afraid I was part of the research group that defeated Clinton’s health care plan for which he campaigned in 1992. That showed me how lobbying worked, from the inside of a powerful group. I then moved to a Congressional Commission, that sets the rates for Medicare hospital and facilities payment rules and rates. I was 25. Once again, I was the only Latinx and Salvadorian working at that level. This is a recurring theme in my career. Again, it was a real learning experience. It was great but finding out the outcomes of policy was too slow for me. When changing rules for a large sector of our economy, it It takes three to five years to see the impact of the changes in the data/evidence. I wanted to be nearer to the action. I wanted to know that what we did really improved the outcomes for those on Medicare, without waiting for the payment and hospital data to reflect the changes and how the new rules had been gamed.
So you decided to be a lawyer?
Yes. I had seen the legal work of the only non profit organisation that was representing the people in the Commission hearings, the AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons). Seeing how no one else spoke on behalf of the poor or elderly, I decided I wanted to go learn legal skills. I went to Penn Law school. It was a lovely environment, very collaborative. It felt an incredible privilege. My husband and I were as poor as mice but I had the best time ever. I worked at a big firm in my second year. I didn’t like that system at all. However, I had volunteered at a legal clinic for Spanish speakers victims of DV. It was incredible to see the power of the law in protecting women and children. I decided to be a public interest lawyer.
How did you go about that?
I got a Skadden fellowship [which ‘provides ‘two-year Fellowships to talented young lawyers to pursue the practice of public interest law on a full-time basis’]. You get to define your own project and job. You find a group that will let you do your project and train you. It is an incredible opportunity for a new minted lawyer. I felt like I had a fairy godmother. I worked at the Pennsylvania Health Project [which is a ‘non-profit organization providing free legal services to people having trouble getting or keeping health coverage.’] My supervisor was a Reggie [a prestigious Reginald Heber Smith fellow] and she was amazing. She went on to be the State’s minister of health in Philadelphia. My particular job was to ensure that health management organisations (HMOs) were complying with equality legislation, especially in relation to ensuring access and no delay of services to predominant non English languages in Philadelphia, like Spanish. This could be really important, particularly for some HIV patients. Retrovirals had just become available. Denial over a weekend could mess up someone’s T cell counts. I got involved in putting my client’s cases for immediate treatment. I was inspired by their persistence, willingness to fight and ability to organise. They were incredible. I got to be their counsel. They were super-determined and super-marginalised. Back then having HIV was a moral judgement. I lost some clients, including a compromised six year old boy. That was heartbreaking but they were amazing human beings.
What did you do after the fellowship?
I went to work at Community Legal Services, still in Philadelphia. My job was to develop legal access plans. We took on the city of Philadelphia which was providing no assistance on language. It started to increase access. It even found that, if they paid attention to communication with other language groups, they could register more businesses and actually get more income into immigrant communities.The Language Access Project is still around, and it is a model on how legal services can develop expertise on national origin discrimination and language access.
I left because my husband had moved to the San Francisco Bay area. The travel from Philadelphia was exhausting and unsustainable. Little did I know also that I was pregnant. That added a complication but I was open in my job interviews about that. The Bar Association of San Francisco, agreed to hire me and to allow me to breastfeed my baby at work. That was a first and proved a breakthrough – a good 30 or 40 mothers and children have followed.
My job was to supervise intake for probono cases, placement, and to train and recruit an active panel on housing pro bono defence and consumer law. In San Francisco, housing is a super-contested area because of rent control. I managed a panel of pro bono volunteers and persuaded the court to have a specific eviction day. Then we said we wanted the pro bono lawyers in the court. The landlord lawyers protested. Resolution took about two years of negotiation. In the end, the court realised that the lawyers made the process easier. There were more settlements, more compliance and better managed conflict.
How did that develop for you?
The opportunity came up to help consolidate a range of diverse services into what became Bay Area Legal Aid. This covers a huge area, comprising over 180 cities/towns. We covered four areas of law – housing, healthcare, benefits and family. We were using five languages – Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cantonese, English. We brought together both Legal Services Corporation services [federal legally aid funded] and pro bono services. . Centralising intake was extremely political. I insisted that everything was going to be multilingual. For example, the phone system had to accommodate the five languages. It involved major culture change and a lot of trust building. The whole process took us four years. We began with smallest county and then moved up. We were very data driven. And we wanted to the increase the quality of advocacy as well as numbers.
What came next?
Our family moved back to the East Coast. We had young kids – 7 and 5. I connected with probono.net. I got a job as ‘a circuit rider’ to bring together courts and pro bono. I did that for two years. After that I stayed on as Project Manager for LawHelp Interactive.
How did that develop into an interest in technology?
By this time, I had realised that technology could be awesome in helping. I am not a techie but saw the impact of technology in expanding quality and quantity of services with a modern phone system. I believed the same could be done with online forms, and eventually serve millions. I believe that online forms are the key. If secure, safe and well designed, they can be a basic cornerstone where you put a lot of the weight to build uo a larger structure of remote services.. One form may handle something like 80 separate fact patterns. If you work with experts, the form can be a thing of beauty.
The project originally started as a pilot in Ohio, with LSC, CALI (the Centre for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction at Chicago Kent), and Ohio State Legal Services Association (OSLSA) as the lead legal aid group. The group wanted to see if online forms could be developed online through a national server, shared by multiple groups. In effect a cloud before the cloud. Back then, it was sci fi. It started with four states and between 2008 to 2012 more joined. It became apparent that the experiment was viable: In 2005, the Legal Services Corporation put out a competitive request for proposal for an organisation to run and develop it in a national capacity. Probononet was selected and became the group leading on the technology and training, what is now known as LawHelp Interactive, into making it a reliable, stable national platform and training centre for legal aid and courts to learn how to create forms and manage successful form collections.
Since 2005, utilization of online forms has grown over 2500X. As of September 30, 2020, LHI served approximately 780 interviews and created 512,000 free documents. We expect that this year more free forms will be created than in 2019—raising to 700,000 or more than 12,000 free forms created through LHI per week. To end of last year, from 2006 to 2019 LHI had served 9.1 million Interviews and generated 5.1 million documents.
What does LawHelpInteractive do?
We provide access to an secure and reliable online platform that serves online forms, and training/coaching services for organisations with LSC [federal legal aid funding] or IOLTA [interest on lawyers trust or client accounts] funding and their partners (libraries and others in the ATJ continuum) We also contract with court systems interested in creating self help forms. We help them to implement self-help forms projects, not as a one of, but as strategies to improve access to justice. The process to create a strong viable collection of forms usually takes two years – it goes well beyond just the forms themselves. We help organisations to understand how it all works. We can integrate forms with the relevant back end elements like LegalServer [case management software developed for not for profit legal services organisations], commercial software like SalesForce in existing systems like those run by the Department of Justice family justice centres. We can incorporate a capacity securely to share a document so that t can be checked before filing: so, we have an ability to have document coproduction with lawyer can change or redraft. We can incorporate e-filing in the package so that the form goes to the right email address for the right court.
Most of our end user referrals come from trusted websites that can be found on lawhelp.org. Different states have different collections of forms. We host forms for lawyers, pro bono lawyers, and self helpers. CALI develops A2J Author 6 software which we integrate into LHI as partners. A2J Author 6 is mostly used for forms specifically focusing on self-helpers because of its front end. It can be paired with HotDocs to create documents, or actually be used on its own through their DAT [generic data files}—which has been available in LHI starting in 2016 and really getting traction after 2018. In LHI approximately 50 per cent of the forms are based on HotDocs facing interviews and 50% in A2J Author. We value our partnership with CALI and our commitment to deliver online form solutions in this space together.
What is your role?
My job is to manage the project. We are blessed with a strong team in LHI. This includes also training, mentoring and supporting the legal non profits using our system, design trainings, support our tech team as we identify and define enhancements, and support national partners and courts as is necessary to implement projects. A lot of this is encouraging legal aid teams and courts to embrace remote services—something that we have been doing since 2008, and now with Covid closures will hopefully become more of a standard.
In how many states is LHI active?
We have projects of one kind or another in 47. About half of the states are super-active and have really embedded LHI projects into their processes. Examples include California, Michigan, Kansas, Washington State, Illinois. Around 10 have not really engaged yet but it is my job to encourage them. We have around 1200 forms that are in constant use and a total of 5800 on the server some in testing status or retired. Forms are added every month—so it is an active and growing collection. We work with around 1800 not for profits using LHI in some way or other. We hold regular monthly calls on various topics to keep people in touch with what is happening. Last month, for example, we covered eviction. And we attend conferences and do best practices training across networks and the US.
I am so proud of the LHI/Pro Bono Net team. We have done amazing work with a very specific tool, online forms, in the access to justice space. It is an honour to be part of a process whereby technology can liberate minds and practices.
How do you see the future?
The future should be making justice through collaboration and not building silos (courts vs. legal aid tech for example). Eventually we should be plug and play – making it easy to integrate systems. Different tools should be able to talk to each other. We need to have more participation from those who come from the communities that we serve. There remains a problem of diversity. Technology groups tend to be white cis male, while LSC clients are overwhelmingly women of colour. Legal aid groups suffer from lack of diversity also mostly white women cis in leadership roles, very few men and women of colour in legal services—so between legal and technology the lack of diversity compounds. Diverse involvement makes a huge difference in how you organise, do outreach and design and implement tech tools. We need a more diverse workforce in legal services and more attention to diverse client communities, their needs, the barriers they face, and how we respond to that. I am confident that over time we will reach a point where there is cultural competency on how we approach the delivery of legal services and tools—but it won’t happen without effort, support, and self-awareness. Intentionality at all levels will remain key. In the meantime, technology and online forms remain a key to improving the way all people facing legal problems help themselves, and also in how legal non profits can meet existing and emerging needs with limited resources.