I am head of innovation and engagement at Justice Connect (JC) in Melbourne, Victoria. I have been with JC for six years. Previously, I was a corporate lawyer at a large law firm. I studied law and communications at university. I always had a strong interest in social justice, but I thought that starting my career at a large firm would give me a good skills grounding. I didn’t mind commercial practice, but after a few years it became clear that I could be doing something that was more creative and had more community impact. JC is well known in Melbourne among lawyers and I moved over when they were recruiting someone who could work across digital communications and had commercial law expertise – so it sounded like the perfect role and a great way to transition out of the commercial sphere.
JC is a charity that provides a range of legal services to both organisations and individuals across Australia. We work very closely with the pro bono community in our own programs (such as a program targeted to people experiencing homelessness) and by referring clients to them on a wide range of issues. In total, pro bono lawyers contribute around 50,000 pro bono hours a year to our services. Across Australia our programs are patchy, because they have developed over time and in relation to particular funding arrangements. For example, we have a national program for charities and not-for-profits, we run a specialist homelessness service in Victoria only, and we provide a federal self-representation service in four of the eight jurisdictions of Australia.
At JC, I spent the first four years building up our national Not-for-Profit Law Hub and face-to-face and online community training programs. I worked with our pro bono partners and not-for-profit organisations. When I started, there was a website servicing only Victorian charities and not-for-profits on some discrete topic areas. In four years we built this site up to be a national service with over 300 legal resources, including videos and interactive web applications. It was a huge collaborative effort with our team working alongside pro bono lawyers contributing from around Australia – we’re all very proud of what we achieved. The site has over 300,000 views per year.
I’ve really enjoyed the space for creativity at Justice Connect and the commitment to impact. To help hone my skills in service design and impact assessment, I took a Masters in Social Impact and Investment. It was the impact lens that really encouraged me to think about the role of technology in legal assistance services for deeply. I’m not a technology-first person, rather I care about impact, and over time I’ve increasingly seen that technology has a critical role to play in increasing the impact of legal assistance services.
I have found the work of the US Legal Services Corporation a very useful starting point for some of the more adventurous planning that we’ve done at Justice Connect in the technology space. I first went to the Technical Initiatives Grant (TIG) conference in San Antonio in 2016 along with Gary Cazalet from Melbourne University who runs the Neota Logic apps program there. I realised that the conference brought together lots of people and projects of which I was aware of it seemed a great opportunity to meet them all gathered in one place. Our CEO at the time, Fiona McLeay, agreed. I went there as much with our individual orientated services in mind as our work with organisations. While we had embraced the role that technology could play in our Not-for-profit Law program, I thought that we could be doing more with technology in our programs working with individuals. Attending the TIG conference was an important step in surveying what was happening in the field, what was and wasn’t working, and helping to refine focus on opportunity areas for JC.
After I returned, I started to make a case for more use of technology in our internal processes and in our client-facing services, and eventually took on a part-time role helping the organisation to create a digital innovation strategy.
JC’s digital strategy has three objectives:
- to improve our processes so that we’re using our staff’s time on the highest impact work;
- to use online to reach and service more individuals; and
- to improve our organisational infrastructure to support services, workflow management, reporting and data capture.
Once JC approved the digital strategy we made an application to Google for support. By the end of 2016, we had received a Google grant of AUD$250,000 and my role formally expanded to cover our digital innovation project implementation full-time. For a year I worked on setting up our digital innovation program as a one-person-band. I worked with different agencies; did user research; put together a product plan; and got more funding. After raising a further AUD$1mil, I was able to recruit extra staff to help and hand over some of the implementation work. My role has since expanded to supervise our digital innovation work, along with fundraising and communications
The effort towards our three key digital strategy aims is well dispersed across the organisation. We are in the process of implementing a new customer relationship management (CRM) system that will bring together the functions of several fragmented databases. This work is being led by our operations team. We undertook a six month search process and involved a team of ten staff to examine products. We’ve settled on Microsoft Dynamics. We also encourage every program to pursue program-level digital projects, such as our Homeless Law Dear Landlord project. These projects aim to increase the impact and reach of our services through digital amplification.
We’ve launched a few products since my digital innovation role started, including an online intake and triage system. The next key piece of work is building out a pro bono portal, which is close to completion. We have 55 member firms with whom we can communicate and broker referrals – our new system is going to make this process much more efficient for us and for firms. Our focus will then be on integrating our system with other products in the Australian legal assistance market to improve the experience for people looking for assistance. We don’t aspire to be a referral point for everyone in Australia, however we want our products to link in to other systems and services as seamlessly as possible for the benefit of help-seekers.
In terms of the future, I am excited about the products that we’re developing, but I’m particularly excited about the shift that I’ve noticed in the sector. People in legal organisations are increasingly realising that technology can be used in many different ways to improve ways of working. It’s not just about client-facing systems – a lot of the potential lies in internally focused initiatives. Technology is exciting when it comes to access to justice, however, a lot of basic stuff is not being done well in the legal assistance sector (and the legal sector more broadly). Search engine optimisation is a good example. Not-for-profit and government agencies are not coming up in google search results when common search queries are made. Overseas, non-reputable sites like Wikihow often outrank them. The sector needs to focus on getting some basic things right – their websites and data management systems, and then move into really innovative spaces. Once the sector has a stronger digital foundation, there are really exciting collaborative possibilities.
An area that particularly excites me is the potential of open/shared/standardised data. With better data aggregation we can get a better picture of real-time need. The medical field did this a long time ago. We need to take more care with our data and then use it to get better funding, in our service design, and to advocate for services and law reform.
Of course, with all the potential for change and improvement, the reality is that it is hard to get funding. There is not much capital around and very little appetite for risk. There is no easy answer to this. However, I genuinely think there is now increased focus on the possibilities, and I look forward to seeing what happens in Australia and abroad over the next few years.
Kate Fazio is Head of innovation and engagement at Justice Connect.