Anyone with hints on the best ways of delivering remote legal services has a ready audience at the present time. Hats off to the US Practising Law Institute (PLI) for a timely programme last night (for me). This opened the week of the big event of the technology/access to justice year, the annual Legal Services Corporation Innovations in Technology Conference (of which, no doubt, more anon).
The speakers came exclusively from the US but the content was largely applicable in any jurisdiction. We are all grappling with the same combination of issues – technological, managerial, service delivery, practical. And the PLI’s speakers had a mass of experience to communicate. They also had in PLI a nice conference organisation and platform with which to hear or see it.
One stream of the main content was provided by speakers associated with the impressive ProBono Net, the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN – ProBono Net project) and the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project (ASAP). They were speaking in part from their current experience (all three organisations are heartily committed to technology) and also a joint ProBono Net and IAN project surveying the use of remote legal support. This led to a report and guide discussed at the time of publication last Spring here and to a follow up survey which is still current and due to end on January 31. Worth keeping an eye out for its findings.
You can get a considerable amount of help on running remote services from various internet sources. ASAP gave some interesting detail on how they run their own operation. They use a virtual mail service which can receive mail at a fixed address and then virtually distribute it. They have a virtual phone system with allows staff to make and receive calls and texts. It will also allow automatic forwarding to members of staff. It has shared password management software ensuing compliance with office rules on password setting and replacement. Like many groups, it uses Slack to assist with staff contact. It has found a preference for video over voice for co-worker communication and regular video staff meetings which incorporate a high degree of staff interaction as well as substantive items. Among the detail, you pick up things that appeal to you personally. I liked the idea that they had found it helpful to encourage co-workers to set up video calls and just leave them running for company while they worked – something that, in my sheltered and elderly life, I first came across last year in BBC’s smash hit Normal People. They use shared calendars markable by non-working and non-interruptible times. It also had shared to do lists.
The rapid learning involved in remote working was clear from the polls taken at the beginning of one of the sessions. 63 per cent of attenders had not experience of working remotely pre-Covid. Almost half thought their arrangements needed improvement or were ad hoc. Many of the lessons were more about good management practice rather than anything technological.
ASAP’s Swapna Reddy included what you might expect: pilot; start small; read up on best practice; simple tech is usually better than complex tech; telephones are more reliable than video (Yes. My video feed to the conference kept dropping and I was in listen-only mode for most of the time. Infuriating); ‘supervision is challenging and training is key”; create scripts and templates; pay attention to security particularly if using volunteers; clearly set out your expectations, particularly of volunteers; have regular meetings.
One of the really interesting findings from the emergency response to the pandemic is that, actually, remote working can have benefits. It allows you, for example, to consider employing a wider range of staff including those – largely caregivers or childcarers – who could not commit to regular office working. That gives you an opportunity for more diversity. But remote communication can actually prove more attractive for some users of services. They don’t have to travel to an office for an interview, a real advantage if living rurally. In the asylum field, clients are often ‘very savvy’ with phones. They use them to contact their families back home even thought they often don’t have an email address. Asylum-seekers will also, however, be very aware of the security dangers of communication. Evidence can be collected by phone and users can deploy to apps to scan pages or text photos. The best advice is set out risks and then encourage users to make their own choice. Online does allow the communal participation of large numbers of people with common problems fro trainings, legal updates, organisation or just social interaction and comradeship.
A whole session of the conference was devoted to ethical issues. These relate overwhelming to privacy and security; supervision and training; client confidentiality; and standards. There was a lot of sensible advice about setting clear boundaries for, and being transparent with, users. It helps in that process for communication to be via office processes eg phones.
So, all in all, a good introduction to a busy week and one which transcended national boundaries. Like remote courts, remote working is bringing up issues which transcend jurisdictional limitations. Time perhaps for an organisation like PLI to bring a global constituency together?