Process, scientific methodology and the empirical approach: Day Two of the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovations in Technology conference

A unifying thread for the second day of the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovations in Technology conference might be ‘process’. A word of caution here. A fellow delegate tweeted about yesterday’s piece on the first day. This, he said, ’gave me a look at an entirely different conference from the one that I’m attending’. He did tactfully add that this reflected the scale of the conference content. Pressed to identify his own choice of theme, the critic offered, ‘something like “identify problems; act with purpose; measure results; repeat.” He runs a unit with ‘laboratory’ in the title so you have to consider confirmation bias as an influencing factor. But, if you take empirical methodology as a broad category and sum it up as (good) process then that might work to integrate both the second day of sessions at this excellent conference and, more universally, a trend in current developments worldwide.

One lovely thing about this conference is that it moves between high policy and low detail. It began with a plenary session that concentrated on digital exclusion. Larry Irving, now an independent consultant but once a Clinton administration adviser, made the case for reframing digital exclusion (a concept for which he was responsible)  as digital poverty. He linked the problems of access for legal assistance to those cruelly revealed in education by the pandemic. His answer was a call for a general political response: free or subsidised broadband. British readers may remember Labour’s pledge on this at the last election. This got a lot of derision at the time – ‘reckless fantasy’ and ‘broadband communism’ crowed the Daily Mail – though there now seem signs of a softening of Tory attitudes. Mr Irving had some fallback – less expensive policies that would allow targeting of free or reduced price broadband to poor or rural neighbourhoods. He called for more statistics on one exclusion and had a nice aphorism – very appropriate for a policy worker: ‘anecdote changes minds, but data changes policy’.

Mr Irving is the first African American to be inducted into the internet Hall of Fame, ‘a recognition program and virtual museum that celebrates the living history of the Internet and the individuals whose extraordinary contributions have made [it]’. Halls of fame are a particularly – but not exclusively – an American creation. The political point here is the universal benefit in all jurisdictions from linking access to justice to other political considerations. Covid 19 is ruthlessly exposing issues of disadvantage in relation to wealth, race and gender. ‘Digital poverty’ may be a richer conceptualisation of both digital exclusion and its major – though not sole – cause. 

By contrast to this level of political analysis, my favourite question of the day came from a session on ‘Making Legal Aid Stronger. What can we learn from Covid 19.’ It was highly specific: ‘what kind of air filter are you using for interview rooms?’ This was in a very grounded discussion involving Colleen Cotter of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and Lillian Moy of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. Both projects had gone virtual to an extent but were still seeing some physical clients.Both take precautions. In Ohio, ‘We do take temperatures but overall we are very low tech. We require masks and provide them if users dont have one. We require them to enter the building.’ Both contributors were interesting on post-pandemic work patterns. Colleen Cutter said. ‘No doubt, we will have more staff working at home. There is more acceptance that people can do their job remotely. But I don’t see everyone being remote or remote all time. As time goes on, we are missing the creativity and energy from being together. I see the value in everyone being there – at least some of the time.’ Lilian Moy confirmed that her organisation was proceeding in readying a new physical office in rundown area of Albany. ‘But, at some time we are going to do a productivity comparison’ of people working at home and in the office.’

Ohio and Northeastern New York were measuring their numbers and using their data to direct resources where they were required. Northeastern New York, ‘increased electronic outreach when we were down on numbers’ during the pandemic. Ohio had employed a new member of staff to work on data so that resources could follow need: ‘We created new programmes to deal with housing and employment’. Data was showing successes and gaps: Northeastern New York was good on services for its black population but lagging on those for Spanish speakers. “We are more data appreciative than ever before,’ said Ms Moy. 

This look at the work of two existing projects was reinforced by a session on the work of the Justice For All project. This is run through the National Centre for State Courts in collaboration with the Self-Represented Litigants Network. It has attracted funding from four big donors including the Open Society Foundation. You can see a video on its work here. The initiative has focused on 14 states. Its emphasis is on collaboration between existing resources and the creation of a seamless flow of resources: ‘At the heart of the Justice for All initiative is a reframing of the concept of what the justice “system” really means. No longer does it begin at the courthouse doors. In the Justice for All approach, anyone—with or without a lawyer’s help—can access often-needed components of the system at their local library, school, domestic violence shelter or other social service agency, or even from their own smartphone or computer. And once across the initial threshold, users will encounter a continuum of services from self-help materials to alternative dispute resolution to limited-scope or full legal representation.’

The establishment of the Justice For All project predated Covid 19 but has adapted to it. Veteran civil justice analyst John Greacan reported on one of the chances due to the pandemic: ‘States themselves went to remote communication. And remote meetings seem the future. Prior to the pandemic most of the projects thought in terms of a physical location as a place where services are delivered. In Georgia, a pilot was located in a law library to serve the south west of the state. The pandemic closed the library. All of sudden the project is no longer serving just the patrons of a law library. It has now served people from 91 of Georgia’s 159 countries. It is not longer thinking of a project located in a physical space. Clinics and trainings are not being beamed state wide.’

John Graecan repeated the link with education, ‘We face the same position as schools. We were caught unawares with scope of problem. Do people have the computers, internet connection, personal skills and so on? We have reached out to solve problems. We have engaged various organisations like libraries; we have established kiosks; used retired people; got grocery shops involved; mapped open internet hotspots for people.’ And chair of the session Abhijeet Chavan emphasised the importance of co-ordination over technology: ‘We don’t really need new technology.’ There was a role for upgrading of existing provision in the way that Zoom had added new features in response to pandemic use. And we might see the development of technology ‘to do things in our space’. But the key issue of the project was linking with others and marshalling aggregated resources: ‘We have to go beyond lawyers and legal institutions. In Minnesota, [for example] we have a dedicated person reaching out to new communities and individuals. People have very narrow view of legal and court system.’ 

And from the view of these wide plains, you could return to the detail with a session on using Schema markup. This is a code (semantic vocabulary) that you place on your website to help the search engines return more informative results for users.’ The session was led by Margaret Hagan, doyenne of the legal design movement. She had a motive for this work beyond simply improving individual site rating. She wanted to ‘get google and other search engines to put legal aid organisations in the top results’ of a search. She hoped that, by showing the professionalism of the content in the marking up, this would assist with the credibility for such a demand. From her base at Stanford, she was conducting search audits to see whether using schema did improve ratings. This is going to be useful for us all.

And finally on the research front – and crossing Margaret Hagan’s interests – we had a report on an Arizona University analysis of Utah’s Online Dispute Resolution platform. This took the form of a user experience or UX testing. The results were published last September and were reported as giving the online court pilot ‘low marks’: ‘A majority of participants reported frustration on account of their inability to easily find information about ODR, including guidance about how it worked, whether participation was mandatory, and how to contact someone for more assistance.’

To his credit, Utah Supreme Court Justice Demo Himonas responded impeccably: ‘”The ability to get that kind of detailed feedback was just a gold mine … We’ll apply it not only across the ODR app but our other applications as well.”’ He repeated to the conference his belief in external evaluation: ‘Don’t take offence a what comes back in.’ The court made a number of changes in response to the report. They introduced a much simpler roadmap. But they also included some very simple things. For example, the researchers found that users were put off by a very long URL which could easily be shortened. The court made changes to its summons to ease, at it put it, the transition from paper to platform. 

So, perhaps Suffolk’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab’s David Colarusso has a point. Process, scientific methodology and empirical analysis provide unifying themes both for the LSC;s conference and for what is currently happening in access to justice and technology. And, if so, that is a sign of a movement coming of age and beginning to advance beyond the opening period of scattergun experiment. Be that as it may: another good day with a lot for us all – delegates and non-delegates alike – to think about. 


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