The standout theme of the first day of the Legal Services Corporation’s technology conference for me was the power of video. There could be a personal judgement with a degree of confirmation bias (I identified this as one of the five big trends in access to justice and technology in a piece earlier this week). And this is so big a conference that, at times, you could choose one of up to four separate sessions. So, someone else might want to argue for something else – such as response to Covid 19, remote courts, regulatory reform, intake improvement or others. But, for me, there was a common major thread through three separate elements: the conference itself (held by video for the first time); a session on using video package for training and presentations and presentations from three people at Atlanta Legal Aid Society using short videos as part of digital outreach programme.
If you are not familiar with this conference, it is held annually by the US Legal Services Corporation, the federal civil legal aid funder. In origin, it was a way of bringing together recipients of grants from a special programme to encourage technological innovation. Its venue wanders over the United States. Last year, for example, it was held in Portland, Oregon. The then President of the Legal Services Corporation, Jim Sandman, called it ‘the best conference’ in the world. You might argue that this could hardly be an objective assessment and reflected more Mr Sandman’s demonstrable enthusiasm for his organisation, his staff and technology. Be that as it may. This has established itself as an excellent physical conference. It had 400 delegates last year. And, as a foreigner, it is a frankly both a privilege and an inspiration to attend.
The point of all this praise for the past is to raise the crucial question: if you take a very successful physical conference and try to run it online what happens? You clearly don’t get the personal interaction and opportunities for casual contact over the execrable coffee and slightly stale pastries which US chain hotels put out for the delectation of their guests. (Marriott, Radisson, you need a French exchange scheme.) But the Legal Services Corporation team had chosen an excellent conference package (Whova) which did make me feel a bit like a country cousin. There are around 40 pre-prepared videos available for most of the sessions. The video of your chosen session can be expanded to the whole screen or embedded in a mass of accompanying information. You name it and we have got it: agendas by the day; attendee lists etc.
Video dealt with some of the practical problems of using the kind of big hotels that a conference is forced to use. The right kind of hotel can usually provide one big room for a plenary session of, say, 400 (last year’s attendance) but then it often divides up for small sessions in a slightly unsatisfactory way and there is usually at least one room which is not quite right – too long and thin; bad acoustics; too small or too large. Questions to speakers are often cumbersome. The use of the Q and A/chat functions in a video package means that questions can be much better integrated: the speakers have longer to consider them and can control their selection. We can all see what has been asked. That is frankly a considerable improvement.
One key to success in digital conferences is preparation. You can rarely just wing it in the way that many physical conference speakers do – unless you are a very accomplished speaker with a deep expertise. Someone like court digitalisation guru Richard Susskind can get away with a straight 30 minutes to camera. But there are few others. LSC had ensured that the speakers had put in the hard yards and all the sessions I attended were well prepared. And you have the advantage of being able to go back to the preparatory videos and, later, the videos of the session itself. There were a number of efforts to duplicate the social connection with affinity meetings and smaller breakout groups. I can’t really speak to how successful they were, partly because it was getting pretty late at night in the UK by the end of what for those on Eastern Standard Time was the early evening.
One good element of this conference is its capacity to fit in detail. The presenters are generally practitioners out in the field and they want to report back on their experience. This was certainly true of the first substantive session I attended. Two LSC staff members, Jennifer Rivers and Dina Shafey Scott, presented on ‘how technology tools can enhance engagement in a remote environment’. This came down largely to a consideration of the respective benefits of Google Classroom and Zoom. I took three lessons from this. First, as one of the speakers put it ‘preparedness thwarts catastrophe’ and ‘avoid activity that requires high internet speed and connectivity. Always include a help page.’ Second, remember that people have different ways of learning and accommodate to them. And, third, pay attention to keeping the engagement of your users: ‘You need a plan for different engagement. Keep it simple. Begin with temperature checks. Use experiential learning. Create a learning path. Use gamification. Have micro lessons.’ Increased video outreach and community legal education looks like one of the really positive legacies of our Covid isolation. Some good hints here.
Finally in my selection of sessions comes Atlanta Legal Services and the presentation by Kristin Verrill, Sally Chaffin and Shea Conlan on the use of ‘videos to promote websites and provide community education in the time of Covid’. Atlanta Legal Aid have experimented with video for some years but have developed what they called ‘explainer’ videos specifically to deal with Covid issues. You can see these on its website. This is a link to one specifically on unemployment. They have created a total of 21 to date which have attracted more than 25,000 views. The videos, said Kirstin Verrill, are, ‘One minute or less. They are optimised for social media plus they can be seen with sound off. They help establish a brand for your site and your website. They are easy to create. Many people now search social media before they google. It has become source of news for many.’ In Georgia, the videos had been embedded in social media posts on Facebook and elsewhere and represented a new addition to outreach. This seems such a good idea.
So, one day down and two to come. Looking forward to them.