Activists Speaking 5: Julie’s Story -Julie Bishop, Law Centres Network

I have been director of the Law Centres Network for over 10 years. I thought I would stay for three; but have never left. Previously, I was director of Australia’s National Association of Community Legal Centres. Oddly enough, I got into that role through IT. I was employed by the association to bring in a national data scheme. I had done a degree in IT after I moved on from Philosophy. It was all very different then. For a start, there were not many women. You had to wear a white coat to go into the computer room – which took a whole floor. For that job, I had really to understand how the organisation worked and that provided a basis for management. I had not worked in a legal centre but I had been actively involved in prison reform campaigns and some of my friends were involved in starting the first legal centre in New South Wales, Redfern.

Arriving in the UK, I was surprised that there was no national system for collecting data. Law Centres, themselves, were very patchy in digital terms. Some were good: others more mixed. I was surprised at the lack of development and the failure to collect data. I thought at first that others collected the relevant information but then I discovered that the legal aid authorities had little useful (to us)  data either and that they had a number of systems that were not integrated. Across the board, this was not seen as necessary.

We tried to develop better data collection for LCN. This was unsuccessful – partly because we relied on manual collection from Law Centres and already published material. We encouraged law centres to use a common case management system, AdvicePro, which was developed by the advice sector. But it didn’t happen. The principle of local autonomy was strong and agencies had limited resources and other concerns. There were other piecemeal developments. For example, agencies in Coventry developed an online referral system  which, in concept, is quite like Justice Connect’s Gateway system in Australia.  It is a warm referral system and sitting in the middle is a protocol designed to identify if you need a  lawyer. We looked at how we could develop that nationally. The difficulty is not technical. It is keeping the information up-to-date nationally.  And we realised that a provision of this kind needs continuing support. Without funds, it was not possible and no funder was interested.

What we really needed was  national consistency in a range of areas like data, triage and referral, websites and presentation, document production and a decent client management system. The willingness to engage in this varied widely over the network. We had discussions for years about how to address the difficulties. Then we discovered an even more fundamental problem. Many centres had lousy equipment. Especially after the legal aid cuts, it was difficult to see how they could get the funds to upgrade. Additionally, there was the announcement of digitalisation of courts. We figured that we really had to act. We had long since identified that we were talking about digital assistance not automated digital delivery without a person involved. We decided to leave self help tools to others. We decided to focus on helping law centres to use the resources they had as well as they could and to extend their reach.

We were so pleased when we obtained a grant for the upgrade from the Legal Education Foundation. We divided the work into three phases so we could learn as we went and develop iteratively. And it was good we took this approach because it turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. For example, some servers were so old that data was hard to get off them. In some areas, broadband was not fast enough. Ironically, out of London was often the better. We could not risk slow speeds when migrating all services to the cloud. 

Phase 1 involved nine centres and around 150 users – upgrading broadband, installing Microsoft 365, migrating data, decommissioning old servers, upgrading desk top equipment. We had to agree a national data policy. We have established a national IT support service.  We only have a three day a week programme manager. We really need more staff time. We tried to do do everything as cheaply as possible. Microsoft gave additional assistance through ‘a gold partner’ who has been fantastic. City firm Freshfields and LexisNexis also helped. Our IT support partner has provided much in kind to support the project.  We kept the cost down to around £250,000 but it has made the whole project much harder to manage.  Phase 2 involves another eight centres, two of them large. We are half way though it.  Alongside the general upgrade, we have spent a lot of time looking at case management  systems. What has stopped us every time is the cost and the very particular set of needs Law Centres have as Charities in reporting to funders, legal aid practices, and the standard requirements of all solicitor practices. No solution is ideal, but we are moving forward.

Along the way, we were involved in a hackathon at Hackney Law Centre with LegalGeek. While a creative solution to the problem was designed on the night, in the end the tool was not developed. It did, however, open up a number of doors. A team from Freshfields won the Hackathon, leading them to get involved with our upgrade program. Freshfields introduced us to Microsoft who, in turn, introduced us to consultant Adrian, without whom we could not have progressed as far as we have. It also led us to CAST, the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology who invited me to apply to do a three month digital fellowship.  This was extremely useful. It updated my long disused digital design and management skills and took me back into the IT world, but a very different one to the one I left 15 years ago. They introduced me to a democratic, bottom-up iterative and pragmatic development process – the design approach. I learnt to focus on the problem itself, on the people affected by the problem and to listen to their ideas about what might help. We did not spend weeks on documentation but got down to problem solving. The methodology and design principles also  reflect how we aspire to work within our communities. It is doable and affordable approach for cash strapped organisations like ours.

As part of the fellowship, LCN got the opportunity to test the methodology by developing a tool/digital solution to an identified problem. We decided that a huge problem for LCN remained lack of uptodate data.  Bringing together Board members and staff, we realised that we didn’t need warehouses full of detailed data but we just had to have a few timely pieces of headline data. We need to know what and how much law centres are doing and something to help us to spot trends as they are arising. The process should not be burdensome. It should be an easy to use system to which a wide number of people can have access and get the latest information on what the Network is doing. The first version has been developed and tested. We are about to do a few changes based on testing and then we will distribute, review, revise and keep developing it as we go. 

A second piece of work that we have done with CAST is to participate in the FUSE programme, a 12 week program where you use the principles described above in interrogating the problem and build an initial version that you can test and continue to develop as needed. The problem we want to solve is how better to manage demand for services at Law Centres. Again, using design principles, we discovered that the obvious solution of a triage tool was not the answer. It was rather how to make best use of lawyer time, the most expensive resource at Law Centres, and so the bottleneck. We developed an SMS tool that reminded clients of appointments and listed the documents they should bring with the aim of not wasting lawyer time. We had not anticipated quite how the tool would be used. In testing, Clients used it to clear up things with their lawyer, lawyers found it an easy way to keep in touch with clients and so it is becoming a communication tool which clients like as well as making sure appointments are not missed and well used. It costs a very reasonable amount for us to run – around £300 a year – and will have immediate and widespread benefit. We are now thinking about a range of other projects of this kind.

My career is coming full circle. I actively got out of the IT field when I was younger. Now I am enjoying my return. And hopefully digital tools can really extend the work of Law Centres.

The picture of Julie is reprinted with permission from the Law Gazette

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