A2J Tech in the US: #LSCITC Part I

Get to my age and you develop a pretty high intolerance level for conferences – online or off. You get more intolerant; more arrogant about what you think you know already; more easily bored; more demanding of content, presentation and presenters. But I  am a longtime fan of the Legal Services Corporation’s annual technology conference as the best I attend in a year, see an example from 2019.  And this year’s event, currently half completed, is no exception. This is consistently a premiere event. As delegates, we have done two online days with two more to come later this week. It may be far too soon to evaluate themes but early enough to highlight some of the more striking content.

Some preliminaries

  • In the interests of readability, I have reported on content, not on the presenters. I have provided backup links to supporting website content.
  • There is one deliberate exclusion – the session which Professor Rebecca Sandefur and I presented. This might have been due to appropriate modesty but, to be honest, it is not. Our thoughts on likely developments over the next decade will get its own column. There are some accidental exclusions. The Whova conference platform was generally excellent but the sound on a random set of video sessions failed. So I could not play them back. This may not be Whova’s fault: I was told to use the Chrome browser and, for various reasons, did not.
  • This is a big sprawling conference with nigh on 900 people registered and often featuring three parallel streams. The administrative heft that is required under the visible waterline is considerable and not immediately apparent. The whole first two days went, so far, as I could see without a hitch. So, congratulations to those in the LSC team responsible – prominent among whom were veterans of previous years, Glenn Rawdon and Jane Ribayendra. 
  • What follows is the personal account of an opinionated outside British observer on an American conference. Its coverage may, thus, appear idiosyncratic to others on the inside. 

Top Takeaways

So, the above said, these are the main points from the first two days of sessions that I watched at the time or could play back this morning.

  1. John Levi, LSC’s Board Chair, announced a further third technology summit to set priorities ‘to be convened later in the year’. A summary of his speech (intriguingly minus this commitment) is here.  These were the goals of the last summit in 2013: ‘Creating in each state a unified “legal portal” which directs persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guides self-represented litigants through the entire legal process; Deploying sophisticated document assembly applications to support the creation of legal documents by service providers and by litigants themselves; Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively; applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable; developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers access authoritative  knowledge through a computer and apply it to particular factual situations.’ These bear up well in retrospect and set a standard for what the LSC might decide this time around.
  2. TikTok’s potential for communicating legal information is shown by Law Says What. So, if you can get your community legal outreach messages down to 20 seconds, you might give it a try. This is where the young are.
  3. A number of organisations are seeking to use elementary elements of AI in triaging their intake. One example is Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder which provides three ways into its content. Having established that you are in the right jurisdiction, you get a choice – to follow straightforward subject headings; to wander down guided pathways that narrow your options, or a natural language search facility that uses Suffolk University’s machine learning SPOT programme: ‘We use SPOT to help the Find Legal Help tool give you suggestions about which legal term in our issue tree fits your legal problem. SPOT remembers your description, which it uses to help improve its service for the benefit of people who need legal help.’
  4. Another example of assisted search comes from Pine Tree Legal Assistance which provides legal services in Maine. It uses a chatbot called Moose which cheerfully proclaims: ‘Hi! My name is Moose! I’m a chatbot (not a human). I can’t give you legal advice or be your lawyer. But I can answer questions about Pine Tree’s services and help you find things on our website! I do best with short sentences and questions…what can I help you find?’
  5. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) is continuing to develop OTIS (its online triage and intake system). This is its developers’ account of recent revision: ‘We created a smart Online Triage and Intake System (OTIS) for ILAO, available under ‘Get Legal Help’ on IllinoisLegalAid.org, designed to: Get users the best available help for their situation, that means directing users to a legal aid organization/legal information/forms; Help our legal aid organization partners accept cases in which they are likely to assist. Ideally, partners would focus on extended representation cases rather than advice-only cases to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness; Divert users to self-help action or commercial lawyers when a legal aid lawyer is not an option.’ The system allows the publication of data similar to that produced by Citizens Advice in England and Wales on topic queries that allows the tracing of changes in demand eg over the Covid period.
  6. A Chicago Bar Foundation funded project provides evidence of the value of early resolution of disputes and, simultaneously, of co-ordinating diverse resources. The project covered, in particular, early resolution of eviction and debt. The list of partners indicates its width: ‘ Legal Aid Chicago, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, Center for Disability & Elder Law, Center for Conflict Resolution, Legal Aid Society, Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic, and Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services). Eligibility is wide: ‘Cook County [Chicago] residents can use [the resources] if: they are a renter and their landlord is trying to eviction; they are a landlord who is not represented by a lawyer; they were sued by someone who wants to collect an unpaid debt (for example a credit card company trying to collect unpaid charges); OR they need to sue someone who owes them money and do not have a lawyer.’ This is a high volume programme with around 6000 referrals in its first year. It provides assistance remotely: ‘Court representatives will help people apply when they first appear in court … Applicants who request the relief will be moved into breakout Zoom rooms, where the representatives will instruct them on what documents they need to provide. Applicants will be able to upload necessary documents on their own or with the help of a housing advocacy organization.’ 
  7. Colorado Legal Services has developed a virtual courthouse tour to assist self represented litigants. This is a little clunky – the different sections take a bit of time to load. It is not, for example, as smooth as proceeding down a street on Google Maps but you can do a 360 tour of a clerk’s office; it must be one of the best visual introductions to a court; it is way ahead of anything available in the UK; and it does suggest how this sort of resource might be developed.
  8. Rural legal services can have real problems of access, both physical and virtual. Minnesota has developed Reach Justice Minnesota as a response. This has three strands – 270 legal kiosks hosted by community partners, four justice buses that brought their own broadband and direct access. The kiosks provide, for the older observer, proof that what goes around, comes around. Arizona installed legal kiosks back in the mid-1990s; a firm called North Communications sold a number to various jurisdictions branded as Quickcourt; and the Law Foundation of New South Wales introduced them to Australia. As described by the foundation’s then director, Terence Purcell, (in Shaping the Future: new directions in legal services published Legal Action Group, 1995) these had ambitious aims: ‘to provide a wide range of helpful information to assist those unfamiliar with the court’; they were intended to give real time court list information; and assistance to self represented litigants. They achieved some media notoriety as providing ‘hole in the wall divorces’ operating like ATMs. In reality, the technology was pretty basic and the service inadequate. It is only now that the advantages of a focused system of remote access to information could be fully developed. One lesson from the past, which may still apply, is that the best kiosks were placed where people actually might want one (I spent a whole morning in a Scotsdale, Arizona criminal court watching a kiosk that dealt only with civl matters and which not one person used). Another is that some degree of personal support to ensure the machine was working properly was useful (the best used model seemed to be in located in a court library with librarians who kept it fed and watered and helped users).

And Next?

On to the final two days of the conference to be held on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. There is no reason to think that the quality should fall.

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