Remote Services: a must-read guide for all

Providing legal services remotely: a guide to available technologies and best practices is published by a consortium of organisations. These happen to be institutions particularly concerned with the delivery of legal aid in developing countries: DLA Piper’s New Perimeter, Open Society Justice Initiative and  the Legal Empowerment Network run by Namati. However, Covid and financial pressures makes for a common experience in all countries. 

The report’s assessment that ‘On top of the health issues associated with COVID-19, the pandemic has created an increased need for legal services in areas including domestic violence, housing and evictions, public benefits, and issues related to employment. Now, more than ever, the need for remote legal services is critical’ illustrates the essential similarity of experience. Problems of cost, broadband availability, distribution of suitable hardware and remoteness may, of course be worse in poor countries but they are simply exaggerations of what is experienced among poorer populations in richer ones.

The paper reviews technologies available for remote work under the following categories:

  • Online Meetings

The paper lists the various options and their costs, including possible non profit discounts. It compares their features in a handy table though it avoids coming to a ‘best buy’ decision. There are handy sections on best practice for online meetings and best value for video set up. This includes practical tips on things like lighting (including the usual warning not to be backlit but also ‘Natural lighting changes throughout the day. Just because there is good lighting in the morning does not necessarily mean there will be good lighting in the afternoon.’)

  • Alternative methods of communicating with employees and clients – by mobile phone, audio conference, SMS Text Messaging, again with useful practical tips on use.
  • Hotlines and associated technical tools – with tips and examples.
  • Online workshops and clinics. This includes a really useful discussion of the practicalities of running ‘know your rights’ online workshops. The growth of these, as illustrated by the work of the People’s Law School in Canada covered in a previous post, represents one of the positive developments made possible by technology and more valuable by Covid: ‘Running … workshops remotely provides a valuable opportunity to reach a broader audience without the limits of geography. 

It looks in detail and very practically at various ancillary matters like confidentiality and online document signature. There are two particularly useful further sections. The first was on various cloud-based case management systems (including Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, Practice Panther, Filevine and Casebox). This does not include not for profit versions such as US’s LegalServer or the UK’s AdvicePro. It would be interesting to know why – are these too tailored to their domestic markets; not as good as their commercial equivalents; or not geared up for overseas sales? The second was on document management and transfer platforms like Google Drive and DropBox.

This is an absolutely excellent report and, frankly, anyone involved in running a legal aid/legal services project in any country would probably benefit from reading it. An amazing amount of information has been collected and presented in a very accessible form. And a consequence of that is the potential inspiration that it might give to try innovative forms of delivery. 

There is perhaps just one element missing. And that may well be as a result of how the report was defined – as around remote delivery – rather than oversight. I would have found really useful a section which dealt with the technologies relevant to delivering ‘unbundled’ legal services.  There are now a number of examples of how this concept is being refreshed due to technological innovation. The previous post on Hello Divorce is an example from the US.  Key new elements include automated document assembly from firms like Documate and case management software like Afterpattern that can provide dynamic assistance to users (Afterpattern is the new trading name for community.lawyer – illustrating to one jaundiced observer that not all innovation is an improvement).

As an example, this is Ben Carter of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center on the difference this time around from the foreclosure crisis of 2008: ‘The foreclosure crisis was really the first legal crisis where a lot of laypeople suddenly needed legal help and also had access to the internet. This resulted in homeowners coming into legal aid already committed to some pretty wild legal theories they found on foreclosure message boards and listservs. The tools people had just ten years ago were pretty blunt. “Document automation” looked like a blog or message board with .doc templates that you could download and edit for your own purposes. I’m overstating it a bit, but many of those forms would include counterclaims alleging that your bank had engaged in RICO violations in originating or servicing your loan. (For sure, some did.) Compare that to now where, with tools like Afterpattern, we’re able to provide the public with credible tools that they can actually use themselves. In addition to the CDC Declaration App we have an App that allows homeowners and renters who are facing eviction to demand a jury trial. That App allows us to walk people through this process online, via their smartphones. It allows us to present them with information in an easily digestible format, we can even ask questions for clarification, and in the end we don’t overwhelm someone with a huge list of tasks. The document this App ultimately produces is customized to our local practices, our local bar, which means it’s a highly credible first step for someone to take when responding to an eviction.’

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