Left to right, immigration lawyer Junaid Sulahry stands in the international arrivals hall of San Francisco International Airport with fellow attorney volunteers Julie Hiatt and Marianna, who declined to give her last name. (Photo: Ben Hancock/ALM)
“Springing into action” isn’t a phrase often associated with legal technology. But attorneys defied traditional timetables around technology development to bring legal services to those detained at airports around the country following President Trump’s executive order barring entry to citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries on Jan. 27.
Since the original ban went into effect, attorneys have used a combination of mobile technology, social media and websites to schedule volunteers, connect affected individuals with legal support, and communicate amongst one another. Although efforts to bring together a legal response have occurred in a couple different waves, technology played a major role in helping attorneys coordinate their efforts.
Getting on the Ground
Immediate responders, like Sarah Owings, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) chapter chair for Georgia and Alabama, relied mostly on portable devices such as cellphones and laptops to coordinate legal support for those detained at airports.
Recounting the day following the ban, Owings said she received a call to her cell phone early Saturday morning noting that people had already been detained at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport because of the executive order. She immediately took to AILA’s listservs, sending out a couple of email blasts to all the national and regional mailing lists of immigration attorneys and shooting a few texts to other relevant attorneys in the area to try to corral a legal response team. Then she drove straight to the airport.
Throughout the day, Owings worked exclusively from her phone, fielding emails, texts and calls from clients all from her pocket before other attorneys arrived with computers. “It was basically text, phone calls and emails until an official server got set up,” she said. Attorneys then spent the evening “sitting on the floor, drafting documents.”
The controversial ban spurred attorneys nationwide, even those outside of immigration practice, to offer volunteer support to those affected by the order. Owings said her social media was quickly overwhelmed with attorneys offering to chip in. “I can’t even remember how many Facebook messages I got from people saying, ‘I do mortgages, but I want to help,’” she recalled.
Attorneys in other cities also leveraged social media to organize the various efforts to assist those affected by the ban. The hashtag #HelpTheLawyers, started by a Michigan-based law school graduate, organized over a 1,000 tweets that helped attorneys keep track of resources and needs.
Though her smartphone made it easy for Owings to coordinate remotely, keeping track of the correspondence between attorneys, detained individuals and their families was a struggle. “At that point, I wouldn’t say it was incredibly organized with listservs with reply-all waterfalls,” she said. While listservs are incredibly effective at reaching lots of people, they have the unfortunate effect of generating a lot of email traffic.
“It’s a lot of email to sift through. I’m trying to keep up,” Owings added.
Owings was not alone in her struggle to coordinate efforts. Reid Trautz, AILA’s practice and professionalism director, brought similar concerns from coordinating attorneys flooded with volunteer requests and detained clients in other major cities to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) midyear meeting in Miami. Trautz, a member of the ABA’s Law Practice Division’s Futures Initiative, told Futures Initiative members that AILA had been working on trying to put together a website to help coordinate volunteer attorneys to assist in locations and at times where they’re most needed, but the effort had stalled somewhat.
“The committee basically dropped the formal agenda and broke into small groups and started to build the website right then and there,” said Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase and a member of the Futures Initiative, of the effort. “It was Friday at 2 p.m. We said, ‘I bet we could have a website up today.’”
They bet right. That evening, the members of the Futures Initiative, with some assistance from the ABA’s Center for Innovation group, launched ImmigrationJustice.us. The website features a form to help attorneys, translators and other volunteers coordinate with assistance efforts in their area, along with a set of resource guides and information for attorneys and the public about the executive order.
On the opposite coast, almost the exact same conversation was taking place amongst attorneys and technologists. Greg McLawsen, founder of Sound Immigration, got a call from his friend Joshua Lenon, practice management software Clio’s lawyer-in-residence. “He basically called me out of the blue on Friday and said, ‘Hey, we’re concerned about this situation. What can we do?’” McLawsen said.
The two men quickly reached out to their networks and put together an ad hoc team to build out a similar project. Legal programming tool Neota Logic built out the back-end and offered to host the tool on its servers while other attorneys and technologists worked out the content and the front-end mechanics. “It’s really just a bunch of nerds who got together over the weekend,” McLawsen said of the effort.
By Monday morning, AirportLawyer.org was live. The website allows users to request assistance for immigrants arriving into 13 different airports who have been detained as part of the executive order over a secure server and forwards those requests along to coordinating attorneys in the area.
Both groups were able to put together their projects so quickly by focusing on the “minimum viable product,” in this case a website that had the basic functionality needed to assist attorneys on the ground and that could be expanded upon later.
While this bare bones, functionality-first approach is a common refrain in the technology world, it tends to go against the grain of the legal community’s approach to problem-solving.
“It’s not a common mentality in the legal marketplace. Usually lawyers want everything to be perfect,” McLawsen said.
Walters noted that the technology enabling attorneys—especially those who don’t moonlight as coders—to quickly develop web-based resources and tools has become a lot more accessible in recent years.
“Five years ago, if you wanted to do a resource like this, you’d have endless committee meetings, a committee for design, you’d have to hire an outside design job, you’d have to put together some sort of statement of work, go through multiple drafts,” Walters said. “That’s not how we do things anymore. Especially if there’s an emergency, you have to be able to respond quickly.”
McLawsen said getting the technology together hasn’t been nearly as difficult as getting it into the right hands. Although the website has coordinated with organizing attorneys in 13 different cities along with a host of community groups and law firms, the AirportLawyer team is having a harder time getting their message out to people affected by the ban.
“The tech piece of this has been the easy part. We had the technology in about 48 hours, but the organizing bit has been more of a challenge,” McLawsen said.
Prepping for a ‘Next Time’
Owings said that, because of the haphazard way the executive order was rolled out, attorneys were caught off guard in their efforts to help protect affected individuals.
“There was no way between this thing getting announced on Friday night at 5 p.m. and Saturday when the ball was already rolling for us to have any response prepared,” Owings said.
Attorneys and technologists don’t intend to be caught off guard again. While the Ninth Circuit ruling has put a halt to the executive order, Owings, Walters, McLawsen and their respective teams are looking to get ahead of any future surprises from the Trump administration around immigration policy.
“We are trying to be proactive about forming groups that can respond to the other executive orders,” Owings said, adding that organizing attorneys have been meeting nonstop to prepare strategy should the ban be upheld. “I want to have something organized; that’s all I want,” she said.
The two websites, for their part, have begun collaborating to alleviate the burden of connecting affected individuals with legal support on ground-level coordinating attorneys.
McLawsen said AirportLawyer will stay operational, regardless of the Ninth Circuit ruling, noting that many immigrants have reported heightened and potentially unlawful scrutiny at airports as a result of the order, even when arriving from countries outside of the seven named in the ban. “We’re lawyers. We have some skepticism about this,” he said.
In the meantime, the AirportLawyer team is working to continue building its connections to community leaders who may know of individuals detained under the executive order, as well as trying to integrate feedback from stakeholders into the platform.
Walters and the team he worked with compiled detailed notes on the process they used to quickly develop the Immigration Justice website in a shareable Google Doc, hoping that the notes can help other groups of attorneys who may need to build out a website quickly in response to future crises.
“We documented our work so that the next thing that comes up, someone will be able to put up a website in an hour or two,” Walters said.
Building and managing technology tend to be sources of anxiety for attorneys, but Walters said that websites in particular are easy enough to create these days that attorneys need not panic about them. “People shouldn’t be daunted by this. It shouldn’t be any more intimidating to create a website than it is to create a Word document or an HTML email. If people just realize it, or realize it by doing it, then the responses from the ABA will be much faster.”
“Obviously I don’t think a website is solution to everything. For places where a website is a solution, let’s not make it a bigger deal than it is,” he added.
Contact Gabrielle Orum Hernandez at email@example.com.. On Twitter: @GMOrumHernandez.