Lawyers are famously resistant to new technology. Over the past few years, e-discovery and contract management software have gained traction, often at the behest of in-house counsel. But attorneys are timid about further adoption.
Legal aid organizations, on the other hand, with their limited personnel and financial resources, have stepped up to reduce the justice gap and serve the remaining 86% of low-income Americans with unmet legal needs. They’re incentivized to experiment with new technology that can help them reduce staff, increase volunteer engagement, and serve more people.
Below is a round-up of technology tools that are ripe for application and have been used in legal aid. Your pro bono practice can be a testing ground for these technologies, which are equally applicable to private practice. Though aspirational products are fun to read about, we’ve chosen tools that will give you immediate efficiency and cost savings and can be implemented today.
1. Document Automation
As machine learning and crypto-anything steal the limelight, document automation humbly continues its widespread direct impact, with happy clients, more efficient lawyers, and fewer errors. TurboTax made the guided interview platform popular, and the legal community has followed, allowing attorneys to create online questionnaires that populate into fillable PDF forms and bracketed templates.
But so few law firms are automating their templates. We just aren’t trained to make efforts to reduce our billable hours.
In the legal aid world, by contrast, where lawyers are scarce and the justice gap feels insurmountable, tools like Docassemble, A2J Author, and Law Help Interactive are ubiquitous. There can be no conversation about access to justice without automation on the agenda.
Organizations across the country have created tools that allow self-represented litigants to prepare their own documents and enable public interest lawyers to multiply their efficiency.
Upsolve (upsolve.org) is a nonprofit that helps individuals through the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. They use a mobile-friendly online questionnaire to collect information about what the user earns, spends, owns, and owes. Then, a volunteer attorney at one of their partner legal aid organizations reviews their documents. Similarly, Road to Status has a “do it yourself” immigration platform that democratizes the citizenship and green card paperwork. JustFix.Nyc services tenants threatened with eviction in New York City, helping them send response letters to landlords, among other things.
In the law firm setting, document automation can capture legal expertise for pro bono work. For example, an asylum expert could put together a guided interview and instructions for the entire firm to use. Each time a new case comes in, non-expert attorneys would then follow an infallible step-by-step process to issue their client’s documents. BigLaw attorneys may be more receptive to taking on pro bono cases when they can go through a step-by-step streamlined process. Saved time can be spent taking on more desirable roles, meeting with the pro bono client, arguing at hearings, and drafting fact-intensive briefing.
2. Print and Mail APIs
Even with its precipitous decline, USPS still delivers about 175 billion pieces of mail each year. Much of legal is still done by snail mail—sometimes because the judicial and government electronic systems are not in place, and other times to gain a time advantage over the other side. Mail APIs like Lob.com print and send your mail, giving firms—large and small—access to a commercial printing infrastructure at a low cost. They even include address verification and per-piece mail tracking and analytics, as automation continues to reduce human error.
These APIs have been widely adopted by startups for sending letters, marketing materials, and even payroll. Yet law firm assistants and mail rooms are staying late to send out last minute mail. Some even still use a fax machine.
Pro bono work can be an opportunity for comfortably exploring innovation. Many of the areas of law typically taken pro bono have been tardy to the electronic filing world, leaving lawyers to stuff envelopes or pay extra for personal service. For example, California’s superior court criminal departments are less likely to have e-filing than any other department. This includes post-conviction relief such as expungements. Some states don’t allow electronic service without the consent of both parties, which can be difficult to obtain when you have an unrepresented or hostile counterparty.
Immigration, housing, and family law are other obvious areas to use these APIs. Better yet, connect your document automation platform to a mail API to seamlessly mail your file-ready or execution-ready documents.
3. Project Management Platforms
Associates across the country are buying groceries online, but they still write down tasks on yellow Staples notepads (with handwriting you can’t read because they’ve been typing and texting since the first grade). Let’s take note from the startup world.
Project management tools like Trello, Pivotal Tracker, Asana and Jira can make the process collaborative, ensure the team agrees on prioritization, and prevent forgotten assignments. In many cases, the tasks in pro bono cases are spread out over a long period of time. You may get a case today that isn’t set for hearing in Immigration Court for two years. Project management tools will help you set plan the stages of litigation, dole out tasks to junior attorneys, and stay organized when someone goes on vacation or leaves the firm.
4. Effortless Time Tracking
Any lawyer will tell you that timekeeping is the bane of their existence. The minority diligently finalize perfect descriptions of their time after each task. The rest of us are masochists who wait until the end of the month. Timekeeping app Ping “keeps time, so you don’t have to.” Ping connects to all of the applications and devices that lawyers use, including Microsoft Word and Excel, web browsers, and telephones. The activity from those tasks then automatically feeds the matter number and the amount of time worked into your timekeeping log.
Tali and Workspace Assistant are two other groundbreaking timekeeping tools. They are voice time-tracking systems that operate through Amazon Alexa. Workspace Assistant can only be used with Thompson Reuters’ enterprise product Workspace, but Tali can be used by anyone. That is, as long as you’re not afraid of hackers listening in on a device that’s not controlled by your firm.
What better place to test out these tools than in your pro bono practice, where the client will never get the bill.
Dorna Moini is the founder of HelpSelf Legal (www.helpselflegal.com), a document automation company helping legal aid, law firms, and companies close the justice gap. Before starting HelpSelf, Dorna was an associate at Sidley Austin, where she litigated employment class actions and high-stakes discrimination, whistleblower, and intellectual property cases. Her pro bono work at Sidley spurred her to build technology to streamline her casework, serve clients more efficiently, and build tools for others to do the same.