The delivery of legal services to low income consumers is being transformed by automation technology such as TurboTax-like forms for people facing eviction, and that transformation only shows signs of picking up steam as researchers continue to mine its potential for legal aid.
Among those access to justice experts, there's hope that automation technology can one day identify clients who don't even know they have a legal issue.
Three lawyers at the forefront of the change spoke last week at the American Bar Association
's TechShow in Chicago about how they're using automation and AI to help solve the access to justice crisis in the United States.
Quinten Steenhuis, a senior housing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services
, highlighted a piece of technology he developed that is similar to TurboTax that is aimed at helping people facing eviction get the legal help they need.
The online form, called Massachusetts Defense for Eviction, is an intake form of sorts that queries users on what eviction-related legal issues they're facing and gathers relevant information about the facts of their case. The questions are tailored to the user based on their responses to previous questions.
The ultimate result, Steenhuis said, is that the user gets an idea of what their legal needs are and when they connect with a legal aid provider like him there is a baseline of useful information that allows the interaction to take up less time, which lets him spend more one-on-one time with each client and fit more clients into his schedule on a given day.
The questionnaire is tailored to a 6th to 8th grade reading level, is available in six different languages, and features a text-to-speech feature for people with low literacy levels. It also includes glossary terms that pop up and informational videos.
"People are very hungry for this service," Steenhuis said. "They are used to this way of interacting to solve a problem. They like that there's something they can do on their phone."
Matthew Stubenberg, associate director of legal technology at Harvard Law School's access to justice lab, is exploring the ways that technology could help legal aid organizations identify people with legal needs who themselves don't even know they need to reach out to a lawyer.
Where some legal aid organizations are headed, he said, is toward implementing systems that could eventually allow them to collect and review public data that will alert them that a given person could have a legal need, which would allow them to reach out and offer their services.
As legal aid organizations continue to implement data-gathering as part of their delivery of services, they will be able to move toward developing artificial intelligence tools, Stubenberg explained.
Some potentially relevant public records could include water bills and homeowner records, for example. If a tenant stops paying their water bill and the owner of that building has a record of wrongful evictions, an eviction case could be flagged as a possibility, he said.
"Once that's done they will be able to identify people with these legal issues and move forward much faster with helping them, from when people had to identify their problems themselves," he said.
Another way automation is impacting the delivery of services to low-income people is in the sphere of pro bono.
Kristen Sonday, co-founder and COO of Paladin, explained how her company is using technology to connect potential clients with lawyers who wish to provide their services pro bono. The usual way of matching lawyers to pro bono clients is a "super laborious extremely manual process," Sonday explained.
Her company has deployed a platform that she says centralizes pro bono intake so that all information flows into a single dashboard that acts as a sort of "dual-sided marketplace" that gets the right work to the right attorneys.
Both clients and lawyers respond to questionnaires that log their needs and skills and interests, respectively, and then that information is used to do the matching, she said.
"We centralize pro bono intake. Instead of a pro bono counsel receiving dozens of emails from their legal services partner each month, everything flows onto the dashboard in one place," Sonday said. "We want to focus on intelligently distributing those opportunities to the right attorneys at the right time and optimize for engagement and ultimately case outcome."
--Editing by Emily Kokoll.
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