Making holiday gifts is a family tradition that started when I was small and my parents did not have excess funds. As I grew up, making things by hand became a way for me to gift my love. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a workaholic which doesn’t leave a lot of time for crafting. Often, I will see something that I know a family member will love and that I can make. I then fool myself into thinking that somehow I will find the time and then I buy all the materials. During my detour from law school, I am knocking some of these projects off my to-do list.

The latest project to be completed required the use of a miter saw. Normally, I would break out the little miter box and knock it out with a few swipes of a saw; for this project, I was making duplicates so I decided to drag out the fancy electric compound miter saw. Once the saw was set up, I pulled the blade release knob with no results. I pulled it again with more force and the blade housing stayed stubbornly stationary. In frustration, I grabbed the handle and jiggled forcefully. Although the blade wouldn’t raise, it did move down. About this time, realization struck and I recalled the safety features of the saw. I then pushed the handle down while gently tugging the release knob. Voila, the blade housing popped up ready for action.

So, am I writing this to show everyone that I am hopeless in the workshop? Well, no. Actually, I have built several pieces of furniture over the years and have loads of experience with power tools. However, I had only used this particular miter saw several years ago when we remodeled our bathroom. The moral of the story is that just as I had forgotten how to use the miter saw, we can forget how to use features in Word, Excel, or a legal research program if we don’t use them on a regular basis. As an example, I assisted two attorneys with tasks that I considered quite simple this week: making the tool ribbon visible in Outlook and resetting the home page in an internet browser. Both of these were simple tasks for me but were something that the attorney rarely needed to perform. I know from experience that these “simple” tasks can be daunting if you don’t know the terminology–like ribbon–needed to do a search of the help section.

As a future attorney, I hope to remember this lesson as I deal with clients. What may be a simple legal issue for me may seem insurmountable to a client. It was also a reminder to take advantage of any training available for the tools of the trade that we use daily, particularly if a new version has been released in order to learn new features that will increase efficiency.

 

We are going to veer away from legal tech today. That is the beauty of a blog–it can be anything the owner wants, and today, I want to tell a story!

A few weeks ago, I went to my parents’ house for a visit. It was a visit that was long overdue so it was good to see them. Besides needing to visit them, the trip allowed me to help them finalize a project they have been working on for more than a year. You see, for Christmas 2017, I had gifted them with a StoryWorth subscription. StoryWorth is a company that sends weekly e-mails to the recipients with a question to prompt memories. The recipient can then submit their stories via the website or phone. At the end of the year, the stories are printed in a book.

One nice feature of the service is that the gifter can write personal questions or choose questions from the extensive list available on the website. The recipient has the option to answer the question that is sent, select a different question, or write about any topic they desire.

When the recipient submits a story, family members get to read it and comment on it. This provides positive feedback which encourages the recipient to write even more. Sometimes, comments prompt additions to the stories or even different stories. To make the stories even better, photos can be added. My parents had old photos that they wanted to include in the book, but they did not feel savvy enough to digitize them and upload them to the stories. Thus, the need for my visit.

In our case, some of the photos were over a hundred years old so there were no handy digital files. For the few pictures that we needed, we chose to go to the local drugstore and scan the photos using a photo kiosk. (Some CVS stores have Kodak Kiosks; Walgreen’s stores have a similar system). If you have a large number of photos, it probably is more cost effective to use a mail service such as Legacybox–even Wal-Mart has a photo digitizing service now.

This morning on Twitter, I mentioned Houdini, the piano playing squirrel. This tweet was met with requests for more information, so I am going to use my Dad’s story from their book to tell the tale:

Our Piano Playing Squirrel by DeWitt Steele

Do you remember Ray Stevens, the humorous country singer, singing about a squirrel that got loose in Pascagoula, Mississippi and caused quite a stir in a church? We had a squirrel that ran up and down our piano’s keyboard, and he caused almost as much trouble one day as that Mississippi squirrel.

We got our squirrel after a rainstorm that washed him out of his cozy nest in our backyard.MygirlsprotestedwhenIsaidI was going to put him back out in the yard. This was several months after that rainstorm; I prevailed. But the squirrel would not leave; he came right up to me, climbed up to my shoulder, and “demanded” his food and water inside; he even insisted that his nice cage was where he would sleep. I should have known this squirrel was going to be a problem.

About a year later, he met a nice little female squirrel and decided it was time to leave us. He did but came back and brought her with him. He came down to be petted– but our dog would not let his female partner come down. Smart dog! I did not need two freeloading squirrels.

I have gotten a bit ahead of myself, so I’ll shift gears and tell you about our squirrel’s ability to play the piano. He seemed to enjoy running up and down the keyboard. He got a reputation for “playing” our piano. All the kids heard about the musical squirrel; all the kids came to see him.

Then one day a teacher and photographer from the school asked if she could come over and take a photograph of our piano playing squirrel. I agreed, and she came over one Saturday morning.

We gave the squirrel a little time to get used to her. Then we set him on the piano keyboard. He ran up the keyboard and ran down the keyboard. The photographer was impressed. She got prepared to take pictures. As the squirrel ran up the keyboard, she snapped a picture. When the camera flashed, as it was supposed to, when taking a picture, the squirrel leaped for the photographer.

He landed on her waist and headed for the floor, but, when he got to her knees, he reversed his direction and headed up her skirt on the inside. When he reached her waist, he circled it three or four times. She was shrieking, my family was laughing like a pack of hyenas, and so was I. Our hilarious mirth was matched by the squirrel’s running up and down the poor lady’s legs. And then the squirrel did something in keeping with his previous panicky actions, he jumped to the floor and ran under the piano. It was dark down under the piano, and he stayed there.

I don’t think Ray Stevens has anything on the Steele family or the poor photographer, who was slightly scratched, by the piano playing squirrel.

My dad taught biology before changing to writing science books. Over the years, we had many unusual pets that were rescued from certain death. Maybe someday I will share the story from his childhood of the “ugly baby that scared the waitress”–the baby was his mom’s pet monkey–or the day dad played with rattlesnakes.

The squirrel story is just one of the many stories that dad wrote for the book. It was such fun to relive the stories that I remember, but even better to hear things from my parents’ childhood that I never knew. I encourage everyone to gather the stories before it is too late. That is one of my biggest regrets–that I never followed through with recording my grandparents’ stories.

 

Just to be clear, I paid for the StoryWorth subscriptions and this is a review of a happy customer. I am not being paid for this post. StoryWorth is such a great service that I want everyone to have a chance to preserve their family memories before it is too late. However, if you click through with any of the links from this page, you will receive $10 off a subscription, and I can earn additional free copies of my parents’ book. If you are interested, use the following link to receive $10 off a subscription: https://www.storyworth.com/friend/shellie8

When I started law school at Michigan State, I didn’t have a Twitter account. The main reason for this was that I had worked for a local law enforcement agency and the thinking for many years was that law enforcement and social media shouldn’t mix. After joining the student organization Legal Launch Pad, I was exposed to Prof. Dan Linna heralding the need for everyone to be on #legaltech Twitter.

Giant check for 3rd place in social media contest

When the Career Services Office introduced the Social Media Contest in the fall of my 1L year, I finally took the plunge and created a Twitter account. Entering the contest was very much motivated by my goal to fund a bar exam review course with “found” funds (funds that I won, received as gifts, found, etc.).

Since joining Twitter in November of 2017, my attitude toward social media has changed completely. At first, it seemed as though Twitter was filled with people patting themselves on the back. As my circle expanded, I began to see a different side. I found that legal tech twitter has many generous people who will take time to answer questions, share information, and congratulate others for their accomplishments.

Another side of Twitter began to come into view when I saw a tweet about the Access to Justice Tech Fellows program. I had heard of twitter jobs of course, but I thought that they were much like the elusive unicorn. This program was no unicorn, and I am proud to say I was accepted as a fellow.

Selfie while recording interviews at Iltacon

Jobs are not the only opportunity on Twitter though. Last summer, I was able to go to ILTAcon because I responded to a Twitter plea from Kevin O’Keefe (founder of LexBlog) for a law student assistant. For two days, I rubbed elbows with legal tech giants as Kevin interviewed legal tech company founders and introduced me to the many people he knew. (All the interviews now have their own home on the web at Legal Tech Founder and I highly encourage you to check them out).

For law students willing to take the initiative, Twitter is a way to find out what is happening in various areas of the law. It is also a way to make contacts in parts of the country where students might like to practice. Even better, Twitter is a way to learn from so many wonderful lawyers in all stages of practice. Some of my favorite accounts to follow are judges.

Today, I tweet frequently from my personal account (@edgeofempty) and also manage Twitter accounts for the student group Legal Launch Pad (@legallaunchpad) and a research group developing a new competency model for lawyers called the Delta Model(@deltamodellawyr).

Social media has opened doors that I never knew existed. Why not give it a try!

I am so glad that I was already working on an externship with a legal aid organization near my home for this semester. After the events of September, I still need to be at home for a while. The externship allows me to get back on track and make progress toward my degree while being at home. I feel so lucky that Michigan State has this program!

I can’t believe that the first two weeks of the semester are in the bag already. I am completely exhausted and feel that I have miscalculated the demands on my time and my ability to meet those demands. (Of course, this is law school so I think I am supposed to feel this way as prep for a legal career). So let’s review my weekly schedule:

  1. Work 30 hours each week at the externship
  2. Complete Advanced Legal Research course work
  3. Meet deadlines for Delta Competency Model research as we enter phase two
  4. Research and write a monthly article for Frontier of the Law
  5. Write a weekly blog post
  6. Keep up social media presence

What did I do this week?

  • Researched garnishments, foreclosures, landlord-tenant law, negotiable instruments, contract law, and more
  • Went to court twice
  • Assisted at intake office in the courthouse
  • Began long term research project on social security benefits
  • Attended attorney training with sessions on dementia, inclusion, and acting for lawyers
  • Used my tech skills to retrieve data from a phone
  • Dazzled ’em with my Microsoft Office skills (ok, it was just putting a Table of Contents in my research, but hey, if they think I am a magician, I am not going to correct them).

What did I learn about myself?

  1. I really like legal research.
  2. I like helping with technical prep for trials even more than doing research.
  3. I am still a work-a-holic. I have exceeded my time both weeks and have eaten lunch while pecking away on research every day instead of taking a break and going for a walk as planned.
  4. I was reminded that working in a busy office with constant noise is very draining to me.

Plan for the upcoming week:

  1. Ask about working Tuesday through Friday only. (Since I have to be in DC on Monday afternoons for class anyway, this would allow me to go to some of the Hubsters medical appointments or work on school work on Monday mornings).
  2. Figure out my plan for the school’s social media contest.
  3. Carve out some “me” time in my studio so that I can recharge with a little bit of quiet and solitude.

 

Due to the events earlier this year, I have searched for various things to make this semester productive in ways other than being in school. When a professor passed along information about a writing gig, I jumped at the chance and applied for the position. I am thrilled to say that I was selected and my first article is now live on Frontier of the Law. The article describes my thoughts and introduces a series on the 21st-century lawyer. As part of this, I also reveal a little about a research project that I have been involved in to flesh out the “Delta Model” lawyer. I hope that you will take the chance to read the article and give me your feedback!

#PracticeInnovation #FrontierOfTheLaw #LegalTech #Innovation

The fall semester of my 2L year at Michigan State University College of Law started with so much promise back in August. I assisted Kevin O’Keefe at ILTAcon at National Harbor then left the next day for East Lansing. I was excited to get back to campus to meet Carla Reyes, the new director of LegalRnD.  I was even more excited to take the classes that I had chosen to advance my legal tech knowledge: Artificial Intelligence with Prof. Reyes and Entrepreneurial Lawyering with Dennis Kennedy. I was also excited about heading the student group Legal Launch Pad.

As classes began, I was thoroughly enjoying them. Federal Indian Law, Family Law, Trusts & Estates, and Professional Responsibility rounded out my full load of courses. Even though the workload seemed heavier than that of my 1L year, I was happy because it meant that grades would be based on more than just one exam at the end of the semester. Along with classes, I was also waiting to see my ideas about facing challenges in law school (ironic) as interpreted by fellow law student Andres Y. Gonzalez in the September issue of Law Student Today. Additionally, I had been given the opportunity to submit an article to the ABA publication Law Practice Today so I was eager to complete that assignment and see if it was chosen (it was). I was also looking forward to a quick trip back home at the end of October to represent ATJ Tech Fellows at the Equal Justice Works Conference.

But then on Saturday, September 29, 2018,  my master plan was derailed with a phone call from my son. Within minutes of receiving that call, I had purchased a plane ticket, packed my backpack with books, and was headed to the airport. A few hours later, I was back home in Virginia and headed to an Intensive Care Unit. You see, my husband had suffered a stroke. After arriving at our local hospital by ambulance, he had been whisked by helicopter to a regional trauma center. By the time I arrived, doctors had performed a procedure to remove a blood clot from his brain. Two days later, doctors performed another major surgery. Over the next few days, each visit by a doctor to his room brought a seemingly never-ending stream of bad news.

Somehow, in the wee hours of those first mornings, I managed to complete the two papers that were due that week–in large part because I had not waited until the last minute to start them. (A good lesson in why students shouldn’t procrastinate). However, it was becoming clear that returning to school in time to avoid exceeding the absence limit was not going to happen. With great reluctance, I requested a leave of absence from school. I must say that the support that I received from the faculty and staff of the school confirmed that I made the correct choice when I decided to go to East Lansing the year before.

Despite all of the bad news in those early days, there were still bright spots in this period. Occasionally, my husband would show signs of lucidity and I could see that his personality remained intact. After my father’s stroke about 15 years ago, my dad couldn’t remember my name, so it was extremely precious to me that my husband recognized me and knew my name. As days passed, the weakness in my husband’s left side lessened. Most important of all, the MRIs showed that the stroke affected the creative side of the brain and not the engineering side that is needed for his work.

As the trauma of the past few weeks recedes, and we move to our new normal, I have two options. I can mourn the loss of our life before the stroke and the loss of this semester, or I can find ways to leverage this time to my advantage. Since the stroke, several people have commented on my positive attitude. I don’t see my attitude as being positive as much as I see it as being extremely thankful. Thankful that my husband of 28 years retained the personality and humor of the man I knew and loved before the stroke, thankful that the deficits caused by the stroke are lessening each day, thankful that my husband should recover and be able to return to the work he loves. Thankful that despite losing a large portion of his brain, my husband will eventually be able to return to most of the activities that he loves. Furthermore, I waited more than twenty years to go to law school so one semester isn’t going to change much.

I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. I do have periods where I am overwhelmed. I also readily admit that if my husband had been permanently disabled, it would be much harder to find bright spots. Perhaps it helps that this is not the first time that life has thrown us a curveball. I am not going to bore you with the details–suffice it to say that I haven’t always been able to find anything positive about the situation for a long time. And while I am at peace with my leave of absence, my husband has taken it hard and blames himself for delaying my schooling.

What can readers take from this?

  1. Never take your loved ones for granted.
  2. Don’t procrastinate (thank goodness I had already done the planning and research for my papers).
  3. Mourn the loss (believe me, I shed many tears in the wee hours of the night so that I could be strong when I needed to be).
  4. Fake it–sometimes faking it for a while can help (I certainly had to pretend that I was okay with taking leave from school until I was able to make peace with it).
  5. Accept help–don’t let pride keep you from allowing others to help. Allowing friends and family to run errands or bring meals gives them a way to feel less helpless. On the other hand, feel free to say no or set boundaries.
  6. Seek out counseling if needed. There may be a loss that you cannot bounce back from on your own–there is no shame in going to a counselor, support group, or trusted professional. Keep in mind that this need may not surface right away and can hit months after the trigger event.
  7. Take care of yourself! No one can go for long periods taking care of others if they aren’t also taking care of themselves. (See #5).

Life happens, how you respond to it can make the difference.

Early in my first year of law school, I noticed how many times the word ferret was used in cases. (I even blogged about the Property book’s description of ferrets). One day when logging in to Lexis to get my daily research points, I decided to do some more research on ferrets in the law. According to LexisAdvance, the word ferret appears in 13,645 cases. Through the years, the word “ferret” has appeared in cases in all 50 states and 5 U.S. territories. Even Guam, where ferrets are not allowed, is represented with the case Rapadas v. Benito (2011 Guam 28). In that case, the court described the ‘considerable latitude in devising the procedures it will follow to ferret out the facts pertinent to jurisdiction.”

Cases referencing the word ferret cover nearly all areas of law including Civil Procedure, Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Environmental Law. Not surprisingly, the North American black-footed ferret appears in several (24) cases. “The black-footed ferret was among the animals and birds listed.” Defenders of Wildlife v. Administrator, EPA (882 F.2d 1294). Plenty of cases such as New York City Friends of Ferrets v. City of New York (876 F. Supp. 529) involve litigation over whether ferrets are legal to own as pets.

The non-furry but curious tax ferret also appears frequently in cases such as R. C. Jones Cotton Co. v. State (1929 OK 482) where it was decided to “thereby save the county the fees paid the tax ferret.” During my searching, Lexis suggested the related search for the “anti-ferret rule” leading to 1213 cases dealing with this rule of evidence.

I found this all very interesting so I dug a bit more. The very first time that “ferret” appeared was in the case of Brown v. Union Ins. Co. heard by the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut (5 Day 1) handed down on June 1, 1811. The case was brought by the owner of the merchant ship Franklin when the insurance company refused to pay for the cargo lost when the ship was captured by the British sloop-of-war Ferret.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts became the next court to reference “ferret” in March of 1812 in the case of Robinson v. Jones (8 Mass. 536). Strangely enough, this case again involved both the British sloop Ferret and the merchant ship Franklin.

Picture of case in Munford Reporter

According to Lexis, the third case occurred on February 13, 1813, when the Supreme Court of Virginia handed down an opinion in the case of Custis v. Lane (17 VA 579). In this decision, the court became the first court to use the word “ferret” in a manner that has persisted to this day. The court refers to the curious nature of ferrets when it stated that the court should “detect and ferret out every shift and device.” (One can only imagine that the court was influenced by English court decisions. Using Hein Online, I found multiple references where English courts used ferret as a verb. In England, using ferrets to hunt rabbits is still quite popular).

I found it very fitting that the first use of “ferret” as a verb in a court opinion occurred in Virginia. Even more interesting to me, the case originated in Fairfax County near where I have lived for the last thirteen years. I mentioned the case to the excellent staff at Fairfax County Circuit Court’s Historical Record Center hoping that they might have some of the original documents. Unfortunately, the documents are no longer available (due to events of some historical importance in the mid-1800s).

Although they did not have any of the documents for this case, they did seem to recognize the name of the appellant. When I explained that the case was brought against Fairfax County Sheriff William Lane for refusing to allow the appellant Custis to vote in the election of 1809, their suspicions were confirmed.

To understand, we need to go into a bit of history. In 1790, part of Fairfax County had been transferred to the United States to become Washington, D.C. Mr. Custis’ land was included in that transfer. Then, in January of 1808, Virginia passed legislation requiring residency in Virginia in order to vote. Thus, we have Mr. Custis arriving at the polls in Fairfax County only to be turned away because he was a resident of Washington, D.C. True students of history may realize at this point that the case involved George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of George Washington, whose land was ceded to Washington D.C., later returned to Virginia, and eventually became Arlington National Cemetary.

Interestingly, the University of Pittsburgh Law Review states that this case is the first court decision on the issue of taxation without representation for DC residents. (109 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1010 (1961)). “The refusal to permit a person to vote, who is lawfully entitled, is an injury which deprives him of his rank in society, and subjects him to be taxed, and legislated for, without being represented.” Custis v. Lane (17 Va. 579, 590). This remains a touch issue to this day.

This case has so many interesting turns and there are still more. The case records state that the case was argued by Edmund I. Lee, but I unable to find any history for Edmund I. However, I was able to track down another Edmund Lee. Edmund J. Lee was a relative of Custis who served as mayor of Alexandria and had a long career as a lawyer. He was a well-respected member of the bar and argued before the Supreme Court. Although I have not been able to confirm this yet, I believe that Edmund J. likely argued the case.

Awesome case, right? Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

 Munford Reporter

After getting all excited over the Custis case, and doing all that research, it turns out that the Lexis entry was incorrect. When the helpful staff at the Fairfax Circuit Court Public Law Library provided a copy of the Munford Reporter for the case, I realized that the Lexis case entry included pages from the Appendix. In those days, corrections to cases were printed in the Appendix of the next volume. Unfortunately, Custis v. Lane was the last case in the volume and the Appendix began with the next page.  Whoever entered Custis v. Lane into Lexis included the pages from the Appendix by mistake. Unfortunately, our wily “ferret” appeared in the Appendix and not Custis. Even worse, the information from the Appendix never was used to update the case from the previous year’s volume. This means that “ferret” should have appeared in an earlier case in my search. The actual first case to use the word “ferret” as a verb was Watkins v. Taylor (3 Munf 595). (For Westlaw fans, you will be pleased to know that they had it right all along. Lexis grudgingly corrected the error once I brought it to their attention).

Although I tried to transfer my loyalty to Watkins, it just is not as interesting a case as Custis and does not have the same local ties for me. As a result, I have decided to keep Custis v. Lane as the official case of Ferreting Out Justice even though the case turned out to be ferret free. After all, it took quite a bit of ferreting to discover the truth.

 

 

 

As classes begin this fall, many law students have just finished their first opportunity to work in the legal field. As an ATJ Tech Fellow, my 1L (in law school, each of the three years is lovingly nicknamed 1L, 2L, or 3L) summer was spent in a non-traditional way. Since I am a non-traditional student, this fit me just fine.

Although the main project I was to work on was large, I found that I had time to tackle other projects. I mentioned this at a staff meeting and attorneys began mentioning little problems and annoyances. (Although I had to explain to one attorney that doing legal research using a computer did not qualify as a technology assignment). These jobs included everything from placing formulas in Excel sheets to programming the copy machine with staff email addresses. Although many of these jobs were more tedious than tough, they required time that the attorneys had not been able to find. By automating these daily annoyances, I was able to eliminate little frustrations. I am happy to say that I was able to help several attorneys with many little tasks that will make their tough job a little easier.

One of the jobs that I really enjoyed was creating fillable pdf forms. Although this may not sound like an exciting assignment, I knew that it could have a lasting effect. In this case, each of the forms that I created have been shared with attorneys across the state. Fillable pdfs may not solve the Access to Justice problem, but it can help smooth out some of the bumps. Literally minutes after I finished one form, an attorney asked if it was ready and used it for a case. The judge in the case was so impressed with the form that he mentioned it in open court. As you can imagine, the attorney was thrilled and bragged about it to everyone. And isn’t the job of an intern to make their attorney look great?

By volunteering for these extra assignments, I had the opportunity to learn new skills. This summer, I polished my flowchart skills using LucidChart, created fillable pdf forms with Adobe Acrobat Pro, automated Excel reports, began learning A2J Author, wrote press releases, created fliers for a new app release, and designed team shirts.

For law students looking for the point, it is this: Don’t be one of the interns sitting around waiting for something to do. Even if you don’t have a particular skill, take the opportunity to learn something new. In doing so, you will increase your skills and make life better for the attorneys.

But this attitude is not only for summer programs. Volunteering is great for life too!

This summer, I continued working on my social media game. This led to other opportunities such as starting a grassroots effort to get a mascot for the Michigan Supreme Court, booking Tom Martin to speak at my school, and becoming a videographer at ILTAcon.

 

Some might call my 1L summer less than ideal since I didn’t do traditional “legal” work and don’t have the magic legal writing sample that law firms love to require. I would argue that I have something better. I have new and better skills, I have several attorneys who have specific items that they can write about in letters of recommendation, and I have a firm that is eager for me to come back.

 

 

 

You may have noticed that I am not fresh from undergrad. Despite my life experience, I started law school with the vision that law practice would be filled with amazing technology and tools to make work more efficient. In school this year, I quickly learned that efficiency is not the pinnacle of achievement for law firms. Further, the great advances in office technology are nowhere to be found (at least not in the legal aid arena).

Through the years, I have observed that people often get caught in a cycle of inefficiency because they are so overwhelmed by their day to day tasks. If I had a nickel for the times that I have seen smart people doing menial tasks manually instead of harnessing technology, I wouldn’t need to worry about paying for law school. This summer, I found that legal aid attorneys are no exception. Many of them know that solutions are available but finding the time to work on those solutions seems overwhelming.

When managing an understaffed government office, I learned that investing the time to automate tasks saved time and energy later. Although the late nights and tussles with cantankerous computer systems were painful, by harnessing technology, I was able to make the office more efficient. This eventually allowed me to focus on other areas that needed improvement. In speaking to other offices across the country, I learned that staff claimed to hate the software that we all used. What I found was that organizations were rarely utilizing their systems fully. Many would use the system just as it was delivered from the developer without learning how to customize and make it work for them. This discovery led me to share tips and tricks on my blog and led to great speaking opportunities. Over time, I learned that system inside and out. I have to admit that leaving it behind was a bit sad for me. After all, I had become an expert in something that I thought I would never be able to use again.

This summer, I have learned that legal aid organizations also struggle with similar efficiency problems. I can’t tell you how emphatically people claim to dislike their case management systems that are supposed to make life easier. I venture to say that they dislike the system because they don’t know how to fully utilize it. Many organizations don’t have anyone dedicated to digging into these systems and customizing them to the organization’s needs. Further, the problem is exacerbated because there is no training program for staff. The manufacturer often doesn’t help by creating manuals that are not designed with the end user in mind. To make matters worse, organizations often begin using new systems before they understand how the system works. By not understanding where data goes and how the system pulls the data for reports, organizations severely limit their reporting capabilities. Even more egregious, instead of using the transition as a time to develop better processes, many organizations try to use the new system in ways similar to their previous system. These factors lead to underutilization and dissatisfaction.

When digging into my ATJ Tech Fellows project this summer, I was surprised to discover that the case management system used by many legal aid organizations is built on a platform very similar to my old government system. With my knowledge of these systems, I was able to help my host organization make a few changes to use their system more efficiently. (Even small changes can make a big difference for users). When I realized how many other agencies use the same system, I began dreaming of going from office to office to help.  I am not sure where this will lead, but I am open to the possibilities and I am excited by the prospect.

A few weeks ago, Miguel Willis challenged the ATJ Tech Fellows to create a “legal solution incorporating raced-based advocacy strategies and the design thinking process.” I’ll be honest, my first thought was “What?”, but then I remembered that back in February, I had the privilege to attend a workshop hosted by LegalRnD at Michigan State University College of Law. Margaret Hagan and Dan Linna walked us through the basics of the Legal Design Thinking Process. Through a series of exercises, we learned the basic steps of the design process:

  1. Visualize the ideas-make actual sketches
  2. Create a prototype of the possible solution
  3. Figure out the user’s needs to solve their real problem
  4. Don’t wait for perfection; test early and make changes

(The steps listed above are what I took away from the workshop and are a simplistic version of the actual process). At the time, I had no idea how I would use the tools learned that weekend.

In the article “Race-Based Advocacy: The Role and Responsibility of LSC-Funded Programs” by Camille Holmes, Linda Perle, and Alan Houseman, the authors define race-based advocacy as “that which actively challenges both current and historical barriers that impede equal access to opportunity and advancement by people of color.”

Here in Northern Virginia, there are many communities of color that need assistance. However, having worked in law enforcement in Prince William County during the crackdown on Latino immigrants, that population still holds a special place in my heart. I remember the fear and uncertainty in the community. In particular, I remember trying to answer a young mother’s questions about what might happen to her family.

After spending time in the design process, I was stuck. I observed clients struggling with transportation to come to their appointments. Although our office is conveniently near the courthouse, it poses a challenge to clients. Parking (if they have a car) is expensive, and public transportation with kids has added challenges. As I walked into the mall one night, the solution hit me. Why not have a legal kiosk in the mall to dispense basic information? Many public transportation routes run by the mall and there is plenty of free parking. Since many malls have meeting rooms, it would be possible to have clinics or workshops as well. (As it turns out, I am not the first person to have this idea. Back in 2011, several articles appeared describing a lawyer in West Palm Beach who opened a booth in a mall).

Continuing through the process, I considered other needs of the client. I realized that a family with little money to spend may not go to the mall, but the need for milk or toilet paper would likely send them to a corner store. From my time in law enforcement, I know that some convenience stores make a small desk space available for officers to do paperwork. Why not take advantage of this? I have decided that an even better solution than the mall might be a spot in a corner bodega.

Credit: The Simpsons from http://simpsons.wikia.com

I have to admit that this idea really excites me. I will probably not be in a position to test the theory anytime soon, but I think that making legal services convenient would be a great way to increase access to justice. If you know of similar programs, please share in the comments!

If you are interested in reading more about these topics, here are some great resources: