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:

Several years ago, I stumbled across a “welcome” mat that said “Leave” instead of the traditional greeting. Just for fun, I bought it and placed it at our front door. However, I soon moved it to the back door because I couldn’t bear the message it would give our guests. It even bothered me that the postal worker might feel slighted when dropping off packages.

Photo Credit: KitchenAgenda.com

Working in a legal aid organization this summer has made me consider how our clients feel when they walk in the door. Do they feel welcome, or is the “leave” mat at our door?

One of the first things our clients face when arriving at the office is a slew of forms that need to be filled out. For those that don’t fall into the “norms” of gender identity and sexual orientation, these forms often reflect society’s traditional viewpoint. For example, if the only option for gender is Male or Female, does the client answer what it says on their birth certificate even if it may not reflect their identity?

Consider this video by The Chronicle of Higher Education that details the problems faced by students entering a classroom:

Unfortunately, the classroom is just an exemplar of the wider problem.

I believe education is the way to solve many of society’s ills, and one way to learn is by asking questions. However, confronting a stranger may not be the best way to get answers about these issues. Rude is still rude, even if well-intentioned. Jackson Bird gives a great TED talk on this:

I am far from an expert in this area, although I have friends from various areas of the gender identity spectrum. Quite often, even they don’t agree in some areas. My goal then is to provide resources to help others gain at least a better understanding.

Life is hard enough for our clients. Shouldn’t our mission to help them begin when they walk in the door?