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:

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?

I have always loved keeping up with advances in technology. At times, I have considered going back to school to learn computer programming. Ultimately, my love of law won out and I chose law school instead. Getting involved with Michigan State’s LegalRnD program under Professor Dan Linna showed me that I can use my love of technology in the practice of law. I see technology as one of the many tools that I can put in my legal toolbox, and I am confident that technology will allow me to better serve future clients. (On a personal level, I am hopeful that technology will set me apart from other applicants).

When I read about the Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program on Twitter (#twitterjobs), I was excited. As it says on the website, the “Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program is a 10-week fully funded experiential learning program that places law students at legal services organization to develop innovative solutions that leverage technology, data, and design to expand access to legal services and improve our civil justice.”

When I saw that there was a host organization near my home in Virginia, I knew that I should apply. I have always believed that not asking means the answer will always be no, so I applied. I was so excited when I found out that I was chosen to be a Tech Fellow. As a non-traditional student, knowing that the Tech Fellowship board saw my potential was reassuring. I was even more excited to hear that the host organization was interested in interviewing me! Over Spring Break, I went to the interview and they offered me the position that day!

This summer, I am proud to be working with Legal Services of Northern Virginia (LSNV). LSNV is a non-profit law firm that provides legal assistance for clients with financial need. They also provide assistance to clients in at-risk populations such as domestic violence survivors and the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. Funding for LSNV comes from Legal Services Corporation, local governments, foundations, private bar associations, and donors. LSNV focuses on areas of law not covered by other organizations; this means that they provide services for civil instead of criminal matters.

 

“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . .. [I]t is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”

— Lewis F. Powell, Jr.

My project this summer is to assist with two guided interview systems. The first system will be used by front-desk staff to assess if a client is eligible for services, if there is a conflict that would keep LSNV from representing the client, and which attorney can see the client. LSNV is actually one of the largest law firms in Virginia, so matching the client to the correct attorney is critical. Many clients do not wish to repeat their stories or change lawyers once a relationship is established, so correct placement is important for their sake as well. The second part of the project will be used by the attorneys who provide advice by phone. If clients do not qualify for full services, the phone consult allows LSNV to provide information to help the client in their pro se (self-representation) efforts. The guided interview system will route the attorney through questions based on the responses of the client. Having these guides will allow attorneys to provide assistance for a variety of cases and not just their area of expertise.

In my previous career, I worked with a computer system that was built on a Microsoft® Access® platform. I learned that system from top to bottom in order to do my job as efficiently as possible. Last summer, as I anticipated the start of law school, I never dreamed that my previous work experience would ever be relevant in law. As it turns out, LSNV utilizes a case management program that is also based on a Microsoft® Access® database. Understanding how the system functions has been extremely helpful in working on the fellowship project. As the summer progresses, I hope to help the attorneys use underutilized features of the case management system to lighten their load.

I have had so much fun working at LSNV. I am excited to know that changing careers does not mean starting with a blank slate. Having skills that are immediately beneficial to an employer makes me so optimistic for the future!

 

Last summer, I was nervously awaiting the start of law school after let’s say a “few” years of being in the workforce. I was also preparing to go more than 600 miles away from my comfortable home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to live in a dorm in Lansing, Michigan. I was nervous about the many articles that warned potential law students to run, not walk, away from law school. The job outlook seemed dim for lawyers with some studies reporting as many as 30% of students unable to find work.

But I packed up and went anyway! I decided that I would do whatever I could to make myself more marketable. Fortunately, Michigan State College of Law has the LegalRnD program. As a lover of technology, I was thrilled to hear of the opportunities available in the legal field.  As a first-year student, I was not able to take any classes in the program, but I was able to participate in the student-run organization Legal Launch Pad. Through this, I met Professor Dan Linna who encouraged students to become active on social media. While participating in the school’s social media contest (I won third place!), I learned on Twitter about the Access to Justice Tech Fellows program. I am a firm believer that the answer is always no if you don’t ask the question, so I applied. After months of feeling less than competent in the classroom, it was exciting to find out that I had been accepted as a fellow. The program pairs legal aid organizations with law students who have an interest in gaining practical experience in legal technology. Each project varies, but both student and organization benefit from the partnership. This summer, I am excited to be working for Legal Services of Northern Virginia (LSNV).

After waiting so long to go to law school, it is exciting to be working in the legal field. I am even happier to be working for an organization that focuses on providing services to those with the greatest need. I don’t know where my journey will take me, but I am enjoying each step of the way!