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!