In February 2020, the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 115, encouraging U.S. jurisdictions to consider a more innovative approach to the “access to justice” crisis to give all Americans meaningful access to effective civil legal services. Closing the justice gap—the difference between the unmet need for civil legal services and the resources available to meet that need—through innovation is not new. Two decades before Resolution 115, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) began funding the development of technology to help meet the legal needs of low-income Americans through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program, led by Glenn Rawdon (above left), senior program counsel for technology. Recently, I talked with Glenn about the TIG program and its efforts to close the justice gap. Below are the highlights of our conversation.
A little background on LSC and the TIG program may help you better understand the conversation. LSC is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. Through the Legal Services Corporation Act, Congress recognized the need to provide equal access to the civil justice system and high-quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel. To achieve these goals, LSC distributes more than 90 percent of its total funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with more than 800 offices.
Despite LSC’s efforts, millions of low-income Americans must represent themselves in civil court to secure housing or health care, retain custody of their children, or get protection from abuse. According to LSC’s April 2022 Justice Gap Study, low-income Americans get little or no legal help for 92% of their civil legal problems, many substantially impacting their lives. These problems are widespread, with 74% of low-income households experiencing at least one civil legal problem, 39% more than five problems, and 20% more than ten problems in the past year. Yet, LSC-funded organizations must turn away half of the people requesting legal help because of limited resources.
LSC hopes to close this gap through innovation. Since the TIG program’s inception, LSC has awarded more than $77 million to fund 826 technology projects for legal societies, creating innovative ways to better serve clients, strengthening program capacity, and supporting the work of pro bono attorneys. Glenn Rawdon details TIG’s efforts in the conversation that follows.
RF: Glenn, for nearly a quarter century, LSC’s TIG program has been a leader in using technology to close the justice gap. So, I couldn’t think of anybody better than you, the program’s manager throughout its history, to discuss the importance of technology in solving this critical challenge for our profession. Tell us whether you think we are in meeting this challenge.
GR: Unfortunately, Bob, when you automate an inefficient process, you wind up with an automated inefficient process, which doesn’t advance our cause. While TIG has introduced a lot of technology to close the justice gap, the justice system itself has not evolved to reflect modern realities so that society can fully benefit from those innovations. The justice gap forces many people to navigate the legal system by themselves because they cannot afford counsel in potentially life changing litigation, like evictions, divorce proceedings, or bankruptcies. At the end of the day, we are building technology to help unrepresented or underrepresented people navigate a system that was built for lawyers—and that is, to me, the crux of our problem. Technology cannot always level the playing field when consumer problems are resolved through an adversarial system designed for lawyers rather than for the people the legal profession is meant to serve.
RF: Let’s back up a bit and tell our readers what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis.
GR: I work for the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. My main job, as senior program counsel for technology, is to administer the TIG program, along with my colleagues David Bonebrake and Jane Ribadeneyra. When LSC started the TIG program in 1999, our goal was to use technology to improve the delivery of legal services by our grantees—legal aid societies throughout America—both in performing their jobs and in providing information and tools for those people whom our grantees lacked the capacity to serve. Our main function is looking at innovative ways that we can improve access to justice, then testing and replicating those innovations in legal aid programs around the country.
RF: Does TIG benefit only LSC grantees?
GR: Not at all. While we only make grants directly to our LSC grantees, those legal aid societies we serve around the nation in turn contract with other organizations, like Probono.net, Urban Insight, and CALI, for the products and services they supply for the TIG program.
RF: Can you describe some of your most successful technology innovations in the 22 years that the TIG program has been in existence?
GR: Well, while we’ve funded many successful innovations, several stand out at first thought. Early on, many applicants wanted funding for websites, which were not universal in the early part of this century when TIG began. We recognized that states with several legal aid organizations would be creating websites with duplicative self-help legal information. Thus, we incentivized applicants to create statewide websites, and we hired web developers to create templates so that money could be used to develop content instead of websites. We now have a system of 50 statewide websites in every jurisdiction, and in the territories as well.
Another major accomplishment was building, with the help of a donation from LexisNexis, a central automated document server, LawHelp Interactive, that serves all the legal aid programs across the country. We also licensed courts to use the server. Last year, that document automation server created nearly a million documents for self-represented litigants. Regrettably, not every court across the country has standardized forms, so that’s still a real issue in getting full adoption of standardized documents.
Finally, we’ve focused on improving the intake process so that you didn’t have to win the legal aid lottery of living close to an office to actually get served. First, we added hotlines so that someone could call from any place in the service area and be able to talk to an intake worker. Since then, we have created online intake systems, increasing the number of people applying for aid and ensuring that applicants qualify for services. Those are the really big accomplishments—the statewide websites, automated documents, and online intake process.
RF: How can volunteers lawyers, with little or no technology experience, help lend a helping hand in innovating legal services delivery to low-income Americans.
GR: Lawyers could do something like the adopt-a-highway programs, where they adopt a section in a statewide website and volunteer to ensure that all the self-help information within their area of expertise is always up to date. For example, real estate lawyers could help curate reliable real estate self-help content, probate lawyers, wills and other estate information, and domestic relations lawyers, divorce materials.
Moreover, pro bono lawyers could be extremely helpful in creating automated documents. Much like automated tax return programs, the document automation technology we’ve funded uses guided interviews, much like the interviews lawyers have with clients to prepare legal documents. While programming automated legal documents technology may require skills they don’t have, pro bono lawyers could still be helpful in two respects.
One, these guided interviews are simply decision trees, which lawyers create every day while interviewing clients. For example, when preparing a dissolution agreement, a lawyer might ask a client if he has children, and if not, would use a different legal form than if he did. Therefore, lawyers could help program automated legal forms by providing these decision trees.
Next, lawyers could volunteer to review the documents that are generated through these automated servers to ensure that they are accurate and current.
RF: Do you restrict the use of your technology to only those who qualify for services under your guidelines?
GR: Not at all. It’s up to our local programs to control who can access the resources that they have built using our funding. Once our grantees create statewide websites, anyone can find and use that information.
RF: So, the TIG program is not only impacting people who might qualify for LSC-funded legal services but also other folks who might not qualify for direct assistance if they walked into the legal aid their local legal aid society.
GR: Correct. There is no means testing for anybody to use the online resources our grantees create with TIG funding, at least any means testing the LSC imposes. Many people don’t satisfy our income requirements, yet they don’t have enough money to hire an attorney. We know that many of those people come to the websites TIG has funded for help.
RF: Do you think the pandemic has made lawyers and self-represented litigants more willing to rely on technology, particularly remote-access technologies?
GR: I think it has. But you left out the most important player in the adoption of new technology, and that’s the courts. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we can do much more as far as remote hearings and also electronic filings.
RF: What, if any, push back have you received from the legal profession regarding the innovations that the TIF program promotes?
GR: You know, some lawyers think we are doing a disservice to clients because they would rather see everybody receive bespoke legal services. It’s what I call the “Marie Antoinette rule.” You know, let them meet cake. If you win the legal aid lottery, you get an attorney. But 75 to 90% of people who qualify for legal aid services can’t get full representation because our programs are underfunded, so TIG has concentrated on getting them self-help tools. We’d rather give them something than nothing.
If they can’t have cake, let them have a ham sandwich by doing something to actually help them out. But we still get some of that resistance from those who believe that everybody’s got to have this lawyer. That goes back to what I was talking about earlier, changing our system. If we could make our system simpler, less adversarial, then you probably wouldn’t have that feeling as much among the lawyers.
RF: Finally, Glenn, have you ever been concerned that creating self-help technology crosses the line into the unauthorized practice of law?
GR: Often, lawyers think they are giving people advice when we’re just giving them legal information. Much of providing legal assistance is supplying legal information rather than legal advice, never crossing the line into the unauthorized practice of law. The distinction that I like to use is one from folks at the self-help centers in Los Angeles: “If you tell somebody what they can do, that’s information. If you tell them what they should do, that’s advice.” If we would use that one simple rule, we could provide a lot more assistance to the people that need it without running afoul of laws prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law.
RF: Thanks for your time, Glenn.
GR: You’re welcome, Bob.
About the Author
Robert Furnier is a visiting professor at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where for the last five years he has taught legal app development courses focusing on using technology to solve criminal and social justice issues. He chairs the ABA Law Practice Division Pro Bono and Public Service Committee.