Today, legal service providers have the ability to serve more clients than ever before, due in large part to advances in technology. While technological developments can benefit for-profit and nonprofit legal practices alike, the nonprofit sector stands to gain the most from investing in new software, equipment, and electronic filing systems. This article explores the need for a shift in mindset by the nonprofit community, the technological tools available in the marketplace, and how to successfully ask funders to support these upgrades.
Cloud-based case tracking software is an invaluable tool that combines the features of dozens of products used in previous decades. The proliferation of video conferencing has reduced costs and increased efficiency for many practitioners and became a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Electronic filings, email, and remote working continue to drive down the cost of physical office space. As director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas (CCCTX), it is my responsibility to serve as many clients as possible while keeping costs low. One of the keys to my success in meeting this goal has been my ability to leverage available technology.
Throughout legal practices, including for-profit firms, there is an entrenched philosophy that the law is eternal and does not need to change with the times. This includes feeling that you are not doing your job unless it is being performed in an office, under direct supervision, while manufacturing work product on paper, all while whatever technology is being used remains trapped in individual silos. But with a small upfront investment in cloud computing and storage, practitioners can increase their digital footprint and retain all the security and accessibility that modern organizations need to be successful into the future.
For-profit attorneys and law firms have begun to understand the importance of leveraging technology in their practices. Many have begun to adopt more technology-based practices, including the use of digital storage and new forms of communication and marketing. Before coming to CCCTX, I was an associate attorney at a mid-size Texas law firm specializing in immigration. During my more than four-year tenure, I witnessed a battle of generational mindsets about how new technology should be used at our firm. Many tenured partners were wary of increasing our reliance on technology, while young senior attorneys pushed for massive investments to overhaul paper-based systems. Despite a divergence in mindset, the firm had the resources to invest in common-sense technological improvements. One such investment was the conversion of our entire paper filing system to digital storage. While this initiative was cumbersome and time-consuming at the outset, it resulted in significant savings in file storage costs and staff hours in the long-term.
As for-profit firms are reaping the benefits of their investments, in my experience, many nonprofits are still mired in a mentality that prevents them from using these groundbreaking tools in their practice.
My professional career before joining CCCTX was centered on a for-profit mindset. My mindset shifted when, after years of working on employment-based immigration pro-bono cases at a for-profit entity, I was pulled into the nonprofit sector to replace the former director of immigration legal services at CCCTX. In my new position, I had the opportunity to work on deficits in the U.S. immigration system while leaning on my prior immigration law experience. At the time, I was unaware that the greatest effect I would have in my first few years would be related to logistics and technology.
After starting at CCCTX, I quickly observed that most nonprofits lag far behind even the most traditional firms in their approach to digital case management, marketing, and file storage. This is intentional in many ways, as nonprofits must marshal their resources carefully, and most directors or senior attorneys in nonprofits see any money not going directly to a client service as an extravagance. I believe that this lack of vision stunts the growth of nonprofits by limiting their options and forcing staff to use antiquated processes or equipment. A shift in mindset must occur to face the due process challenges so many low-income persons experience in the United States. That shift must be driven by logic and data.
During my transition into the nonprofit world, I spoke with other legal service providers about the challenges they face in the industry. In those conversations, I discovered a mentality which perplexed me. Many insinuated that suffering or going without was simply part of working in the nonprofit legal services sector. In fact, it was almost a source of pride to run an organization with little to no technology, so much so their identity became wrapped up in the struggle. I knew in order to move my program forward I needed to reject this “Little Sisters of the Poor” complex.
I began researching useful legal practice technology, and in doing so I received much pushback internally and externally. Much of the criticism I encountered centered on requesting and spending money on the technological advancements I felt my program sorely needed. Many longtime employees expressed frustrations with an antiquated system and noted the impact it had on their ability to do their jobs. The agency’s computers were slow and unreliable, affecting everything from client service to legal research. We were not effectively mobile, hindering our best efforts to serve the 25 counties in our region, including many rural areas completely bereft of pro bono assistance programs. Files were stored in a myriad of file cabinets with no coherent tracking system in place. Many processes were being duplicated due to outdated paper-based processes that did not take full advantage of the technology we possessed.
After contemplating all these concerns, I determined the software system we were using did not meet our standards and began to research ways to address them with different tools. I found the most important component of a modern legal office is a cloud-based case tracking system for uploading documents. The system must be robust and secured off-site, with accessible and reliable technical support. These systems provide a myriad of benefits to their users. First, they afford efficiencies in document creation and tracking of court dates and case milestones. Second, they provide enhanced security for sensitive documents. As more courts begin to accept digital copies, digital signatures, and electronic delivery systems for filings, many nonprofits are failing to leverage digital resources, or worse, choose do so without proper security measures. Third, the digital document storage feature has quickly become the most valuable part of the system for our program. Nonprofits can find significant cost and space savings by eliminating paper copies of legal documents. This also allows nonprofits to keep files indefinitely, which has proven invaluable to our immigration law practice as many clients return for renewals or improving their immigration status. With these benefits in mind, CCCTX switched to a startup named FastVisa and has benefitted from much better service. I recommend other legal service nonprofits be open to utilizing newer software as they are often more amenable to customization, but take care to ensure they meet industry standards for safety and information security.
Beyond software systems, nonprofits should also consider investing in tools to improve or expand their virtual offerings. This was a priority for our organization, given that CCCTX’s service region spans 21,000 square miles and includes rural areas devoid of pro bono legal support. Nonprofits should not be timid while pushing into the future, and should invest in equipment, case tracking software, new communication or connection devices, and hardware that can expand the reach of legal services. If these tools are out of a nonprofit’s reach due to budgetary concerns, many local foundations and companies are willing to donate equipment or software. A compelling argument can be made about how this technology will either help the program reach new communities or how it will improve efficiency with current populations and allow for additional expansion within a community that is currently served. The key is to demonstrate, in detail, how these advances not only benefit the nonprofit, but also create new avenues to ensure all of our less fortunate neighbors can access due process securely no matter where they live or who they are. In our experience, most funders are open to providing technology as the entire ask or as part of a larger request.
In the case of CCCTX, we submitted a grant application for equipment to a local foundation. We were awarded iPads, Apple laptop computers, and a hotspot. We specifically requested Apple products due to their quality and longevity to ensure this equipment could be used for years to come. Never be afraid to ask for the best equipment to meet your program’s needs. The equipment will perform better, last longer, reduce staff frustrations caused by outdated equipment, and allow your organization and staff to save time and money in the long-term. With this new equipment, we are now able to register consultations remotely, conduct DACA and Naturalization workshops in rural counties and provide video language interpretation through the Stratus interpretation app. Five years later, our iPads and Apple laptops are still robust enough to handle all modern software and applications and have been especially vital to our COVID-19 operations.
The addition of technology and modern processes to our program increased outputs significantly. Our consultations and full representation cases increased by 30% after two years of implementation. By taking risks and working with newer software companies and startups we lowered our annual software costs by over $10,000 per year. The new technology also allowed to us expand to rural counties in our region, where we assisted folks in 21 of the 25 counties in our Central Texas service area over the last two years. If our team remained mired in practices of the past we would still be paying more to accomplish less, and the community would have gone without much-needed access to due process. It is time for the non-profit community to take advantage of the multiplying effect that new technology can offer, and to let go of the pride of shoestring representation. The equal application of law depends on those working with underserved communities looking beyond their feelings about spending money on innovations and finding new and innovative ways to marshal limited resources in the most efficient way possible.
About the Author
Justin Estep is director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas and has practiced immigration law for over 10 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.