Software Development in Public Interest Law

The Florida Justice Technology Center (FJTC) was a Florida-based statewide 501c(3) nonprofit with a mission to increase access to justice using innovative technology. FJTC developed online tools to help self-represented litigants address their civil legal issues without a lawyer. The best examples of this are FloridaLawHelp.org, FloridaNameChange.org, and Turning18.org.

I founded FJTC with seed funding from the Florida Bar and the Florida Bar Foundation in July 2015. The Florida Bar Foundation took FJTC in-house in 2019. My work before creating FJTC included co-founding the Technology Initiative Grant program at the Legal Services Corporation and many years of independent consulting to legal aids, courts, and others working at the intersection of law and technology.

In all my experience creating online tools, legal aid organizations have played a pivotal role in helping technologists understand how the law works and how it impacts people. I hope this article will encourage more engagement by poverty law advocates in software development.

FJTC’s typical software development process looks like this:

 

FJTC development process

 

This is a fairly standard process you would find in just about any technology company. Circled in red are two steps in the process: empathize and test.

Empathize: Better Understanding our Clients

When FJTC set out to create a new tool, we found a subject matter expert (SE”) who works with us to ensure the legal accuracy of the tool, and also to help us identify and create user scenarios. Scenarios help articulate the problem we are trying to solve from the perspective of our target user. In the case of FloridaNameChange, the target user was a transgender individual; in the case of Turning18, the target user was the parent of a developmentally disabled child soon to become an adult. Working with our SMEs and their clients, we create a very specific user description. We use that user description to help us empathize—to fully understand the problem at a visceral level.

Legal aid advocates are the best SMEs for tech companies that are looking to create tools for self-represented litigants. They have the expertise to help tech companies not only make these tools accurate but also responsive to our client community. If tech companies rely solely on existing sources of expertise and client input; tools will get developed that the most vulnerable and underserved simply won’t be able to use.

There is another reason why its so important for poverty law advocates, and by extension our client community, to participate in legal tech software development.

When you build for the most vulnerable—i.e. the least tech-savvy, the least educated, those with the fewest resources—you build something everyone can use. If you build for the most tech-savvy, the most educated, those with the most resources; you build something only that group can use.

Take, for example, doorknobs.

evolution of doorknobs

It used to be that all doorknobs were round and required that you grab, hold, and twist (image on the far left). For many individuals with a physical disability, this was challenging if not impossible. Round doorknobs represented a very real barrier in the lives of those living with these types of disabilities.

The American Disabilities Act paved the way to remove those barriers and changed the living environment for all of us. Builders and architects developed and installed new doorknobs – levers that required that you grab and push down (image in the middle); a simpler movement for many. However, it still wasn’t inclusive enough. New buildings today often install a simple button that automatically opens a door (image on the far right).

As doorknobs evolved, able-bodied individuals always could still use the re-designed version. Actually, I am grateful for the push-button option—ever stand in front of a door with your arms full of groceries?

If we help tech companies build tools by working with our clients, we can not only ensure they will be able to use anything that gets developed; we can make sure everyone will be able to use the tool.

Test: Understanding our Clients and Putting Cash in their Pockets

Secondly, when FJTC went to test our tools (the last step in the process); we partnered with a legal aid and/or a social service agency, and asked them to identify and recruit users for us. We did this because the legal aid or social service agency is a trusted ambassador to the user we are trying to serve. While our client community may not be very educated, they are not naive. Trusted ambassadors connected us with users who would never have worked with us otherwise.

We paid our testers $10 for 30 minutes and $20 for one hour of one-on-one user testing. Many technology companies will pay for the time and expertise of focus groups and user testers. One-on-one user testing produces much more credible and robust results than the testing some organizations do—i.e., go to a courthouse and set up a table and ask random people to look at your software. That kind of testing often isn’t reliable or effective.

Working with tech companies to supply testers puts money in the pockets of our low-income community. We had one tester who was so excited to do the work and earn $10 because it would “buy a week’s worth of groceries.” Not only is paying user testers simply respectful of their time, but it is also a real benefit.

As technology continues to permeate our lives, and regulatory reform is posed to potentially dramatically increase technology investment in the legal space, I urge legal aid organizations and poverty law advocates to find ways to partner with technology companies and insert themselves into the software development process. It is a critical way to represent our clients’ interests and ensure they are not left even further behind.

About the Author

Joyce Raby is the founding executive director of the Florida Justice Technology Center and recently won the Paul H. Chapman Award from the Foundation for the Improvement of Justice for her work in legal tech. Contact her on Twitter @jaraby.

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