Lawyers Love Paper – Civil Legal Aid Can Love Technology As Well

By: Maria Hibbard

If there’s one thing I learned in my first year of law school, it’s that lawyers love paper. Outlines, textbooks, rulebooks, and more outlines – lawyers may be the only people who still have their noses in a book in a futuristic day when our smartphones are attached to our bodies.

In this digital age, though, it’s time to talk seriously about the potential to harness the functions of the many rapidly developing digital tools and streamlining access to legal resources. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) held a Summit on Technology and Access to Justice discussing this very issue just outside D.C. last week, and as Richard Zorza writes, it is an exciting time to think about how investing in the development and security of low-cost or free online legal tools can help improve access to justice – even in the face of constant budget cuts and funding struggles.

The Technology Initiative section of the Legal Services Corporation annually makes grants to legal services organizations to develop tools and services that harness the power of technology. This speaks to the legal services community’s commitment to better employing technology – and, for today’s tech-savvy law grades, the  increasing need for individuals to have access to easy-to-read, accessible legal resources online opens the door for a potential Equal Justice Works or Skadden fellowship proposal at a welcoming organization.

Just as examples how the legal services community is engaged on technology issues, here are some of the projects discussed at the recent summit and at the Technology Initiative’s annual conference in January:

  • WriteCleary.org provides Creative Commons licensed civil legal aid resources that can be easily referenced and edited, as well as a “Plain Language Gadget” that can help take out “legalese”
  •  Sharelaw.org and Sharelawvideo.org encourage civil legal aid organizations to share resources in order to avoid “reinventing the wheel” where it’s not necessary
  • Legal Services of Northern California maintains the Google API project, an initiative that shows how secure cloud-based case management systems can be integrated with the Google Apps platforms to maximize efficiency in organizations
  • Lawhelp.org and Probono.net provide a jumping-off place for access to civil legal services organizations and resources for pro bono work

With the help of these tools and many others, it should ever-easier to maximize productivity and maintain the data about clients and services that is needed for civil legal aid organizations to compete for competitive grants from LSC and other funding sources, showing how increased access to civil legal aid can save society money in the long run. The LSC strategic plan for the next four years outlines concrete ways in which it can spur civil legal aid organizations on towards using data and technology to move forward. It’s certainly a developing area in the access to justice community, though: how can your ideas help innovate the system?

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