Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans’ legal needs even more dire & legal tech firms are increasingly seeking solutions that will increase access to justice
In our ongoing column, Tech-Enabled A2J, Kristen Sonday, co-founder & COO of Paladin, takes a look at how legal start-ups and legal technology innovations are impacting the push toward better Access to Justice for more citizens.
Nothing has highlighted the complexity and magnitude of Americans’ legal needs quite like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vulnerable individuals now have to navigate unlawful evictions, loss of wages and benefits, and delays in court proceedings. Victims of domestic violence who are quarantined with their abusers face increased risks, as do incarcerated individuals and detained immigrants. There is an unprecedented need for legal assistance to help people navigate these life-altering circumstances both quickly and from a safe place — and thus, a unique opportunity for new access to justice (ATJ) legal tech solutions.
While ATJ legal technology is typically deployed within legal services organizations (such as document assembly tools like Documate), at courthouses through e-filings, and through consumer apps (like DoNotPay), a new champion is starting to incubate ATJ solutions: law firms. This development could potentially be game changing. Not only do law firms’ efforts add high-quality talent to the fight to close the justice gap, but also their work has inherent sustainability.
At the forefront is Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, whose software subsidiary, SixFifty, develops tools to make legal processes more efficient and affordable. SixFifty recently released two free automated tools — Hello Lender and Hello Landlord — in response to COVID-19.
Their first, Hello Lender, helps homeowners write a letter to a lender requesting a mortgage payment delay for six months under the federal stimulus. “We saw that many banks and other lenders were ushering people into their own forbearance programs that were much less favorable than the federal stimulus, so we decided to automate a letter that checks all the boxes for people in making the request under the stimulus specifically,” says Kimball Dean Parker, the CEO of SixFifty. The goal of Hello Lender is to help people stay in their homes by avoiding foreclosure, Parker explains, adding that in the first month of deployment, the app saw more than 1,300 uses.
Similarly, Hello Landlord was created to limit evictions: the product helps tenants write a letter to their landlord informing them that rent payment will be late due to COVID-19, and that they are most likely prevented by law from being evicted. “The federal stimulus prevents most landlords from evicting due to missed rent for 120 days,” says Parker. “It’s not clear that landlords know this, and many people leave their apartment at the threat of an eviction, without an eviction being filed.” In its first month, the app was used nearly 2,000 times, and since it was originally built with BYU Law School and the University of Arizona to help people write a letter to their landlord more generally, the team will continue its application after COVID-19 ends.
ATJ will expand in the future
While few firms are building full-fledged, free direct-to-consumer apps to address COVID-19 like SixFifty, other firms are lending technology expertise to assist with access to justice initiatives that will expand over time. For example, law firms are increasingly teaming up with legal services organizations to help move client intake from in-person to online, increasing the efficiency with which they can serve those in need.
Scott Powers, a partner at Baker Botts, which typically runs a regular in-person intake clinic with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas (VLS), says the crisis has accelerated how the firm uses technology to meet with clients. “Before the pandemic, we were already looking at ways to meet remotely with applicants for legal assistance who might not be able to travel,” Powers explains. “Now, with the ability to meet in person substantially curtailed, we had the potential for a significant new solution to address the gap in access to justice. VLS and others have stepped up by creating remote intake clinics, and volunteer attorneys have stepped up to staff those clinics, giving people a critically important avenue to legal services.”
The technology involved ranges from traditional phone calls to video platforms like Skype, and allows lawyers to serve more individuals safely and from a distance. Clients are no longer saddled with transportation costs, and don’t have to take valuable time off work to meet in-person.
Another example of a successful remote intake model is the collaboration between Perkins Coie, Microsoft, the WAVE Foundation, and the Domestic Violence Unit of the King County (Wash.) Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. These entities are partnering to provide remote legal services to survivors of domestic violence who may be quarantined with their abusers. “During COVID-19, the courts in King County have allowed petitioners for a protection order to submit their requests electronically and appear telephonically,” says Beth Henderson, senior attorney and pro bono lead at Microsoft. “This has allowed petitioners to obtain protection without making a trip to the courthouse and reduced the barriers to accessing the justice system.”
Although technology can create new ways for clients to access legal services, sometimes the best option is to go back to basics, notes Ellyn Josef, pro bono counsel at Vinson & Elkins. “We have done Skype clinics for years for small businesses and regular intake. However, clients would go to an office of the provider to Skype with the lawyers,” she says. “When we launched the new small business program, the telephone calls seemed less cumbersome for clients — and really for lawyers.”
Generally, feedback on remote clinic work has been positive, and ATJ leaders don’t see these remote clinics going away anytime soon. “Remote clinics are working well, and they are proving to be very efficient for both the applicants for legal assistance and the volunteer attorneys,” says Powers. “The transportation problem will continue to exist even after the pandemic is over, and so I anticipate the remote clinic concept will outlive the pandemic.”
Henderson agrees, adding that from her view of working with courts “there are efforts underway at the state and local levels in Washington to ensure that remote and electronic access to legal services will continue after COVID-19 for survivors of domestic violence.” And while there is much work to be done until every law firm has a group dedicated to new access to justice solutions like SixFifty, Henderson explains that “technology has offered a critical lifeline by allowing pro bono volunteers to consult with their clients virtually, and also by providing access to the courts.”
This progress, and its success thus far, are encouraging signs that law firms and in-house teams will increasingly support and help evolve current access to justice solutions within legal aid and beyond.