Originally published at: https://raisingthebar.org/legal-navigator-blog/456-legal-navigator-blog-3
Using technology is a great way to bridge the justice gap, but data-driven decision making helps shine a light on where the needs are so efforts are appropriately channeled from the start.
There's no denying that when it comes to legal services, Louisiana is a high-needs state. Every single day, hundreds of people seek assistance from legal service providers across our state, and it's often impossible to meet every need. Similarly, building out a comprehensive platform that aggregates, classifies, and delivers information on every single legal issue our community experiences is no small task. In short, it's best to lay the foundation and work your way up. So, the best place to start is by asking the simple question: What will make the most impact? To that we say - follow the data.
Thanks to rigorous LSC reporting requirements, legal service programs are already sitting on a wealth of data. Of course, using that data is a critical starting point. But beware - it's important to remember that this particular source of data has its own built-in bias. Namely that it largely focuses on the people that were actually served by the program (at least in some capacity). And remember, this project and others like it are primarily driven by the desire to reduce the number of individuals in need that are un-or-under served. Nonetheless, we can still draw meaningful insights from the volume of cases our community partners serve. It effectively serves as a proxy for the needs of the larger, un-served community.
In Louisiana, we looked at case type data from each of our LSC and specialty grantees from 2013-2017:
Overall, the data reflected (and confirmed our suspicions!) that people most often seek legal help for their family law issues. Divorce, spousal abuse, custody/visitation, "other" family law, and child support made up 5 of the top-10 case types handled in our evaluation period. It was interesting to view the data even more granularly by year. In 2016-2017, divorce cases spiked among our grantees. The stakeholder group attributed that rise to widespread flooding that occurred in South Louisiana in 2016 - and all of the stress that came with it. Though divorce cases are always high, it was insightful to break down the data further and give ourselves a chance to normalize the occurrence of certain case types and better understand their temporal context.
In our next quest for data, we remembered that in 2016, the Legal Services Corporation requested a widespread data collection effort on unmet needs - exactly what we need!
This data source, though small and collected over a limited time-frame, also validated our intuition that family law issues are one of the most under-served in our community. While consumer law issues topped the charts, family law was not far behind.
Finally, we looked at statewide Louisiana LawHelp web traffic to better understand what information people are looking for when they seek legal guidance online. What better way to understand how and for what people would use our platform?
The data showed a drastic need for information on unpaid wages, followed closely by landlord-tenant issues, and finally (you guessed it!) family law issues. Breaking down the data by year highlighted a spike in page views for unpaid wages, but overall supported our conclusion that people looking for help online are largely affected by landlord-tenant / eviction issues and unpaid wages.
So, with all of this data, it's time to make some decisions! Doing that is not as easy as you'd hope. It's tempting to take the top areas and run with them. However it is equally important to make sure you have adequate resources and subject matter experts that can devote time to the project. In our case, despite the data showing a large unmet need for consumer law, we simply did not have the resources and human capital available to tackle that subject matter.
In the end, our stakeholder group agreed on four Areas of Impact to kick off our project: Divorce, Child Custody / Visitation, Landlord-Tenant / Eviction, and Unpaid Wages.
Choosing only one data source as gospel could have lead us down a different path. Of course, any chosen legal issue will be of at least some value - and one day we'd love to have this platform encompass all of these very important issues. However by staying focused and asking the right questions - How can we make the most impact? Where do we have the most support? - we are well on our way to collecting information and building the infrastructure that will help the most vulnerable among us increase their chances of interacting with the justice system in a fair and functional way.