This year I'm co-chairing the Louisiana Access to Justice Commission's Technology Committee. In recent years, this particular committee had become a bit neglected as our state focused on other critical issues like language access, unmet needs, and trying to escape the hell that is being one of only four states in the US with no legislative support for civil legal aid.
But now - we're back. This is a revival, so to speak.
Per the committee's mission statement, the purpose of this committee is "to explore and recommend technological solutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of legal services delivery and the justice system." Pretty straightforward, but also incredibly far reaching.
Where do we even go with that?
As most people in the trenches will tell you, the problem with the Access to Justice sector is that we are bound by a system in which organizations are not always afforded the time and resources to strategically plan and innovate. As we found out at the Technology Committee's first meeting, this means there is a lot of work to be done.
To be honest, I think the initial meeting of this committee induced anxiety more than it did comfort and excitement. There's something unsettling about spending 3 hours discussing issues our service providers face, only to realize that there are simply no way we can take each of these things on all at once.
Because of this, we all agreed that we had to ruthlessly prioritize.
To that point, I wanted to be sure we brought some type of structure to the chaos that we had just unveiled. I tried finding something off-the-shelf that would help us streamline this process, but couldn't find exactly what I was looking for.
Instead, I made a Legal Innovation Evaluation Framework that you might also find useful. It's essentially divided in to four components: Problem, Solution, Execution, and Prioritization.
I think it is fairly straightforward, so if you're done reading my ramblings, feel free to download it and be on your merry way. 😄 But if you're interested in the thought process behind it, please proceed!
Even the headings have substance here. The framework starts by asking the evaluator to identify a "top level" area of impact - the idea is to scale back as far as possible and identify the domain or function in which you'll be operating. For us, this was things like Advice Clinics, Volunteer Knowledge Management, and New Staff Training. After that, the evaluator should try to get closer to the target with "sub-issue" and identify the pain point they're experiencing in general terms. For example in "advice clinics," perhaps it's scheduling or following up with volunteer attorneys. You get the idea.
The heart of the evaluation framework focuses on getting very comfortable with the problem itself. This requires jotting down the evaluator's own understanding of the problem, and reaching out to staff people that do this work every day to get their thoughts. From there, the evaluator should document the current process as-is and identify any inefficiencies or redundancies that might be problematic. Who knows, a slight tweak in your process might go a long way.
This phase is about doing your due diligence. The framework asks the evaluator to go out and research what other jurisdictions have done regarding their issue or a similarly related issue. Let's not reinvent the wheel here!
I also want people to get invested in the project and provide their own ideas of the "perfect"solution. They get the chance to combine their research with their newfound-but-now-deep understanding of the problem to get some skin in the game. It's also super helpful when it's time to design or select a solution if the project moves forward.
But beware - this has the potential to fall off track. Hopefully I don't find that people are too married to their concepts when it's time to act. Alas, I think it's an important part of the exercise to get people's creativity flowing and cut down on time (this is a committee setting, after all). Plus, if the project is not selected in the near term, perhaps that person or organization can act on it anyway (yay for personal autonomy and getting things done!).
The execution portion of this framework is about nailing down the logistics of how this project might get done.
Stakeholders are going to have a major impact on the reality of any given project. So through this framework, evaluators are tasked to think long and hard about who this project affects.
We're also going to need to set realistic expectations about how the project can be funded, who can do the work, and how long it will take.
One thing that stood out to me during our first meeting was how different the problems our group shared were - mostly in scale. On one end of the spectrum, we had scheduling appointments. At other end was court data collection. We needed a way to objectively rank these projects, balancing feasibility with impact.
The prioritization section asks the evaluator to score their project on 6 factors:
Technical difficulty - how technically complex do you think this project will be?
Is it addressable with no technology or easy-to-implement on-market solutions? Or will it require an entirely custom solution.
Human resourcing - how much human support will be required to pull this off? Is the committee enough, or do we need a full time employee to manage the project, or even a team of people?
Financial commitment - will this effort be cheap, involving very minimal initial and/or ongoing costs? Or is this a major lift that will require some creative funding strategies? (Let's be honest, this one is probably one of the biggest factors. See above musings re: chronically stretched-thin access to justice resources.)
Implementation - how hard will stakeholder adoption be and/or how much behavior modification will be required of those impacted by this project?
Sustainability - is this something that can just operate or exist on it's own after it's complete, or will it require regular governance / maintenance and thus some level of dedicated staff for it to survive?
Impact - how impactful is this project on the "legal experience"? This will likely vary by stakeholder, but I think most innovations have a somewhat similar magnitude of effect on the system.
Luckily, the evaluator should have a good understanding of these components from their earlier efforts. This portion of the framework is not to dissuade the pursuit of a project, but to be as honest and realistic as possible up front about its difficulty - mostly so there are no surprises, and to be sure everyone is fully on board.
Well, there you have it! It can be a challenge to get everyone on board with a particular project. I believe this framework helps remove some of those interpersonal barriers by bringing objective facts to the forefront of the conversation. Hopefully this gives you a solid foundation for cataloging and prioritizing legal innovations in your work.
If you'd like the editable Word version, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'm happy to share!