New Modes of Pro Bono

Ideabook

In response to the design brief, the student team brainstormed many possible ideas to address the user’s challenge. From this wide brainstorm, they selected some of the most promising ideas to present to OneJustice for feedback. Here are the ideas & the feedback they received.

Idea 1: Outsourcing the Delivery and Filing of Court Documents

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OneJustice suggested that we may want to consider the role that large law firms could play in fulfilling this project because many of them have their own services that provide these services for their firms already.

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Idea 2: Legal Aid Client-Intake Platform

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Legal Design class - Spring 2015 - Slide14OneJustice said that this idea touches on the big issue, which is the need to reduce the time spent by attorneys on administrative tasks.  They said it would be great if clients could provide attorneys with as much of their intake information as possible, and if, through the use of data extraction tools, the appropriate court forms could automatically be populated.

Idea 3: Outsourcing Administrative Work

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OneJustice liked this and suggested that we contact local firms to ask whether they would be interested in providing legal aid attorneys with access to their overseas administrative staff.

Idea 4: Client Dashboard

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OneJustice was concerned that this is currently done by various firms in a piecemeal way, which has contributed to the ineffectiveness of these platforms. Yet, OneJustice told us, there is definitely a need for a platform here to assist legal aid clients.


Prototyping & Testing

We decided to prototype the document-pickup-and-delivery service.  Our plan was to ask law firms to donate the time of their filing agents—staff members who drive documents to court and file them—so that legal aid agencies can use these agents as well.  We estimated that, in many geographies, this service could save 2-3 hours of attorney time per trip, per participating legal aid agency.  This could significantly increase the amount of time that legal aid attorneys have to deal with more valuable substantive law matters.  Moreover, we feel that the additional cost to law firms is limited, as firms’ filing agents already spend time travelling to courts.  The filing agents would essentially be asked to make a stop at the legal aid agencies on the way.

We prototyped the following:

  • Printed forms from the Judicial Council website
  • Drove from Stanford to the San Mateo County Superior Court
  • Parked the car at a nearby doughnut shop due to limited parking at the court
  • Walked through security at the courthouse
  • Located the filing area in the court
  • Waited in line to file documents
  • Spoke with a filing officer, who typically stamps the documents
  • Saw a waiting area, where documents can be dropped off and picked up later once stamped
  • Returned to Stanford

We also prototyped a software tool that would allow OneJustice to match legal aid agencies with drivers.  We created a Google form that asks:

  • What is the name of your legal aid organization?
  • At which court would you like to file documents?
  • In what departments at the court should we file your documents?
  • Have you attached payment to each filing (check or cash) to cover the filing fee?
  • On what days do you need documents to be picked up and filed?
  • By what time on these days must the documents be filed with the court?
  • What is the pickup address?
  • What is the return address?
  • Do you have any special instructions?

We then practiced using this form, playing the roles of legal aid agencies, and practiced matching various legal aid agencies with hypothetical drivers from local law firms based on the law firms’ addresses.

Lessons learned

We discussed our prototype with several of the key stakeholders previously mentioned, and with new stakeholders, including the senior family law facilitator and the family law filing officer in San Mateo court.

The staff at San Mateo court stated that this service would provide significant value by saving time for the legal aid attorneys who wait at the courthouse every day to file documents.  One pro bono coordinator at a large firm was not as positive. He was worried that the service would be difficult to scale. Other feedback providers stressed the importance of handling the handoff and drop-off properly – as this involves more than one party working together.

The family law facilitator and family law filing officer in San Mateo court answered several key questions about the process for filing documents.

Q: Who is able to file documents?

A :Anyone, provided that the person files the documents together with the required fee.

Q: How long is the wait for each line, and are there any exceptions?

A: 45 minutes to an hour per line.  However certain urgent filings like restraining orders get priority services with reduced wait times

Q: Is it possible to file documents in multiple divisions of the court at one time?

A: No.  This could be a problem for big law firms who will rarely file documents in the family law division.

Q: Is this document delivery service be a viable solution?

A: Yes, especially since the family law line at the filing registry is often packed with legal aid attorneys.

Q: Is there the possibility of e-filing documents with the court?

A: Not currently, and they don’t believe that any e-filing technologies will be available for at least the next two years.

Overall, our testing validated our hypothesis that a document filing service could successfully be implemented and that this service would significantly reduce the amount of time legal aid attorneys spend on administrative tasks.

We also determined that we would prefer for the drivers to come from law firms.  Law firms’ filing agents are familiar with how court documents are filed and would require little training.  Furthermore, law firms’ participation would drive down the cost.  A standalone driver would cost between $10,000 and $15,000 per year.  A law firm could provide the same service for a small fraction of the price, since firm personnel regularly travel to court.

Remaining concerns

The most important remaining concern was whether law firms would participate in donating the time of their filing agents.   One reason why firms might not participate is that they could be concerned about liability from handling the documents of non-clients.  However, a managing partner at a San Francisco-based law firm assured us that this risk is significantly less than the risk of representing clients on a pro bono basis, since there would be no attorney-client relationship.  The risk was likely manageable.

Second, we were concerned that law firms may prefer to donate the time of attorneys rather than administrative staff because they are used to receiving recognition for attorney pro bono hours but not for pro bono hours for administrative staff.  A managing partner at a San Francisco-based law firm explained that, while pro bono administrative time likely does not fall within ABA pro bono criteria, if that time would meaningfully assist legal aid agencies, he would be happy for his firm to provide the service.