User login

Providing Legal Services Remotely


Hello everyone! If you weren’t on today’s LSNTAP/Idealware webinar on “Providing Remote Services,” you missed out on some great ideas – but never fear! Here are some of the highlights:

Our panelists today included:

To begin, Laura Quinn defined a problem that many legal aid organizations are facing: the challenge of providing quality services across a wide geographic area with limited resources. What are the most effective ways to tackle this problem? To find out, Quinn and Pope spoke with 12 organizations providing various types of human services (including legal aid). They found that there were three main avenues for remote services to take:

  1. Take your services on the road,
  2. Help from afar, via telephone calls, video conferencing, live chat, or other methods, or
  3. Provide on-demand or pro se resources.

1. Take your services on the road

To begin the section on mobile-type legal services, Ed Higgins discussed MLSA’s kiosk project. Three kiosks or computer stations have been installed at courthouses and libraries in the eastern part of Montana. This area is typically underserved by traditional legal services, due largely to its remote, sparsely populated nature.

The kiosks (set up in Wolf Point, Lewistown, and Miles City, MT) allow users to access MLSA’s online resources and a live chat feature to help them navigate to the appropriate parts of the site. The kiosk in Wolf Point has additional information on the tribal law (as well as Montana law), since it is located in a tribal courthouse. In the first six months of their operation, the kiosks saw a combined traffic of 50 users per month – a number which might not sound like much to an outsider, said Higgins, but is pretty considerable, given the low population density of the area. In fact, the kiosks have been a great way to provide help to people in areas where MLSA simply doesn’t have a presence, or has a hard time reaching.

Setting up the kiosks cost approximately $2,500 each, plus the staff time involved. MLSA used SiteKiosk software from Provisio. So far, they’ve found that the kiosks located in libraries are more accessible (since libraries tend to have longer hours), but those in courthouses tend to get used more (possibly due to a “one-stop-shop” mentality among users).

As far as lessons learned, Higgins said that choosing partner sites and building a good relationship with them is key. Since you’re not physically present to keep an eye on the kiosk, they need to be enthusiastic and willing to play that role for you. You need to be informed if something goes wrong with the computer or software, and you need the partners to tell people about the kiosk in the first place, so they know that it’s even available. One key to a successful kiosk program is to see if you can set up an unused or extra computer already at the site as a kiosk. This drastically lowers the start-up cost for your organization and could increase partner commitment to the project. One benefit of a kiosk program is that there is not a lot of upkeep needed on either the computer or the software.

Next, Elizabeth Pope covered an entirely different approach to mobile legal services: a bus! She talked about the New York Legal Aid Group (NYLAG) Mobile Legal Help Center (MLHC), a project in New York City and Long Island that brings a custom-built vehicle to underserved areas for on-the-go legal services. The bus has four meeting rooms and a video chat link set up so that emergency hearings can be conducted right from the bus.

As far as caseload, the MLHC sees about the same types of cases – housing, domestic violence, etc – as their traditional offices do. However, the demographic reached by the MLHC is often people who’ve never sought out legal services before and often who don’t speak English. As a result, the staff (which rotates through duties on the bus) has been very pleased with the program.

The start-up cost for a program like this can be quite high – the bus was donated, but had it been bought, it would have cost into six figures; not to mention upkeep, technology costs, and staff time. Other challenges include simply navigating a vehicle that massive through the streets of New York City, maintaining a reliable data connection, and finding areas of need which will be worth visiting, and setting up appointments.

To overcome these, Pope suggests traveling familiar routes or those that have been successful in the past, connecting with representatives of each community before visiting, and staying abreast of improvements in Internet and mobile technology. One of the major (unforeseen) benefits of the MLHC is that it has allowed NYLAG’s service delivery to continue uninterrupted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, even though they can’t use their own offices for the next six weeks.

nylag mlhc

Pope next talked about a similar project – except that it is on a boat and in Maine. This “telemedicine” project, called the Maine Sea Coast Mission (MSCM), began in 1905 to bring religious services to Maine’s island populations, and in 2002 added a health clinic component as well. A nurse on board the boat uses electronic stethoscopes, gastrointestinal scopes, and other equipment to stream a checkup to a specialist on the mainland, who also uses video conferencing to take part in the appointment. Like the MLHC, the organization uses a Google calendar to share the boat’s schedule with islanders.

One key component to success has been building relationships over a period of time with patients (who are often reluctant to participate at first) and the community at large, so that they trust the nurse and the technology to do their jobs. There have also been some insurance issues with compensating doctors for their participation, as well as scheduling doctors to take part in the first place. MSCM has found it useful to find doctors with ties to the islands, as they tend to be more willing to participate. Forming close ties themselves with the communities they visit has also aided MSCM’s success, as has a lot of publicity for their visits. Social “coffee hours” and other events on the boat have also made clients feel more comfortable.


At this point, Quinn pointed out that using a bus, boat or other vehicle to take services on the road has a pretty well-proven track record of success; however, as Higgins mentioned in regards to Montana, there isn’t always enough population density to justify a project like this. The appropriateness of a project like MLHC or MSCM depends on the demographics, and particularly the density of the population your organization serves.

2. Help from afar

Quinn next brought up various ways to provide services from afar – obviously, phone calls are an option, as is live chat and video conferencing. For example, a foster care and adoption organization in Florida called Our Kids received a donation from AT&T that allowed them to provide foster families with broadband Internet to allow social workers to check in with kids regularly.

In addition, Tony Lu covered some of Pro Bono Net’s recent video conferencing experiments. The experiments include replacing phone calls with video chatting to build rapport, as well as including a “video conference” button for clients after they fill out an A2J form to apply for services, so that an attorney can go through their application with them. They’ve also looked into setting up video conferencing infrastructure for pro bono attorneys in courthouses, as they’re already there and it would minimize the travel they need to do to participate in pro bono.

In response to a question about data security in a video conference, the panelists agreed that as long as one uses a closed WiFi connection, there is no reason to think that video conferencing is any less secure than a regular phone line. It’s possible to breach either, but it shouldn’t be an “overriding concern,” as long as reasonable safeguards are taken.

Next, Quinn talked a bit about SMS (text messaging) campaigns at various nonprofits. Overall, the method is unproven, though campaigns like TXT4LIFE (for suicide prevention in Minnesota) and MobileCred (approving microfinance loans via text in India) abound.

3. Provide on-demand or pro se resources

Lu again took the floor to talk about boosting the usability of available pro se resources. We Own the Dream, a joint venture of Immigration Advocates Network (IAN) and Pro Bono Net (PBN), provides users with information about the recently-enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), as well as a screening tool for eligibility and help with the application process. It uses an A2J interface and provides the user with a printable PDF document upon completion. An SMS campaign is integrated, which is particularly successful because the demographic served is young people. Users “opt in” to receive text message alerts, which in turn leads even more people to the website.

So far, 13,000 people have used the interface, and developers are pleased with its progress. Some challenges faced by the project include the tenuous situation of DACA to begin with, as well as the fact that A2J can’t be used on iOS (Apple) phones. However, the We Own the Dream team has found that a strong publicity campaign has helped quite a bit, as has using a mobile platform.

Other innovative and compelling examples of on-demand resources can be found in the video series produced by Illinois Legal Aid, which combines video and animation for a more interesting viewer experience. Idealware’s eLearning lessons are also a good example of combining PowerPoint, video, screencasts, audio, and polls or quizzes for a great training experience.

Mobile apps are also of course an option; Lu talked about the CitizenshipWorks app which includes a “flash card” component to help users prepare for the English, civics, and American history tests that go along with a citizenship application.

“Gamification” of resources (that is, the effort to make learning fun or more game-like) is another recent trend. Pope also talked about iCivics, an initiative founded by Sandra Day O’Connor to educate young people about civics and government. The site wasn’t terribly popular until developers started to work with teachers to integrate it into lesson plans, so that kids access it through their schools. iCivics currently has 17 games, each of which cost in the low six figures to develop.

Mindblown Life is another example of gamification. This iOS app (funded partly via Kickstarter) is designed to teach teens financial literacy – things like budgeting and balancing your checkbook. The total budget, like iCivics, was in the low six figures.

To wrap things up, Quinn listed a few key themes that came up as she and Pope conducted research. First, remote options aren’t cheap – at least in terms of the start-up cost – but they can easily scale to a larger operation.

Second, outreach is a critical step and is vital to building trust with the community you’re looking to serve.

Third, scheduling is still going to be an issue for any real time services (i.e. taking your services on the road or providing services from afar). In fact, it can actually be harder.

Fourth, in deciding whether or not your organization should provide service remotely, you should weigh the quality of service you could provide remotely against your reach; that is to say, ask yourself if quality is of paramount importance, or if some help is better than no help at all. After all, it’s unlikely that remotely-provided services will match traditionally-provided services in quality.

Fifth, you should always have a Plan B, especially for those fickle tech-dependent projects. If your technology goes down, as we all know it does, there should be an alternative or backup method for service delivery.

Finally, the panelists shared some parting words of advice. Lu advised listeners not to forget about the user interface of your site/app/etc; the usability of a site can make all the difference in whether or not users want to continue with it or not. Brian Rowe emphasized the importance of a connection with the community you’re serving and with the staff you’re working with. This will allow you to analyze what works and what doesn’t and for the technology to evolve over time. And, Higgins reminded us that technology is not in and of itself a solution; it is merely a vehicle to the solution to clients’ legal problems. As such, it needs to be usable, and a built-in evaluation tool would be useful in determining if the target audience was able to use the technology effectively.

For the full webinar recording, visit LSNTAP’s YouTube channel or see below; for the slides used in the presentation, see SlideShare (slides coming soon). Comments and observations are, as always, welcomed in the comments section below.

Good luck everyone and happy Wednesday!