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From Foodstamp Advocacy to Screencasting

On desktop tech support problems I have a two email/phone call limit. I think it is the old public benefits lawyer in me. After two clients in close succession with the same foodstamp problem I started to think about systemic problems and solutions. Same with tech issues, after two calls or emails from users with the same problem I start to think systemically.

For me, thinking and acting systematically for tech usually just means firing off an email to all users in the program or to the office CRPs with instructions on how to fix the problem. However on occasion the instructions are just a little too complicated for an email (meaning they have more than two steps). For those times I've found that recording a little screencast can be an effective way to help others help themselves and save myself some time in the long run. This is especially true if it is going to be a while before our next program meeting or group CRP call when I could demonstrate the solution live.


For those of you who haven't ingested the web 2.0 brownies YET a screencast is "a digital recording of computer screen output often containing audio narration." Check out the rest of the Wikipedia screencast article if you need know more. In order to create these little snippets of self help manna you need some software to record and edit your screencast. I've tried three screencasting apps (Wink, Camtasia Studio and Screencast-o-Matic) with success over the past year or so and as with most they all have their strengths. All three allow you to do the basics: capture screenshots, record cursor movements and audio narration, edit your recording, add explanations boxes, buttons, titles etc and generate a highly effective tutorial for your users.

Three I've Tried

Wink is the first recording app I tried as it is offered free for "business or personal use" which I suppose doesn't cover nonprofit use but I won't tell if you don't. They offer Windows and Linux flavors. Wink was pretty straight forward to use but to took a little work to get the handle on editing. But hey for the money it certainly does the trick.

Camtasia Studio 4 is definately the Ferrari of the group I tried. But at $299.00 list price it would normally be a little out of our price range. However, it turns out that TechSmith, the makers of Camtasia (and Snagit Screen Capture - a favorite of Hugh Calkins; the Elderstatesman of Legal Service Technology) is located just up the expressway in Okemos, Michigan. They graciously donated a copy of Camtasia to our program in exchange for an interview with me in their client newsletter. I had no idea that my interviews were worth $300 bucks - I'm going to have to start charging Gabe every time she calls. Anyway, after installing Camtasia it was quickly apparent that it is a much more polished app that was easy to get up and recording in no time. I also found the editing features must easier to grok and the overall feature set much broader. They also offer numerous audio/visual formats for saving your completed recording and a fee based hosting service ( to publish your completed "casts" (as we say in the biz).

Screencast-o-Matic is a site I just discovered but holds a lot of promise. It is entirely web-based (Java) with nothing to download and right now it is entirely free. It seems to have a pretty basic feature set but for our purposes it may be enough. The other spiffy thing about this web 2.0 app is that it has built in hosting. As you might imagine with a web-based app you can create, edit, upload and publish all in one fell swoop. The site lets you create custom channels for organizing your published casts and keep them private (out of the search stream) if you so desire. Screencast-o-matic is currently in Beta right now and one has to wonder if they are planning a fee based model for later. However from the looks of it they may be headed more toward an ad-based revenue stream.

CamStudio - from the This Just In Dept. Don Carder from Atlanta reports that CamStudio is a spiffy little Windows screencasting utility this is free. I haven't had a chance to check it out but if Don says it is worth a look, I will definatly check it out.

Screencast Hosting

A word about hosting. If you don't have access to your own web server you'll likely want a place to publish your screencasts for easy accessibility for your audience. Most of the video hosting services (and there are a ton these days) accommodate screencasts. You could easily use one of these free services to host your screencasts. Although I haven't tried a lot my favorite is

Quick Tips

A couple of quick screencasting tips based on experience:

  • Set-up a separate Screencast Profile - I've found it much easier to set-up a separate Windows user profile with a paired down desktop to do my recording in. Less screen clutter and simple background means smaller screencast file sizes which is always a good thing.
  • Don't over edit - I realized pretty early on that I am no James Earl Jones. Let's just say that Millie Vanillie had more to work with than I do. No amount of editing is going to make my casts sound better. At first I was eating up huge amounts of editing time trying to make myself sound better. Don't sweat it. For my money screencasts start to lose their utility if you're spending days editing and perfecting them. As long as you are getting the info out there in a semi-understandable way, cut, print and move on. You could write out a script which will help but again you have to CBA that against the amount of time to invest on any given cast. Just keep them short, speak slowly and pause recording regularly and they will be fine. Just to show you how screencasting has helped me get over my pride issues I've included links to a couple of casts I have done below.
  • Download Sizer - Sizer is a little freeware utility which adds right-click functionality to Windows to allow you to resize any window to an exact, predefined size. This is mighty handy for screencasting.

Spiffy Screencast Samples (say that 3 times fast)

I hope these samples show that you don't have to be Jim Jarmusch to produce a serviceable screencast. Here are some "one take" casts I've done using two of the apps I mentioned above:


I write a "Something About Technology" column for our state Bar Journal. It's fun. It isn't too much work - only four issues per year. It creates a good relationship with our State Bar Association. Although the column isn't always about legal aid technology, it often is, and it almost always makes at least some reference to legal aid. It's a good way to keep our work in the minds of the private bar. I think we should take more advantage of these opportunities. Many state bar journals are anxious to find good, well written, entertaining content.

Here is a column from last year called "Building the Virtual Lawyer."

Several people have told me they like the Something About Technology column because they can usually find something helpful to use in their work. Hopefully we'll have something for them in the next issue. What I'd like to do in this issue is play out a few virtual lawyer threads and then try to weave them back into a nearly whole virtual lawyer.

Thread 1 Jaquard programmable power loom

When David Kennedy (now Judge Kennedy) and I first started trying to construct an on-line system that would help pro se litigants prepare divorce pleadings it was before the day of "user-friendly" forms. I was struck by how (relatively) easy it was to reduce the initial interview I would have with a divorce client to a series of questions with branching logic in which each subsequent question would depend on the answer to the previous one. That project was either ahead of its time, or out of step with the times, depending on your viewpoint, and was soon overtaken by the advent of forms-based family law in Maine. This changed the product slightly, but not its virtuality.

Rather than conducting the interview I would have done in my office and using the information to create a complaint form, for example, we,instead provided the form on line in an interactive format. The blanks in the form were the information I used to get from my clients in my office interview. The clients could fill them out on their own computer and we tried to provide a little guidance with rollover text help for each of the blanks. These interactive forms became very heavily used -- not just by pro se clients but, apparently by lawyers and legal secretaries around the state.

Shortly after Judge Kennedy and I embarked on our efforts, Professor Richard Susskind, IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, was making some predictions about radical changes in the legal profession:

"The information society will always need access to legal knowledge and expertise. What will not be sustainable is any continuation from the position in today’s legal paradigm whereby the legal profession enjoys an exclusive position as the interface between individuals and businesses on the one hand and access to the rule of law on the other.

"In place of lawyers at this interface, will lie ever more flexible, powerful, and accessible IT-based information systems serving both the latent legal market of the past and other areas of law amendable to systematization. For problems of great complexity or high value, legal specialists will continue to operate in their traditional advisory role. But they will represent a relatively small fraction of the legal profession of tomorrow. A far larger number of lawyers will have reoriented their careers and will become the legal information engineers whose knowledge forms the basis of the legal information services. Thus, the legal profession of the future will be constituted of two tiers, not the solicitors and barristers of today, but the legal specialists and the legal information engineers of the information society…." Richard Susskind, The Future of Law: Facing the Challenges of Information Technology 291-92 (1996)

Basically, as my friend Will Hornsby from the ABA paraphrases it, Susskind predicts there will be two kinds of lawyers -- litigators and software engineers.

Thread 2

More recently Susskind has had this to say:

"What, then, might the lawyer’s role be as an engineer of legal information? The main task, in the first instance, will be that of analyst – it will be for the lawyers, with their unparalleled knowledge of the legal system, to interpret and repackage the formal sources of law (legislation and case law) and articulate it in a structured format suitable for implementation as part of a legal information service. Trained lawyers will continue to possess a unique insight into the law and legal process. In the information society, they will repackage this insight and sell it not through one-to-one advisory work, but in the creation of legal information products and services…" Susskind, Transforming the Law: Essays on Technology, Justice, and the Legal Marketplace 98 (2003)

This almost precisely describes the work of Kathleen Caldwell, the Pine Tree Legal Assistance Client Education Coordinator, who in the past ten years has created the art of legal writing for low-literacy pro se consumers, now practiced at least to some degree in every state. She has not only developed the skill of analyzing the law relevant to Maine's low-income population and articulating it for implementation as part of the legal information services represented by Pine Tree's HelpMeLaw, PTLA, KIDS Legal and other legal aid websites, but has shared responsibility for the design, development, constant redesign and daily maintenance of those services.

In her best work Kathleen walks clients step by step through the legal process involving their particular problem. The general legal structure is laid out and answers to frequently encountered specific situations and frequently asked questions are provided. The attempt is made to provide, as much as possible, the same information that would be provided by an in-person interview.

Thread 3

Early in my legal services practice, when I wanted to determine or test the amount of food stamps an applicant should be entitled to, I would have to resort to a 250 page manual with a six page table of contents. Sometime in the 1980's Christine Hastedt, then a Pine Tree Paralegal, developed a six page form that helped our staff determine food stamp eligibility and benefit amounts. It walked a user through Maine’s complex eligibility and benefit calculation process, provided blanks to fill in the appropriate numbers, and showed what the calculations were for each of the possible alternatives. It was a handy tool because none of us could remember all of the ins and outs of food stamp eligibility without going to the regulations every time we had to do a calculation. Eventually we began handing out the six page form to a few clients who might be able to do the determination on their own.

With the success of Pine Tree’s interactive forms, especially the self-calculating forms, Kathleen Caldwell suggested that we convert the food stamp eligibility form to an interactive, self-calculating PDF form. We did that, and it proved to be quite popular with clients and community agency workers around the state.

HotDocs is a document assembly program now owned by LexisNexis. It provides a relatively simple structure for creating "interviews" eliciting the information from which documents can be assembled. After some training, a few of us at Pine Tree were able to create a few simple document assembly interviews. Since we had a "document" that calculated food stamp eligibility we decided to "assemble" it with a HotDocs interview. Surprisingly, it reduced to a twelve question, two screen interview, although underlying it was the logic of the six page document it had originally been built on. Although it took us about twenty years we had reduced a nearly impenetrable 250 page manual to a fairly client-friendly two page interview. If you are interested you can see some of the history of this project on the Pine Tree website at

What the Food Stamp Estimator does is to gather through its interview all of the income and household information necessary to determine eligibility and the amount of food stamps a household might get, to apply the relevant statutory provisions and regulations to that information and to provide for the user an estimate of food stamp eligibility.

Thread 4 A2J

The A2J (access to justice) project at Chicago-Kent law school ( builds on the HotDocs document assembly process by providing a user-friendly cartoon-like interface that walks a person through the document assembly process with a helpful "avatar" to ask questions and provide advice along the way. Off in the distance you can see the courthouse where you will arrive after completing the interview. On each screen is a little "speech" button you can click so that the avatar will talk to you. Various help screens are available along the way to explain the meaning of words and concepts, both in print and by voice. Stacy, Dave and Nathan

Last November, Business Day reported that the South African IP firm, Buys, Inc., intends to introduce this year three robot lawyers, Stacy, Dave and Nathan, to their attorneys and clients. While the virtual lawyers will initially be charged only with answering basic questions and presenting training material, the law firm sees a bright future for the artificial attorneys, who may one day be able to offer quicker turnaround times and, most importantly, lower legal fees than their human counterparts.

We don't know the logic that will create the interviews for Stacy Dave and Nathan, but it shouldn't be too different from the javascript that underlies the HotDocs and A2J interviews.

Jnana ( is a high end software platform being marketed to major national law firms and the legal departments of Fortune 500 companies. It provides an authoring environment in which lawyers can create "online legal services, also known as 'Virtual Lawyers.'" Most of these services are made available through corporate and law firm intranets and are not for public view. Among Jnana's claims are that an AmLaw 50 law firm used Jnana to build a system for banking clients that identifies legal risk to collateral in cross-border transactions. The law department of a Fortune 50 company used Jnana to build a Virtual Patent Advisor that identifies patent infringement risks. The tax department of another Fortune 50 company used Jnana to build systems that provide guidance on various tax-related matters.

When I priced Jnana a few years ago it seemed unlikely it would have much appeal to even the largest Maine firms. Low end solutions, however, may be catching up with Jnana, Stacy, Dave and Nathan.

Thread 5

One of my many unfinished technology projects is a series of twenty short video clips of Judge Mark Horton discussing various aspects of presenting a Protection From Abuse case pro se. The clips are short so they will stream and can be accessed easily over the internet. In the prototype we are developing, the clips are oriented to topics like "presenting a witness" or "introducing documents," but they could easily be reoriented to respond to questions. If we had someone with a little more video production skill involved, we could make even shorter and more responsive clips.

I've talked about the I-CAN e-filing program created by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County in this column before. ( It provides a video talking head, more attractive than Judge Horton, but not as smart, who walks a user through the process of filing an income tax return and requesting the earned income tax credit.

Weaving the Threads Together

It's a lame analogy, but weaving is the technology that fueled the industrial revolution.

It seems to me that we already have all the threads to construct our virtual lawyer. In my mind the key element is the software platform that will allow lawyers to convert their knowledge to the structured format where it can be presented as a legal information service rather than one on one interviews and advice. That can be HotDocs, Jnana, raw javascript or any of dozens of programming languages and platforms. I find HotDocs the easiest and cheapest to use, if not the most highly developed. Since HotDocs is a document assembly program, it helps me to think of the virtual lawyer in document terms.

In my private practice I would often write confirming letters to clients who came in seeking advice: When we met the other day you asked _________. You told me that you _____________, ______________, and ____________. Based on _______ statutes and regulations I said ______________.

Whatever the topic that's a document that can be "assembled" using a HotDocs interview process. If we then present that "interview" using Stacy, Dave or Judge Horton as our "avatar" it seems to me we have built our virtual lawyer.

I'm told I should put all sorts of disclaimers in here about how lawyers aren't going to be replaced and how virtual lawyers should only handle the simpler tasks. Maybe that's true for now. Stacy, Dave and Nathan aren't replacing the attorneys at the Buys law firm, just helping them out. There are plenty of complex and nuanced legal issues that, for the foreseeable future, are beyond the reach of the virtual lawyer. Susskind has his own disclaimer:

"I accept that an important market for legal service delivered in the traditional, advisory manner will remain (although streamlined through IT), because there will be a variety of situations in which it will not be possible or appropriate for legal information systems to supplant or replace the conventional approach. In all the excitement (or horror) of anticipating a shift from advisory to information services, it is vital not to overlook these areas of legal life which will remain the province of lawyers – high value, socially significant, or complex legal work, for example." Transforming the Law 100

Susskind claims his predictions in The Future of Law were twenty-year predictions and that he is sticking with them even though things might have moved a little slowly for the first ten years. The next ten years should hold a lot of opportunity for lawyers interested in changing the way the profession delivers its services.