The Launch: Tracie Poindexter, Online Intake, and Enhancing Mobile Services in Montana

Recently, Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) embarked on an ambitious project to build a new online intake system and make its services mobile-friendly, including adding the ability to send and receive texts from its case management system. Despite the broad scope of the project, MLSA was able to launch it and get solid results in just 12 months. Tracie Poindexter made that possible. Poindexter is MLSA’s program administrator, and has been involved with several LSC-funded projects. LSC’s Eliot Sasaki spoke with her recently about the mobile enhancement project.

Editor’s note: This interview is the first of a new series called The Launch, in which different people talk us through the creation and launch of their project. Just like in other industries, in legal aid, we often look at and judge our projects to see if they hit certain benchmarks or metrics. But just zeroing in on the end result after a project is implemented is a short-sighted strategy. We also need to pay close attention to what happens before and after our projects launch to gather knowledge for future ones and contribute to the successful replication of similar projects elsewhere.

Eliot Sasaki: Can you tell me a little bit about your mobile enhancement project?

Tracie Poindexter: The MLSA mobile enhancement project was about creating mobile-friendly tools for our clients and staff to use, and this was done through an LSC Technology Initiative Grant (TIG).

We worked on enhancing some of our existing tools and creating new tools to provide low-income Montanans with easier access to our services. The areas we focused on were creating a mobile-friendly online intake system, making the LawHelp.org platform mobile-friendly, and mobile-friendly digital forms such as an electronic signature form for releases of information or consent to participate in clinics. (Clients can access these forms via a link in a text or an email.) And then, of course, we focused on developing the ability to text and receive texts from our clients from our case management system, LegalServer.

Eliot: What was the genesis of the project? Just like in many other places across the country, Montanans face geographic barriers in accessing legal help. One way to fix this is by building out an online intake system and making information and services readily available through a mobile device.

Tracie: Montana is not only large, but it’s also rural, and most of the people in our rural areas can’t afford to take a day off to travel two or three hours one way to a larger community to get services. And so by utilizing technologies and online tools, we’re able to conduct a lot of what we need to do.

A few years ago, our clients started asking us questions like, “Why don’t you have an online intake form that we can fill out?” (Because, in many cases, they just have a mobile phone.) They started asking us for things like, “Could you send us a text message confirming my appointment? And could you send me a text reminder of the appointment?” At that time, the best we could do was call and leave a voicemail reminding them. Or, if we could, we would send them an email with the confirmation reminder.

Then we found out that some clients have email but don’t check it. They prefer text messages over email. So, that’s how we started moving toward the development of texting and LegalServer. And then what we discovered over the last few years through some research and talking to many of our different community partners is that a lot of Montanans no longer have computers at home. They just use their mobile devices, usually their mobile phones. That’s how they access the internet and do a lot of their interactions — all on their mobile phone.

So, creating something that was mobile-friendly was important. And I wanted to design something that could be easily integrated into LegalServer. I’m familiar with LegalServer, so I can easily maintain it. Our old intake system was built on A2J Author, but it wasn’t a language that I was really familiar with in terms of development — none of our staff were either — and it cost us money to hire a developer to make the necessary changes. So, we decided to go with LegalServer.

Eliot: What were some of the goals and objectives of the project?

Tracie: We wanted to add SMS texting capacity to LegalServer. We wanted to build a new mobile online intake system. And we wanted to enhance the MontanaLawHelp.org website so that it, too, could be mobile-friendly.

And then we wanted to build out the digital forms. But we needed them to be mobile-friendly so clients can access them on their mobile phones, sign their names, and easily send them back. So, they had to be designed in a way that they could be either texted or emailed to a client. Those were the main goals of the project.

Eliot: In a project of this size, vision and reality sometimes don’t match up. What were some of the concessions or compromises you made that were necessary for its successful implementation?

Tracie: So, with the online intake, since that was the part of the project I worked the most on, I started out by diagraming what I thought it should do. Along the way, I came to the conclusion that perhaps what I wanted was bordering on artificial intelligence. I was expecting it to do a lot.

I wanted LegalServer, through all the branching logic, to essentially be able to tell whether or not an applicant should do an intake or exactly what resources should be provided to them using the application, based on their responses. And all of that was also based on what services we could provide, and also what our pro bono program could provide. It turned out that this was not only complex, but very time-consuming and expensive to develop. And it was also beyond my skill set. So, I had to go back, scale it down, and be more realistic about what the online intake could do.

Eliot: What was the time range for the project? How long did it take you to complete it?

Tracie: It was an 18-month project. But almost all of the work was done in 2017. So, it took us about 12 months to work out the kinks and truly get everything up and running.

Eliot: So, now you have all of this in place. What’s next? And what results have you seen so far?

Tracie: Well, there’s always a “what’s next” for us.

With the enhancements that we made under this grant, there are some things we want to continue to build on. For example, we want to work on enhancing the texting and email features. Right now, they are basic features. You can text and email, but there are certain things we would like from LegalServer, such as the ability to automatically pull information from a client’s case so we don’t have to retype it when we go to send out an appointment reminder.

We also got another grant to continue our work with Pro Bono Net on the LawHelp platform. And we’re working to improve the search capabilities on LawHelp so people can find resources more easily.

And then, as for some results, I went through our evaluation report that we submitted, because there were a couple of things in there that I really liked that came out of this project. So, the texting feature in LegalServer to set up appointment reminders actually increased the number of clients who kept their telephone or in-person appointments with the volunteer attorneys.

For example, in 2016, 5 out of 13 people (38.5 percent) in this window of time that we sampled kept their appointments. In 2017, in the same window and same clinic, 14 out of 18 participants (77.8 percent) kept their appointments because of the text reminders. So, that’s a definite increase in people remembering about their appointment and taking advantage of the time that’s been set aside for them.

Icons by DTDesign, Rose Alice Design, and Tinashe Mugayi for the Noun Project.

And another positive result we’ve seen has to do with our digital forms. We created one of them as a consent to participate in our modest needs referral program. So, to share information, you need to have permission from the client to give the other party their name, address, phone number, etc.

In 2016, we could do some of it by email, but most of it was by mail. It took 8.9 days on average to get the signed consent back to make the referral. In 2017, with the use of digital forms, it came down to 1.3 days on average to get that consent turned around so that we could get them referred off to those programs.

Eliot: What advice do you have for other legal aid programs that want to embark on a similar route to improve their intake system or just optimize their services for mobile?

Tracie: Okay, so one, remember: You can’t do it all alone. It’s important to take a team approach with these projects, especially for ones this size. There’s no way I could have done this all by myself.

Dream big, maybe not artificial intelligence-big, but dream big and then you have the ability to scale it back. Because of the time and complexity of some of my ideas, I couldn’t do all of them now. But I think they’re going to be doable in the very near future. So, I’m holding onto those ideas.

And don’t be afraid of feedback. I’ve learned that a lot of great things can come out of feedback, which can make your tool even better for the people it’s intended for.

Lastly, for this project, I think one of the things that really helped me was the fact that I was so motivated by it, and having other people on the team that were just as excited and motivated about it was very important. I’ve worked on projects where I’ve not been as excited about what we were doing and I struggled with those a lot more. So, motivation is very important as well.