Creating a clinic in a box: why I fell in love with building online legal apps

Quinten Steenhuis
Sep 9, 2020 · 7 min read
The MassAccess Project makes court forms mobile-friendly and provides litigants step-by-step help filling them out.

If you are a lawyer today, you need to understand how automated, step-by-step interactive forms will change your work. And you just might find a passion, like I did, for being part of the automation revolution yourself. I’ll give you a little bit of background on myself and why this kind of automation is helpful; talk about a few projects I’ve been involved in; and then do my best to provide you some helpful links and resources to get started.

Why automate?

I am a life-long computer programmer, but when I became involved in social justice movements in college, I decided my next step was law school. Once I landed at Greater Boston Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides civil legal aid, I realized my computer programming skills would come in handy after all. Much of the work that we do as lawyers cries out for automation. Creating truly user-friendly tools to help people without lawyers is fun, creative, and challenging work. I’m excited to continue that work at the internationally-recognized Suffolk Law School Legal Innovation and Technology Lab.

An automated online form is not just a PDF. A PDF provides fill-in-the-blanks. A good interactive legal app applies logic to those blanks. It provides context and help. It can provide information, reminders, and resources both before and after the user starts the form. It’s more like a lawyer sitting across the table than a stack of paper. To describe this kind of tool and separate it from simple information-gathering tools like Google Forms or TypeForm, I prefer the term “clinic in a box.”

My first years as a legal aid attorney, I didn’t realize these tools had a place in delivering legal help. Yet they are far from new. One of my mentors, Marc Lauritsen, has been building apps like this for most of my lifetime, beginning with dedicated computer terminal-based applications that you interacted with solely with a keyboard in the 1980s. One thing is new: modern participants in the legal system are very familiar with simple and beautiful online experiences that work on their smartphones, and the newest crop of digital automation tools for lawyers are finally starting to deliver that.

Helping Tenants and the Self-represented in crisis

My first major document assembly project, gbls.org/MADE, was built for the slow-moving eviction crisis that is facing our country. My latest, a massive team project led by Suffolk University Law School in Boston, was built for the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MADE helps a tenant file paperwork to fight an eviction. They can use the tool on a smartphone or a desktop computer. The help is detailed, covering a wide range of defenses, and is a good substitute for in-person assistance. It includes 7 forms and fills in hundreds of individual fields. When I built MADE, I had the advantage of 10 years of experience as an eviction defense attorney under my belt. I tried to reproduce the experience that a tenant had working with me one-on-one or in a clinic setting, while making the process as frictionless as possible.

Online tools can be interactive. My preferred platform, docassemble, allows us to send tenants emails and text messages weeks after a tenant finishes the form. We remind tenants about their court date, send them information, and help them complete follow-up forms. MADE offers help in context, with videos and plain language. It is also available in a total of 6 different languages: from Vietnamese to Portuguese.

When I began my current position at Suffolk Law School in March 2020, the critical need shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the focus of my work expanded. Our Dean asked our lab to respond to an inspiring call to action from our Chief Justice. And we stepped up with the Doc Assembly Line project, or MassAccess. The court doors were closed in March. But tenants still needed emergency repairs. Domestic violence survivors still needed protection from abusers. Our project let litigants access the court at a time when it was challenging to do so. With the help of hundreds of volunteers around the world, we coalesced around the idea of breaking down the process of automating an online form into steps that lightly trained volunteers could contribute meaningful work to. Here is what the process looked like:

  1. We chose the open source docassemble platform.
  2. We identified and created standard labels for fields that appear on multiple forms.
  3. Volunteers turned each form into a fillable PDF following our standard naming convention.
  4. We built a tool that automatically transforms a labeled PDF into a runnable draft interview. This was a major engineering lift on a compressed timeline.
  5. We engaged subject experts, designers, user experience and plain language experts to provide suggestions to improve those drafts. Bentley University was a key partner for UX testing.
  6. We trained students and volunteers in the basics of docassemble.We were able to employ or provide volunteer opportunities to dozens of students at a time when legal jobs around the country were rescinding internship offers.
  7. Those volunteers used the feedback from our experts to make the forms truly user friendly, learning coding skills along the way.
  8. One neat side project involved doing some research into 150 year old Boston City Ward maps.
  9. At the end of each online form, a litigant can submit the forms directly to the court with a single click.

So far, the MassAccess project has automated a little over a dozen processes, with several more close to reaching the end of our pipeline. The hard work was front-loaded, but each new form we automate benefits from the work that we’ve done on the previous one. We have volunteers from 5 continents. Key institutional partners include Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

The most important form in the MassAccess project has been an application for a 209A Domestic Violence Restraining Order. This is actually 8 separate forms (many relating to protecting children and custody issues), and a typical completed packet could be 20 pages. This is traditionally a hard form to complete even with the help of an advocate. The centerpiece of the packet, an affidavit, prompts the user with an empty page to tell their story. Our online interactive form simplifies it for a survivor. We use plain language that anyone with a 6th grade education level can easily read. Because the tool is available 24 hours a day via a smartphone, a survivor can choose a safe time to use it. Thanks to prior work by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the language was carefully chosen with the input of a focus group of domestic violence survivors.

Suffolk Law School is uniquely positioned to keep the work going. While some of our many volunteers will go back to day jobs as the quarantine ends, this project is the best teaching tool imaginable. Architecture students don’t build real bridges. But law students who participate in our project will see their work live on. It is a deeply engaging pedagogical tool that produces work that can help thousands of people.

There is, admittedly, a graveyard of thoughtful student projects that come out of experiential learning classes. Because each form on the Assembly Line is standardized as part of an ongoing project, student work is more likely to live on than the students projects I have supervised in past classes.

Automating your own work

If you are inspired to bring document automation to your own court system, our MassAccess project has worked completely in the open. Recordings of our daily meetings are on YouTube; you can track our forms’ life cycles via Trello. More importantly, all of the code we have produced is free, well documented, and can be used by you to turn your own PDFs into automated forms.

One piece of work that we have improved over time is a style guide. This will continue to evolve to add more small, actionable tips to improve legal form projects. I have also codified a lot of the lessons into a Creative Commons-licensed online “Textbook” that I edit.

If your needs are more specific, there are many ways to use document assembly in your own work. Here are a few popular platforms that I recommend:

If your project is fully noncommercial, then you can take a look at https://a2jauthor.org and the hosted HotDocs interviews at https://lawhelpinteractive.org. There are many other popular platforms. I prefer the flexibility and power of docassemble. Because it is built on Python, it is easy to extend. For example, I added a feature that warns litigants if a court date is a holiday. I found an open source Python library that includes obscure Massachusetts holidays and used one line of code to implement this feature.

Document assembly can:

  • Eliminate embarrassing errors introduced by search-and-replace.
  • Standardize and reduce the expertise required to do repetitive legal work.
  • Enable attorneys and clients to collaborate to produce work more efficiently and for less money.
  • Empower people who do not have an attorney to solve their own legal problems.

There’s no excuse for a modern attorney to avoid this helpful technology.

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