What I’ve learned in the past 9 years of helping legal aid, courts, and other non-profits create online forms to promote Access for All
Claudia C. Johnson*
While working across the U.S. in supporting states and courts adapt online forms to increase access to justice, I have learned multiple universal lessons. Although each state, and each legal aid community has unique factors and a unique mix of legal resources and cultures, I share these observations based on experience in seeing a multitude of projects succeed on their document assembly projects. I some of the main take away lessons learned over almost 9 years. For an online form project to succeed these are some of the dos of online form projects.
- Do pick a stable form. Pick a form that is not going to be changing frequently as you automate. If the law is likely to change—don’t build a project around that form or statute. If the form language is not fully developed and accepted by all who use the form—first create consensus on the form and then automate it. As much as possible get to agreement on having the forms and instructions come out in Plain Language. As much as possible, create gender neutral forms, particularly for family law forms.
- Do automate even if you state has not yet adopted uniform forms. Many states do not have uniform forms—this should not be a barrier to automate. Instead, view this as an opportunity to get multiple counties to buy in accepting the form. Eventually this might lead to the adoption of uniform online forms. In Illinois, for example ILAO automated online forms and eventually some of those forms became statewide forms. http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/forms/approved/divorce/financial_affidavit.asp
- Do pick a small, even modest group of forms to automate for your first project. If this is the first time you are doing a project—don’t select a large group of forms to automate. Some forms, even just a simple form, might need to accommodate multiple factual scenarios, so for your first projects, keep the number of form and attachments, simple. If the forms can be bundled into multiple outputs/packages pick the simplest set of case use scenario. If a form can support 80 different user types—don’t pick that form for your first project. Choose something that is simple and easier to test. However, if you pick a form that it is too simple—that might be overkill. In some states, they don’t automate forms that are less than 1 page, as automation is best when the user has to enter the same information over, and over, and over. The computer can focus on entering captions and information that repeats itself over and over, while the person can focus on what orders they need to request and prepare their materials and strategy for each remedy requested. If this is your first project start with a package that will not require complicated logic or multiple calculations. So for example, don’t start with a child support modification project, instead target a simple probate form, or an adult change modification. This will save you time and money in many ways: including reducing the costs of 1) writing instructions, 2) plain language review 3) testing 4) hosting and 5) support once the forms go live. If your funding or highest area of need is for a complex form and process—keep it as simple as you can. Don’t promise to handle every single factual case that can use that form or proceeding, and don’t promise to create the language in more than 1 language. You can do these next steps—once you have completed the plain language English form—and you have it out and it is getting positive feedback and good usage before you move to more complex variations on that form/proceeding. The 2013 Document Assembly Programs, Best Practice Guide, for Court System Development and Implementation, by Judge Fisher and Rochelle Klempner, has helpful guidance on choosing forms starting at page 13. See http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/nya2j/pdfs/bestpractices_courtsystemdocument_assemblyprograms.pdf. No matter how good your team is, or how great your partnerships are—less is better. As you build competency and deepen your understanding of the needs of user for your forms, you can increase the complexity. Once you have done a full form roll out then move to larger more complex forms and projects. If you must start with a very complex form/process—then do only 1 at a time.
- Do talk to others to identify what forms to pick for automation. Make sure you talk to other groups or organizations with different missions—and develop criteria to select your forms. Form selection will make or break a project. Criteria might include collecting data and information on:
1) What forms are filed the most by those without lawyers if the project is for forms that are filed with courts
2) Complexity and stability of a form (see point 1 and number 2),
3) is it a form that has the two parties filing or only one—don’t overlook the other side if you are doing self-help based work
4) Is it an area of law or demographic where there are no other resources or help? Or are there multiple stakeholders serving similar communities with this or similar issues? If so, include them in the conversation.
5) How will each form under consideration benefit different audiences? Can those benefits be measured?
6) Talk with your partners and your team about what you would want to know after the forms are done? What would you define as success coming directly from using the form—and how would you measure it? Be realistic in these conversations and don’t underestimate the complexity of measuring outcomes.
If you pick forms that only your group wants then use volume of your forms might be limited from the get go and you won’t maximize the benefit of the project, investment. If you pick forms that multiple communities can use (for example adult name change, or powers of attorney)—those forms might get more referrals than forms that fit only a very discrete user need.
- Do measure before and after the online form goes live. Measure time, lines, number of people helped before and after the online form goes live. Before you select a form, measure the amount of time it takes the lawyer, volunteer, and or self-helper to create the documents. Find out who is involved in giving out information on the process, and estimate how many FTEs are involved in the process. Do this before you release your online form. Then measure again after the form rolls out. For example, if it is a form that is going to be filed with a court, or administrative agency, find out how much time or how many times a day a clerk or court staff spend giving information to people in line. Notice the peak line length times—find out if people are getting turned away—on a daily or weekly basis. Keep track of what is happening at the location where people go for help. This will be greatly beneficial once the form is in use. This information will also help you design an online interview that hopefully only asks information once—and that reduces the amount of time it takes to produce a quality complex document. As much as you can, streamline the work flow around the forms—so that you are not put in the position to have one form for a clinic, for a pro bono placement, and for use by people at court or at home. Aim to have one online interview that works across county lines and case use scenarios that can be used used across in multiple work flows. Over time—and online form will let you provide assistance in different ways. Try to design a form that can be quickly modified or where the instructions can be redone—for use in other contexts or with other partners.
- Do test your forms and consider doing a soft launch before you stop editing them. Once you are testing an online form—measure how much time it takes your testers to use the form. Ask them how they feel about the task—was it too long? Too short? Ask them what other information they wish they had before they sat down on the form. Make sure you do this also with people using mobile forms. Find out how they print out the forms. This will help you craft the instructions for your different user groups and fine tune the form for effective use. Pro Bono Net released a guide which might be helpful when thinking about how to set up computer terminals for users who need to create forms: http://www.connectingjusticecommunities.com/computer-station-best-practices-a-new-resource-from-lawhelp-interactive/2013/01/. After you deploy, keep track of the length of the interview session. Find out how many people leave and come back to work on the online form. As more people move to mobile devices—time to completion will raise in importance. Be prepared to shorten the forms and stream line the process to meet the expectation of new emerging users. Be ready to provide support on saving, printing, and coming back to continue working on a form—and make sure your instructions provide that information also. So test the instructions as you test the form.
- Do think of the setting where the forms will be used. Make sure your locations have reliable and robust internet connectivity and printers. For mobile phone users make sure you have electric outlets so they can charge their phones as needed. Often times—computers/terminals, printers, paper and ink are not factored in whenever a new kiosk is being created where forms can be used. Make sure you cover these needs with your partners and there is a way to make sure these are available on demand. For mobile users—be prepared to provide printing support from mobile devices. See: http://www.connectingjusticecommunities.com/computer-station-best-practices-a-new-resource-from-lawhelp-interactive/2013/01/. If you are providing a public space where people can sit down and use the form—think of what your patrons will need to use the form. Set up the desk and materials with an eye of encouraging privacy and concentration.
- Choose the right project lead. Do select a project lead who has the time to run the project and understands the end users and partner’s needs. Make sure that your lead person is someone who has strong relationships with other partners and has time to focus on the project. If you give the project to someone who can’t allocate time to the project, the project will be at peril. The project lead does not need to be a lawyer, but does need to be a strong communicator and have basic project management skills. It has to be someone who has credibility and the backup of your administration. Your top leadership needs to believe in the project and support it. Keep in mind, online form projects are change/innovation projects. See: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2016/09/13/are-these-the-real-reasons-why-tech-projects-fail/#138411e17320. If you give your project to someone who does not understand end users, the needs, the resources available, how to work with other groups and agencies, how to measure success, your project will face unnecessary hurdles and the implementation will be limited. If the project is approached as a technology project only—it will fail to leverage the positive changes that come from savings in time from using the form that can be put to provide other needed services, or create other work flows that promote access to justice. The best project lead is someone who has a vision to serve more people better, who is in a practice that faces serious constraints, and that can work with attorneys to help them adopt the form and change the way they produce legal documents.
- Do create an outreach plan. As you work on your forms plan, develop an outreach plan. Identify all the groups that can refer users to the form. Identify all the places where people go to ask for help—and let them know that the form is ready. Set up referral agreements. For some forms, your greatest referral source might be friends and family. For others, Court Clerks. Each problem area might require a unique outreach approach. Work with your web masters to post the form in easy to use and find webpages.
- Don’t burry the form urls deep into a page. When presenting your forms, design matters. The page, instructions where your users will find the online form—are important. Consider adapting best practices when designing those pages. For example, some stats have been successful in getting their forms used by making them part of a problem specific “mini-portal”. A mini portal has in 1 urls, essential resources a person will need to resolved one common and specific legal problem, for example, eviction, or divorce. It contains referrals, forms, videos, in one well designed page. Examples: htp://www.washingtonlawhelp.org/dissolution or http://www.lawhelpny.org/consumer.
- Do think about safeguarding your end user’s information. When someone is creating a legal form they will be entering a lot of sensitive data. They might be entering information about their credit, their marriage, their relationships, debt and accounts, assets health care information, income, etc. It might include children’s information. Make safety a top priority. Read privacy policies carefully. This ABA page summarizes ABA cloud ethics decisions that apply to attorneys, which might be helpful as you look at standards of care: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources/resources/charts_fyis/cloud-ethics-chart.html
- Do request user feedback and act on it. Once your forms are live, give the users the opportunity to give you feedback. In the LHI platform, owners can post their own survey tool to the end of a form, to get survey feedback. In addition, Pro Bono Net shares end user feedback that comes through LHI w/the project owners on a routine basis as part of their support. Read the feedback. Often times, feedback can alert you of changes in areas where you don’t have staff or offices. So for example, if a court changes a procedure, or address,—and end user might let you know about it, which is helpful if you don’t have staff in that office giving you updates and there is no standard way of being notified of local changes. Sometimes the forms or questions can be confusing to end users. That feedback can help you improve your forms and instructions as you maintain them. If your users can’t use the forms you have made available because their facts don’t fit the form’s topic, that feedback can help you garner resources to create forms in those areas of need.
- Use the online form to simplify the process. Creating an online form will give you the opportunity to simplify local processes and rules and remove barriers to access. For every question in a form—ask if that question is necessary? For every step in the process of getting a decision, ask if you need another form for that. Use the form as a magnifying glass to ID barriers for people without lawyers. Consider and identify anything that can be simplified before automating the form. Eliminate fees, simplify or eliminate notary requirements, bundle the fee waiver with the online form, eliminate any extra step that is a burden for the person without the lawyer if possible. As you create the form, simplify the process, simplify the instructions, simplify the number of steps and visits that it takes to complete the process. Use the form to reduce barriers as much as possible and focus on the process, not just the forms.
- Once you roll out the forms—set up a budget to sustain the form. Over and over we learn that states that continue investing in their forms, their design, their instructions, their videos, their work flow maps, their staging pages, the partnerships behind the forms, generally end up having more utilization of their forms, and wider form collections that states that do not plan or set aside a small budget to sustain their forms projects. So once your form goes live and the form creation part of a project is over, continue talking to your partners, continue monitoring what benefits use of the form brings. If you developed the ability to create new forms in house, consider adding online forms to other areas of need. Your staff can continue learning and increasing their capacity to create and manage online form projects on an ongoing basis by joining monthly calls and video remote trainings and calls through both Pro Bono Net, LSNTAP, and SRLN. These calls happen once a month—and don’t take a lot of time. If your staff continue to see other examples of how forms are increasing access, that capacity will lead to new forms, better forms or both. LSNTAP trainings can be found here: http://lsntap.org/trainings. You can find more information about SRLN here: http://www.srln.org and about LawHelp Interactive here: http://www.probono.net/lhi
- Reach out. Regardless of how many times you have done and rolled a successful online form project, there will be bumps in the road. When you find yourself in that situation, reach out. At Pro Bono Net, we have been supporting online form projects since 2006—and have helped many states grow to their collections over time. We are always interested in sharing best practices, supporting online forms—and helping those use online forms design and develop a successful project. So please reach out. You can visit http://www.probono.net/lhi to find resources you might find helpful as you plan and budget or evaluate an online form project or join the list serves: https://www.probono.net/dasupport/login/?membersonly&returnto=%2Fdasupport%2Fgroups%2F (will need to join the page). You can also visit and join the SRLN, http://www.srln.org/taxonomy/term/97. SRLN has a forms and technology working group. For example, they have a listing of SRL interactive forms by state: http://www.srln.org/node/850/srl-interactive-court-forms-state-ncsc-2016 (password needed)–that lists the web pages and the platform that is used to make the forms available.
* About Claudia: Claudia is the Program Manager for LawHelp Interactive. Since 2008 Claudia has been working in motivating and supporting legal non profits, courts and other non profits to use online forms to help people with out attorneys create their own legal documents and resolved their legal problems. Part of her work includes working with resource constrained legal services providers and helping them use online forms to streamline their internal work flows for document creationg. Claudia’s work with LawHelp Interactive was featured in the NY Times in 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/opinion/legal-aid-with-a-digital-twist.html?_r=0 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/opinion/a-year-of-big-ideas-in-social-change.html Claudia is an innovator that works and supports multiple groups and multiple states in using technology. for good and improve access to justice for all. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and dog.
As someone running such a project for the first time in Queensland Australia this is most helpful . Thank you Claudia and Richard.
Thanks to Claudia for this extremely helpful post. Thanks to Richard for posting it.