A Brief Summary of Possible Initiatives to Advance a Legal Services Technology Agenda

Richard Zorza, Esq.



There is general consensus within the broadly defined legal services community that there is urgent need for better use of technology in the entire delivery system. However, progress is slowed by a lack of clarity about how best to proceed, and specifically about the most appropriate division of labor between different groups and sectors within the legal services community.

This working paper, which grows out of the proceedings at the fall 1998 conference on Technology and Legal Services, summarizes, as a starting point for discussion, some possible ideas for moving forward an aggressive legal services technology agenda. The opinions expressed are personal to the author and are offered to stimulate discussion.

The paper is divided into groups of initiatives that might be focused at the state, program or national levels. Effectiveness and success at one level is inextricably bound up with that at the others.


A. Each State Needs a Technology Strategy

Each state needs to develop a detailed multi-faceted technology strategy. This strategy should address the major components of legal services technology: vision, management, hardware, software, communications infrastructure, funding, coordination and evaluation.

B. States Need to Plan for Both "Wide" and "Deep" Technology Experiments

"Wide" experiments are those that go across the whole jurisdiction, but make only minor changes to overall practice – a new database, a new communications structure, or a new pleading used stateside.

"Deep" experiments are those that take one office or aspect and fundamentally change it – for example an office network on which ALL work is carried in a fully indexed database, or a restructuring of intake so that electronic data is the beginning point of every case.

These experiments are important not only because of the particular innovations they bring, but because of the role they play in making legal services a more technologically innovative and self-reflective culture.

C. Each State Needs a Technology Laboratory to Test New Technologies and their Effectiveness

Each state needs a place – a program, a clinic, an university center – in which new technology and practice ideas can be quickly tested. Such a laboratory needs up-to-date equipment, innovative management, staff with an experimental attitude, and spare resources.

D. Each State Should Provide Incentive Grants to Encourage Innovation and Risk Taking in the Use of Technology

Programs that take risks should not be left hanging. It is not inappropriate if a high percentage of experiments should fail, – if not the experiments are not taking risks.

E. Each State Needs a Data Gathering Strategy

A Statewide Law Firm Needs a Statewide Database! This database must track who is being served and how they are being served. It must bring together data from a variety of sources to include information about the overall lives and circumstances of the client population

The deployment strategy must address design, comprehensiveness, data quality and integrity, security, and long-term growth.

F. Each State Needs a Capacity For Software Development

Most poverty law is state law, so most of the law dependent software that is needed will probably be best developed at the state level. However, the tools to develop this software may need to be developed at the national level.

G. Each State Must Develop Relationships with Client Organizations and Government Agencies at the Technology Level

In the long term, effective technology innovation will require the deployment of a massive web of links between legal services and courts, government agencies, community organizations, private lawyers, and other legal service providers. Such links are fostered at both the political and the technical level and are dependent on both human and institutional relationships.

H. Each State Must Establish a Statewide Technology-Based Self-Representation Capacity

Given the emerging importance of technology and pro se, and given that most of these applications will be a function of state law, each state needs to start now to develop the capacity to develop and support these technologies. If Legal Services abandons the field it will be taken over by others.

These innovations require large initial investments, but have a large payback and, once developed, have very low marginal cost of use. They also help build links with human service and client organizations.

I. Each State Needs a Technology Training Capacity to Address the Human Elements

Each state needs to develop a multi-tiered training capacity. While much training should correctly be handled within offices or programs, some high level training will be a statewide responsibility. Without such high level training, there will not be the fast pace of progress that is needed.

J. Each State Needs a Resource Development Strategy So That the Required Investments Can Be Made
While additional resources will be needed, programs will have to come to terms with the fact that not all technology costs can be raised outside existing budgets. In the long term programs will have to plan for at least $1,000 a year per staff of technology investment, and several percent of payroll in technology support costs.

A strategy that builds much of this cost into long-term budgeting is unavoidable. It is like rent or telephone.

K. There May Need to Create a Separate Entity at the State Level with Authority to Direct and Coordinate the Statewide Technology Effort, with a Particular Focus on Building a Vision of the Use of Technology, Training, Data Monitoring and Resource Development

In the end, coordination may not be enough. Depending on the program configuration in the state, there may be need for a central capacity, grounded in the state planning process, with the funded and funding authority to move an agenda forward.

L.    LSC and Other National Players Need to Play a Leadership Role Encouraging the Development of Statewide Technology Planning
Regardless of the extent of other national activities, there is a major national role for facilitation and encouragement of the required statewide technology planning and coordination process.


A. Every Program Needs a High Level Person in Charge of Technology Who Reports to the Program Director

The program’s technology strategy will impact every aspect of the organization, hiring, training, salary structure, client intake, court relationships, bar relationships, funding, etc. Above all, the person responsible needs to develop a multi-year plan involving all aspects of the organization and its mission. The person responsible must be placed high in the organization’s structure.

B. Every Program Needs a Financial Strategy (Other Than Fund Raising)

At this point, most Legal Services Programs think in terms of technology as something that will be funded with new or externally generated money. Such an assumption is as out of date as the idea that phone service will be the subject of special fundraising. The technology is necessary regardless of an organization’s ability to raise separate funding for it.

This requires multi-year costing and budgeting.

C. Every Program Needs a Strategy for Integration of Technology and Work

Among other tasks, the person responsible for the technology strategy needs to think about the technology responsibilities of every job description in the organization.

Part of this overall strategy is developing electronic relationships with other organizations so that a joined-together cluster of organizations can cooperate to meet client needs together.

D. Every Program Needs to Develop Technology Training as a Program Responsibility, with State Resources and Help

The organization needs to plan an overall strategy for the technology skill development of all staff. This includes a training program for all staff and a way of guaranteeing enhancement of technology understanding of management. Statewide resources will be needed for the more advanced training. Routine training can often be handled within the program.

E. Every Program Needs the Board to Be Involved in Developing the Technology Strategy
The development and implementation of a technology strategy is a fundamental matter that goes to the whole structuring of the organization and its service delivery methodology. As such it should be a Board concern as a major factor in the direction of the organization.

F. Every Program Must Commit to the Staffing to Support the Work and Use of Technology
A full technology strategy requires a long-term staffing strategy. This involves both the development and recruitment of tech support staff, and the evaluation and promotion of non-technical staff based in part on their ability to contribute to the use of technology in overall service delivery.

This also involves broadening the sense of who is involved in serving client -- not just traditional advocates, but those who build systems which serve them directly or indirectly.

G. Programs Should Develop Incentives for Using, and Advancing Technology within the Organization
Fellowships, externships, and other forms of recognition should be developed to reward those who advance the use of technology to serve clients.

H. Programs Should Integrate Efforts to Overcome Resistance/Inertia

I. Programs Need a "Higher Potential" Strategy of Raising Expectations

It is important to raise the level of expectation in Legal Services for what technology can provide. The community accepts second best too much of the time. Exposure to the potential raises expectations.


A. There Must be National Investment in Demonstration and Research Projects

There is a major national need for research and demonstration projects focused on unanswered questions, and unexplored potential. Such demonstrations should cover the range from pro se assistance to pro bono linking, from community wide networking to intra-office connectivity, and from automated advocacy to large scale community database building.

There are many reasons for a national role, but one of the strongest is that these projects must be viewed as valuable for what is learned even if they "fail" to demonstrate usefulness, and that the payoff is, therefore, often more national than local.

B. There Should Be Focus on Development of Model Offices from Scratch or Based on Existing Programs
The Community needs to find technological expressions of ideas like "fact based advocacy" and test them in a model office environment. These new ideas can best be tested when the whole office is flexible and the whole environment is experimental. Other model environments, based on existing programs can best test the deployment of new ideas in more traditional environments.

Such model offices can be used to test out the application of new technology concepts as they are deployed by the industry. If there is no "test-ready" environment, then Legal Services will always be playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

These model offices are perhaps most crucial in creating new partnerships with government and community organizations and make them work at both the technological (inter-linked data) and political levels.

These model offices can be build experiments in ways that make replication/dissemination easy. Techniques include the routine use of Advisory Boards, the writing of software that is easy to modify for other jurisdictions and the writing of software that itself helps replication.

C. National Efforts Should Encourage Dissemination of Models That are Already Working
The national players need to develop ways of nurturing and disseminating models that are already developed. This includes "circuit-riding," incentive grants, making sure that these models are developed in easy-to-replicate ways, and "on-line replication assistant" tools. There might be a national training effort in how to develop a local model in ways that would make it easy to replicate around the country.

D. The Community Needs to Establish a National Support Center to Develop Capacity for Technology Diffusion
A national support center would play myriad roles. It would encourage a planned and thoughtful approach to technology innovation and diffusion. It would assist in day to day support. Most important it would help create the state by state network of highly skilled innovators who supported each others innovation and deployment. It would support fundraising.

E. There is a Responsibility to Develop Key Technology People

There is a national role in nurturing that network of key technology people. This might includes national conferences targeted at the experienced, an Institute for skill development, idea generating, and fellowships.

F. There Should be Nationally Created Incentive Grants

Incentive grants for innovation are an obvious way that the states can be encouraged to innovate and take risks in the interests of the whole.

G. There Should be National Encouragement for Creation and Sustenance of Local And State Partnerships
As an example, there might be a national Office of Court Partnership Facilitation to encourage partnership between courts and Legal Services programs.

H. There is Need for Support for National Standards Regarding Data and Data Gathering Software

There is need for a data glossary and standards for data, for interchange, and for expectations for the collection of state data. This can make use of existing standards such as the V-Card.

I. There Should be Centralized Development of Software That Itself Encourages Sharing and Parallel Development

There is a national role in encouraging the development of software that encourages partnerships between legal services and community organizations. Such software might include database software to connect client data between organizations. There is a major model in the environmental organizing community.

J. There Must be a National Structure of Information -- Client and Case Information

The inability to create and deploy national data on changing patterns of eviction, welfare benefits, poverty, government actions relating to the poor dramatizes how much advocates are hamstrung by the absence of this integrated data.

There is a major national role in creating this structure, even if only in articulating expectations and facilitation of creation of standards.

K. The Community Should be Moving Toward a National Knowledgebase

The community should explore and evaluate the possible creation of a national web based and web accessible knowledge base easily structured and accessible to advocates and community partners. This technology and the ability to structure and use it advances day-by-day.

L. The Community Must Create Inter-Connectivity Nationally

It’s simple: the National Firm needs a National Network. If advocates around the country could exchange data, ideas, etc. there would be a huge leveraging of effectiveness. Obviously, this has to be built on the Internet, and equally obviously this needs to connect to every desktop. In the not too distant future the national players can insist on this.

M. There is a National Role In Enhancing Technology Provided Support --"Virtual National Support"

National attention needs to be paid to maximizing connectivity and diffusion among national support efforts using the National Firm Network.

N. There Should be National Involvement in the Creation of a Network of Technology Czars in Each State

There is a major national role in making sure (perhaps by mandate) that each state has a technology Czar in a high enough role to create and implement the state technology strategy. It would be a national responsibility to support the Network by conferences, institutes and training. Such a network would help make sure that models and demonstrations would be rapidly replicated.

O. The Same National Technology Enhancement Functions Can be Performed by One or Several Organizations

The analysis should recognize that different organizations have different constituencies and different leverage over different constituencies. The analysis should reflect the impact of the restrictions and also the incentive role of major funders like LSC and the IOLA programs.


This is a moment of enormous opportunity in legal services. Technology provides an opportunity for re-envisioning, strengthening and making far more effective a delivery system of ever-greater importance in the lives of millions of people. The next required step is close attention to strategic steps and initiatives that will make that possibility real.