Page last updated: 04/28/2023
Legal aid organizations and other nonprofits can use technology to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness, respond to disasters, and benefit the communities and people they serve. Some of these options are free and immediately available.
Technology-related projects and resources are wide ranging. These tools include computers, case management systems, websites, communications tools, and more. Some tools are free and accessible to legal aid organizations and individual end users on the web. Others require some time and monetary investment.
Here are some examples of what’s already available. These innovative technology tools demonstrate what has been done and may inspire new ideas.
Upsolve is a nonprofit — partially funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) — that provides information and a free online app to help people with low incomes file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy without legal assistance. An online screener determines who qualifies to use the free app before providing access.
The Upsolve app — accessible from any mobile or desktop browser — cuts through complex legal jargon and guides users through a streamlined step-by-step process. It includes:
Once the user completes the steps, the Upsolve app generates completed bankruptcy forms. The user files the forms with the bankruptcy court in their area to begin the legal bankruptcy process. In 2021 alone, nearly 3,000 people used the Upsolve app to assemble their bankruptcy petitions and achieve a discharge, alleviating an aggregate of more than $130 million in debt.
We encourage legal aid organizations to promote the Upsolve platform and refer people whom they cannot otherwise serve to Upsolve’s free information and tools. Upsolve provides instructions for legal aid partnering, including the 10 criteria it uses for determining a person’s eligibility to access the Upsolve app.
More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below a sixth-grade reading level, according to a Gallup analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. OpenAdvocate created WriteClearly to help legal aid organizations use plain language and lower the reading level of website content.
WriteClearly — partially funded by LSC — is a free tool that users can set up in seconds on their browser by dragging it onto their bookmarks bar. Once WriteClearly is set up, users can open any webpage they want to check and click on the WriteClearly bookmark to:
WriteClearly also can be used with Google Docs and Microsoft 365.
ReadClearly is another tool created by OpenAdvocate — and partially funded by LSC — to improve readers’ understanding of website content. This free tool identifies and underlines the complex legal terms on your website, displaying plain language explanations when a reader hovers over the underlined term with their cursor. Users can expand the glossary by adding terms and definitions specific to the website.
The ReadClearly tool comes with four glossaries that are pre-built with a set of terms. These glossaries include basic and expanded English, English with Spanish explanations, and common-usage Spanish. ReadClearly updates the glossaries automatically as new terms are added.
Lone Star Legal Aid partnered with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to develop a multi-resource online portal for attorneys volunteering their services during and after a disaster. After registering, volunteers can use the portal to:
Attorneys can sign up to access the portal by selecting the Volunteer Now button at the Texas Disaster Legal Help site.
Atlanta Legal Aid Society and its partners significantly enhanced the accessibility and usability of the national LawHelp platform and GeorgiaLegalAid.org to broaden the reach and impact of the content.
The website upgrade corrected numerous barriers to access (e.g., inadequate color contrast) for individuals with visual and auditory impairments. In addition, it ensured website compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. These changes made website content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including people with blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, and photosensitivity.
The upgrade effort also included a comprehensive review of GeorgiaLegalAid.org resources, which resulted in:
Organizations interested in upgrading accessibility on their sites can consult the Web Accessibility Toolkit for Legal Services Websites, developed by Atlanta Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont.
The toolkit includes information on:
Atlanta Legal Aid used funding from an LSC Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) to enhance access to self-help legal information for Spanish speakers in Georgia. Atlanta Legal Aid translated all content on GeorgiaLegalAid.org into Spanish for its Spanish counterpart, AyudaLegalGeorgia.org. This comprehensive project included translation of:
The site’s Spanish pages boosted use of the Atlanta Legal Aid website, which saw a 48% increase in visitors, a 76% jump in page views, and an 80% increase in average session duration.
We recommend having native speakers lead large-scale translation projects. Organizations also should focus on generating staff buy-in for technology improvements and community education efforts.
How can legal aid organizations assess their performance after providing services in the aftermath of a disaster? One option is to develop post-assistance automated text message exchanges with clients, asking whether the legal assistance the clients received was beneficial.
Text messaging is widely accessible to people with low incomes in the United States. Previous text messaging projects in legal services have resulted in response rates exceeding 50%.
For legal aid organizations, using text messaging to get client feedback after legal assistance can:
For example, Colorado Legal Services developed a statewide system for collecting client outcome information through text messaging. After the organization represents a client, an automated platform will send the client a sequence of text messages to assess the outcome of their case and provide follow-up assistance when necessary.
An efficient online case management system (CMS) is crucial to legal aid providers’ provision of services. For clients, a CMS offers a convenient way to apply for legal assistance without having to visit an office physically. For legal services providers, it streamlines the intake process, letting them efficiently collect and review client information.
But what happens if a disaster cuts off network connectivity for days, weeks, or even longer?
Legal aid organizations can find it nearly impossible to keep pace with post-disaster legal aid cases when they must be managed by hand. And once the CMS comes back online, those records need to be re-created in the system.
An offline CMS provides a solution.
Puerto Rico Legal Services (PRLS) used part of an LSC grant to acquire an offline intake capability after dealing with months-long outages after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Its CMS provider uses two methods to allow the system to work even when the internet is unavailable:
Legal aid organizations interested in developing an offline CMS should check with their CMS vendor to see whether it has or could develop this capability.
Mobile offices can include specially equipped vehicles that bring services to any location, mobile office kits that enable staff to serve clients from anywhere, or a combination of the two. Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF) and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (CALS) provide two examples. Both these projects are funded by LSC grants.
LSC funding may be available to help organizations upgrade or obtain technology to improve legal aid services to their communities. Funding mechanisms include: