LSC Moves Forward with Legal Navigator Project

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its partners are moving forward with the Legal Navigator portal following the completion of the machine learning system that will power it.

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The Artificial Intelligence module at the heart of this learning system, new technology developed by Microsoft, will provide an interface that will allow people to describe their problems in their own words. The system will help them decide if it is a legal problem and, if so, how to solve it.

This is essential to meeting the goal of the project–establishing statewide legal portals to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance available from legal aid organizations, the courts, the private bar, and community stakeholders.

Microsoft will continue to support the project with $100,000 in grants for additional technical assistance as LSC and its partners, Pro Bono Net and Pew Charitable Trusts, prepare the portal for piloting in Alaska and Hawaii.

Legal Navigator is a vital piece of the strategic plan these states developed as part of their Justice for All initiatives seeking to provide some form of effective assistance for 100% of people with a civil legal problem. The courts, legal aid programs, and the private bar are working together on these efforts to provide people with a wide range of options, from self-help to full representation.

For the pilot period, the states will provide content and forms to assist people with legal problems in three major areas: family, housing, and consumer. Social services organizations in each state are participating so users of Legal Navigator can find help with more than just legal issues.

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Legal Navigator is a centerpiece of the vision that emerged from LSC’s Technology Summit several years ago–a vision that uses technology to provide some meaningful help to everyone with an essential civil legal problem and ensures that no one is ever turned away with no help at all,” said LSC President Jim Sandman. “LSC is grateful to Microsoft for its substantial investment in this project. We are committed to implementing the technology Microsoft has so generously developed–not only in Alaska and Hawaii, but in other states as well.

*Originally Published on the Legal Navigator Home Page

Milestone reached: AI at heart of Legal Navigator complete, will connect people with legal resources

Author: David A. Heiner, Microsoft Corporation

We live in a highly legalistic society, and we have no shortage of lawyers. But the allocation of lawyers to the range of legal problems people face is, to put it mildly, uneven. Those with money can hire lawyers, and those without cannot. Without a lawyer, people are left to navigate our complex legal system on their own. This hits working-class people hard, and can be devastating for low-income people, who may face the loss of a job, or a home, or even custody of their children, if they are unable to represent themselves effectively.

One challenge people face is simply finding accurate information relating to their legal problem. Legal aid resources are highly fragmented and legal rules and procedures vary from state to state and even county to county.  Simple web searches often fail to yield accurate information regarding the particular legal situation someone is confronting. This is why legal aid leaders and technologists came together in 2014, under the guidance of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), to ask whether technology could help address this challenge. They imagined a web service that, through a pre-programmed script, would ask users questions and, on the basis of their answers, direct them to the right legal resources.

Fast forward just a couple of years — technology moves fast! — and we could imagine a system that would largely dispense with the pre-programmed scripts, enabling richer, more natural, and ultimately far more helpful interactions with users. We could imagine a system that would enable people to describe the problem they are facing in their own words, a system that would understand the user’s meaning (and not simply look for keywords, like a search engine), a system that could learn from interactions with users how best to help them navigate the legal system.  The magic ingredient: Artificial intelligence (AI).

Our eagerness to explore whether AI could help people who cannot afford a lawyer is why Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partnered with LSC in 2016 to build an AI-based “Legal Navigator.” Since then we’ve enlisted the Pew Charitable Trusts and Avanade to join the effort, partnered closely with legal aid and court personnel in our pilot states, Alaska and Hawaii, learned from focus groups with potential users, and developed a prototype of the system.

Today we’re pleased to announce a significant milestone in the development of Legal Navigator: The machine learning system that will power Legal Navigator is complete. Drawing on recent advances in natural language processing, Legal Navigator will provide a chatbot-like interface that will enable people to engage in conversation with the system and be directed to the right legal resources for the situation they face. Like other AI-based systems, Legal Navigator will get “smarter” the more it is used. Over time the system will even learn to understand colloquialisms and slang. And the more it is used, the better it will get at referring people to pertinent online information, to legal aid providers and to self-help systems where users can prepare their own legal filings.

For me, the most exciting aspect of this system is that it is designed as a platform that can benefit the entire legal aid community. The system is “extensible,” meaning that anyone (courts, legal aid providers, online legal document assembly providers) can plug in to add new capabilities to the system and enable a complete solution for users. (In addition to programmatic access through well-defined programming interfaces, the heart of the system — the AI that powers it — is available as open source on GitHub, one of the leading sites for open-source software development projects.) And, like other cloud-based technology platforms, the system is highly scalable. At relatively low cost, the system could be deployed in dozens of states or every state (and as more people used it, that would make the system smarter still).

Of course, we’re a long way from that today. But the AI module is complete, and our partners will now begin the next phase to prepare the product for initial testing in Alaska and Hawaii. Microsoft will continue to support the project as it moves forward by providing $100,000 in grants to be spent over the next two years on additional technical assistance for Legal Navigator.

It will be fascinating to learn how an AI-based solution can help people navigate the legal system. If you are in the legal aid community, please stay in touch with this project so we can collectively explore how best to deploy technology to address the access to justice gap.

Heiner also chairs the board at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to leveraging the power of technology and collaboration to bridge the justice gap.

NextGen Fellow Amanda Brown: Interview by Thomson Reuters

amanda20brownThe Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute is dedicated to bringing together thought leaders from the legal industry to encourage discussion and debate. As part of their blog commentary they interview industry leaders and promising individuals within the industry. This July, the Legal Executive Institute interviewed NextGen Fellow, Amanda Brown, who is currently working on the statewide portals project.

To potential clients, navigating civil legal aid is often an opaque, confusing, and inefficient process. Last year, Microsoft, Pro Bono Net, and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) set out to change that, announcing a partnership to direct low-income persons to appropriate legal aid resources through statewide online justice portals.

As a NextGen Fellow, Amanda joined with the ABA Center for Innovation to assist Microsoft, Pro Bono Net and the LSC on the statewide online justice portals. Read her interview to learn more about her experience working on the project.

Meet Our Partner – Avanade

Increasingly, collaborations are emerging as an effective strategy to address civil legal needs in underserved communities. The current system for accessing legal assistance is complex and difficult to navigate. This portal project aims to rectify this by integrating and amplifying existing efforts by legal aid organizations, courts and other service providers to help more people facing eviction, domestic violence and other civil law issues. Collaboration between the organizations working in the access to justice sphere is essential to these efforts.

Alaska and Hawaii were selected as pilot states in part because of the collaborative relationships between legal access to justice partners in those states.

“We are delighted to have found legal aid, court, and community partners in Alaska and Hawaii who are committed to innovation designed to help individuals find the appropriate level of assistance to meet their legal needs, and that will allow state justice communities to deliver services more efficiently and effectively,” – Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net Executive Director

To learn more about why these states were selected, visit the Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim posts for Alaska and Hawaii.

From the orginal partners, Pro Bono Net, Microsoft and LSC, to the organizations in our pilot states of Hawaii and Alaska, each organization we partner with plays a significant role in the development of a comprehensive approach to civil legal assistance across the country.

Avanade

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We would like to introduce one of our technology partners and their role in the pilot portals. Avanade is a joint venture between Microsoft Corporation and Accenture LLP. They have recently participated in listening sessions in Hawaii and Alaska to identify real-life barriers to legal support. Based on those findings, Avanade is helping the project to create a portal that uses artificial intelligence technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning to help understand the needs and requirements of an individual in a natural and plain manner, in the context of their situation and help them to be able to assist them quickly, safely, and in an inclusive manner.

We are thrilled to have the Avanade team working closely with us on the portal pilots in Hawaii and Alaska.

New Simplifying Legal Help Webpage

We are thrilled to announce a brand new webpage on the progress of the Statewide Justice Portal Project. The new page was created to provide more information and resources related to Simplifying Legal Help.

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Read the latest project news, view photos and videos about the project, and stay connected as the Legal Services Corporation, Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partner with justice communities in Alaska and Hawaii to develop statewide legal access portals that simplify the process of finding legal help.

A companion piece to Simplifying Legal Help Blog, www.lsc.gov/simplifying-legal-help is hosted on the Legal Services Corporation’s website. The page will feature information on the project and share the progress of the partnership and pilots in Hawaii and Alaska. It will serve as a helpful repository of information and links to resources and related information.

We encourage you to stop by and take a look at the new page and don’t forget to check back for updates.

Subscribe to this blog to get the latest updates on the new webpage and status of this innovative project to increase access to legal help.

Ideation Workshops in Alaska & Hawaii

In January, two-day Ideation Workshops were held in Alaska and Hawaii, drawing on Microsoft’s Inclusive Design methodology. The goal of the workshops was to engage local community members and project stakeholders in generating ideas and insights about the real-life experience of people seeking legal help to inform the user experience design of the Legal Access Platform.

“The Inclusive Design principle is a broad-spectrum idea meant to produce products that are inherently accessible to all, people with disabilities and people without.  Microsoft believes strongly that this human-centric design results in products that benefit people universally. As such, it has been mandated as a key tenant for all product development across the company.” Carly Ichiki, Lead Project Manager for the Initiative, Microsoft

The Ideation workshops incorporated findings from user immersion studies conducted in the fall 2017 in Alaska and Hawaii. Using a toolkit developed by Microsoft, local community engagement firms in each state conducted surveys and interviews of individuals who had experienced legal needs themselves or knew people who had. The user immersion studies helped us gain a more personalized understanding of the problem space, the people we are trying to help, and the challenges they face in learning about and navigating the legal system.

Ideation Workshop Hawaii PhotosParticipants in the Ideation Workshops included local community members who had either experienced legal needs themselves, or who are frequently sought out as “navigators” for others in their community seeking legal help. Additional participants included members of the national project team, and representatives from the Alaska Court System and Justice for All project, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, United Way / 211, the Alaska public library system and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, among other groups. Organizational participants in Hawaii included the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, Family Court on Oahu and Aloha United Way / 211.

Ideation Workshop Alaska PhotosThe first day of each workshop drew on personal stories shared by these individuals to prioritize key user needs and wants in the Legal Access Platform. During the second day, designers from Fell Swoop, a user experience design firm, assisted small groups in storyboarding examples of how people might access the Platform and engage with resources available on it to find solutions to their legal problems.

The Microsoft and Fell Swoop teams now have the exciting – and daunting! – task of synthesizing the rich and varied feedback from these workshops into a design brief, and ultimately, prototype designs that will be user-tested in Anchorage and Honolulu in the next month.