Intersections of the 3. By Margaret Hagan


Visual Law - Law on Display 0

Law professors Neal Feigenson and Christina Spiesel published the book Law on Display in 2011. They make the argument that visuals are becoming increasingly powerful in legal courtrooms:

  • to frame issues,
  • to persuade jurors,
  • to convey scientific evidence with greater force, and
  • to change how advocates represent clients.

Aside from the book, they also maintain a website that outlines the seven chapters of the book & hosts a wealth of links, examples, and even videos with the authors that provide greater context to their writing.  Each chapter gets its own page with a short summary of the topic at issue & a links that illustrate the visuals & media discussed.

Feigenson & Spiegel give rich examples of how images, powerpoint presentations, and other media have entered into courtrooms — with some skepticism about what effects they have on the outcomes of litigation.  They find that this new media are clever new ways to make meaning in the courtroom, giving lawyers new sources of power to persuade in implicit and elusive ways.

The authors recognize the enormous powers of visuals, as well as their increasing pervasiveness. But they try to complicate their use by pointing out how though images seem to offer great promise in making difficult & complex issues clear, they can also lead to more confusion and bad decision-making because the jurors, judges, and other audience are not able to clearly parse the images.

One of the key takeaways here is the need for more Visual Literacy  — the ability not just for advocates to use images effectively while representing clients, but also the ability of other court audiences to be able to comprehend, digest, and question the use of images they are presented with.  This literacy could be achieved in training lawyers, judges, and jurors to be able to understand question scientific experts’ use of illustrative images, or lawyers’ closing argument media.

Another takeaway is that control of Virtual Legal Interfaces is an important question of power and control.  As the authors explore in Chapter 6, as more court and dispute resolution experiences move online — the more influential that visual design of interfaces, apps, and interactions will condition the outcomes of these legal processes.  It’s an open question as to what interfaces for a virtual court or online dispute resolution system is the most ‘fair’ or ‘just’.

But it is an interesting political point.  What are the agendas of the people who are coding these new legal experiences — and how can we evaluate & measure whether they are protecting users sufficiently and allowing for procedural & substantive justice to be done?

Here are some clips from the book’s site, that introduce the authors’ main points.  Also, please find some of the authors’ videos that have them introducing each chapter with discussion points.

Visual Law - Law on Display 1 Visual Law - Law on Display 2 Visual Law - Law on Display 3 Visual Law - Law on Display 4 Visual Law - Law on Display 5 Visual Law - Law on Display 6 Visual Law - Law on Display 7

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On his blog “the [non]billable hour”, legal consultant Matt Homann challenged law firms to design a more readable, engaging, client-centered bill for legal services.

If your clients designed your bills, what would they look like?  Would they be easier to understand?  Contain useful case status information?  How about upcoming dates or milestones?  Would your bills include information about the people who worked on the case that month?  How about a report card seeking monthly feedback about how you’re serving your clients?

This is an exercise in document design, with a focus on the quality of the client experience. The exercise is not just to make the information more understandable with better fonts & composition, but also to improve the lawyer’s relationship with the client by including other types of information, context & direction.

Homann proposes one concept design for what a more client-centered bill may look like:
Legal Document Design - Legal Bill 1 Legal Document Design - Legal Bill 2 Legal Document Design - Legal Bill 3 Legal Document Design - Legal Bill 4 Legal Document Design - Legal Bill 5There are several design principles at work here, worth noting:

  1. Clean composition: Large fonts, uncluttered text, and the use of tables/large breaks keeps the document highly readable.
  2. Digestible structure: One topic per page makes the entire document more scannable & quickly digestible to a reader — especially one that is an anxiety-prone mindset of having just received a bill in the mail.
  3. Opportunity to interact: The document gives an entry-point for the client to speak back to the document/lawyer — perhaps not on the prices themselves, but on the quality of the work, through the final feedback page.  This makes the communication more two-way — and more satisfying to the client — even if she chooses not to fill in the form.  Just the invitation to reply makes the relationship seem less one-way & imbalanced.
  4. Context for transparency & understanding: The document is not just a set of tasks and prices.  It tells who did the work, what the ‘summary narrative’ of the work was, and what else is happening.  This puts the task-price list into a broader context, that gives more clarity to the client who is trying to parse through what they are paying for & why.
  5. Easy action paths: Putting clear links to actions to take for payment or follow-up lets the client respond quickly & without having to think too hard about what to do next.

Some suggestions for improving this further, from the client’s perspective:

  1. Increased price transparency: Put a column of costs in the “Our Work” table, to make it very clear exactly where the “Please Pay” number comes from.  Otherwise, the number seems arbitrary & likely to induce push-back.
  2. Identify each team members’ role on the case: The client may be able to figure out what exactly each of the four team members is doing for her if she spends time looking them up, calling Matt, or parsing through the ‘Who Did It’ column on Our Work.  But it would be more user-friendly to tell the client a role-title for each of the team-members, as it relates to her case.  Even if the bill lists off the team-member’s ‘law firm title’ (e.g., junior associate), that doesn’t give much of a clue as to what role they are playing on the client’s project. What is the junior associate’s purview, what tasks does she work on, what is her role title vis-a-vis the client, not vis-a-vis the firm?
  3. Have easy actions for all clients’ tasks: If the client has to take an action, make it very clear how to take this action. Ideally, give her a one-click solution to take it.  In the ‘Waiting On’ section, have hyperlinks to any documents she needs to download and process.  Let her take care of everything as easily & clearly as possible.
  4. Create a To-Do hierarchy for your client: even at 5 pages (or 4, without the title page), the bill can be a little long.  The white space and one-topic per page, though, is nice enough that it’s worth preserving.  But there also needs to be a guide to what the client actually needs to do with the document.  The front page or start of the second page could have a very clear To-Do list for what the client needs to do in response to this document.  Put all the action steps you are expecting her to take right up front.  Give her a hierarchy to follow, and make sure she isn’t missing any of the proactive steps you are expecting her to take.  Underneath these required steps, you can put suggested other tasks, that are not required but that she might want to consider.  Help her process this document even more quickly & make her secure that she caught everything she needs to from it.

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Over on Cornell’s VoxPopulii Blog, I just posted up a comprehensive write-up on a Legal Communication Design pop-up-class that I had taught with Kursat Ozenc & Alex Gavis at Stanford’s in May 2014. When we were planning out the class, I started to put together a framework for Legal Communication Design.

You can read more over at the blog, but I wanted to present here some of the diagrams that illustrate the legal communication design process I’m formulating.

One diagram: the ideal flow of the user through a legal communication:

Ideal Legal Communication Design Flow

Another diagram: what the difference is between different areas of communication design:Types of Complex Communication Design

Now I will be working on a more comprehensive design process visual, that shows a step-by-step process to get from a brief (I must communicate this rule or notice) to a user-friendly finished product (a communication that your user will actually engage with).

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Open Law Lab - CA Pleading Bank

The State of California has a Pleading Bank that can be used by a licensed attorney to find sample, guiding documents to expedite her work.  It links back to our earlier discussion on this site as to potential Form/Document sharing among legal professionals — as a model for Githubbing Legal Work Product among lawyers.

It catalogs state & federal pleadings, grouped into different stages of the court process or type of process.  Users can convert their text documents into an online version and submit it for inclusion in the Pleading Bank. The system allows for commenting on the pleadings by users as well.

The platform is only open to registered users — you must be a lawyer to register (with some exceptions for those who work alongside lawyers).  It’s not a ‘crowdsourcing’ legal work product site, like Docracy, where any user could upload or use the resources shared there.  Instead, it’s an ‘expert-sourcing’ site, where only licensed experts can add resources, comment on them, and use what others have provided.

The project was funded by a TIG Grant from the Legal Services Corporation, partnered with the Legal Aid Association of California, San Diego branch. It was released as a beta version in October 2013.

If you have used the site, or have thoughts on it — we’d love to hear your feedback. Does this model work? What could it make it better? And where else could it be applied?

California Pleading Bank Basics–December 2013 from Legal Aid Association of Calif. on Vimeo.

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A very simple illustration, made for one of my recent presentations explaining what design is to lawyers, and how it could be useful to their work.

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Here’s another example of visual explanations of law.  Here it is the 2008 book Bound by Law?: Tales from the Public Domain, with Intellectual Property Law visualized in comic book format, from Duke University Press, authored by Keith Aioki, James Boyle, and Jennifer Jenkins.  You can buy it here on Amazon.

via Bound By Law: the “Understanding Comics” of copyright, in a new edition – Boing Boing.

Duke University Press has just released an expanded edition of “Bound By Law”, the comic book by three law profs about copyright, fair use, and documentary film. It includes a wonderful new Introduction by BoingBoing’s own Cory Doctorow and Foreword by Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, and is freely available under a Creative Commons license.

From Cory’s Introduction: “This is a sensible book about a ridiculous subject. It’s an example of the principle it illustrates: that taking from the culture around us to make new things is what culture is all about, it’s what culture is for. Culture is that which we use to communicate.

“The comic form makes this issue into something less abstract, more concrete, and the Duke Public Domain folks who produced this have not just written a treatise on copyright, they’ve produced a loving tribute to the form of comics.

“It’s a book whose time has come. Read it, share it. Get angry. Do something. Document your world.”

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Here is a visual I made for the Canadian Bar Association, to illustrate the main takeaways of their new Legal Futures report.Margaret Hagan - CBA Legal Futures infographic
And then a version in French as well.
Margaret Hagan - CBA Infographic for Legal Futures in French
It was great to have a small part in the report — it’s full of great insights about the near-future for the legal market & education, which apply to the US market as well.

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Design Process - how do you think about new things - semantic Noodling and Meaning Machines

Earlier this month, I attended an open Design Lunch at Autodesk in downtown SF.  Chris Noessel, a designer at the Cooper design firm, presented on the topic: How do we, as designers, think new things?  How can we create the conditions for disruptive thinking, that will lead us to breakthrough ideas to solve the challenges we’re confronting?

Over the hour, he presented an inventory of Creative Machines, small rituals and processes that have been used in different cultures & eras to generate new perspectives, thoughts, surprises & solutions to problems.  These take several forms:

For designers looking for Creative Machines that are more practical, that could be integrated more directly into the Design Process, Noessel spotlighted some other resources:

  • Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy Cards: a deck of cards to shuffle, pick from, and then pick one — which will give you a prompt to apply to your problem, that will reframe your perspective
  • A Story Generator, like Machine of Death: a card deck game in which you draw two cards with random prompts. You have to use your creativity to make a connection between them, thereby generating a new design.
  • Force-fit Grids/Creative Matrix: a table structure, in which you designate the X line’s attribute & the Y line’s, and then fill in the table’s squares with combinations of these attributes. These combinations will lead you to new hybrids & insights about what’s possible. Some examples of these below:

Creative Matrix - Jessica Hagy - seven deadly sin creative matrix Creative Matrix - Zoological Times table

This creative matrix could easily be integrated into a Design Process, with an X-axis defined by user tasks or by stages in the user’s journey, and then the Y-axis defined by technological tools, interaction gestures, or possible solution categories. Each of the table’s squares would then be filled in with possible solutions for the user’s requirements.  Not all of them would be practical or desirable, but they would generate a wider spectrum of possibilities — breaking out of common thinking about what solutions are possible.

Do you have any other Creative Machines, that can be woven into a design process to break us out of status-quo thinking, and get us to new & disruptive paths?


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What would a Github for Law look like? And is it worth building?

This afternoon I got an email from a site visitor who asked if I knew of any projects in the works that stakes a Github for Lawyers out — and if there is a profitable business model in such an undertaking.

Github is a site for coders to upload code they’re authoring & collaborating on, and that allows other members of the community to ‘fork’ from their code.  Meaning, others can take the work that one person has created & then make separate versions of it, stored separately but still linked back to the original.

The site also allows for collaborative editing. A member can request to change a document — calling out an issue, or proposing a better way to accomplish a task — by submitting a ‘pull request’. The author can review the request & approve it if she agrees.

Github can serve as an advanced filing system — keeping track of revisions, allowing for multiple, customized versions of a single type of document, and allowing for collaborative back & forth.  The site can be used not only for code files, but also standard word docs or any other file types.

The other thing about Github is an ethos of openness & transparency.  Any Internet user can see the work product, and anyone who signs up for an account can fork the work product off & customize it in a new version. The Github model aims for a collaborative work flow, that prioritizes opening up your work product to the community, letting others borrow it & edit it, and taking in criticisms from community-members who think they can build off your work to improve it.

So could the Github model be applied to legal professionals’ work, or how the legal services that non-lawyers use?

My short answer to the visitor: there are an increasing number of Legal Document Repositories, many of them now overlaid with a user-friendly interface that allows the user to take the standard document and fill in the designated fields with their own information.

Thus, the user can take a standard doc and make it her own by simply entering in a few pieces of information (that she likely has at her finger tips). Some of these document repositories are even hosted in part on Github, so that any other visitor who signs up for Github could fork these documents & customize them for her own.

Here is a short inventory of projects that are creating such open repositories + form-filling interfaces.

One noticeable thing: most of them are aimed at entrepreneurs as the main user.  The use case is someone setting up a start-up & trying to get right with corporate law.

(There is another branch of Legal Document repositories: government & legal service sites that compile standardized legal forms for users. These sites mainly just create a searchable/browsable list of downloads of government forms. I haven’t included them in this post, but the design of those sites deserve their own separate examination in a later post.)

Docracy is perhaps the most advanced repository online right now.  It allows for any member with an account to upload a legal document that will be shared with the rest of the community. Any other member can then make a private customization of the document, which they can then invite others to work on & sign. Other members can also fork the document publicly, to edit & customize the doc publicly, allowing other members to use their version.

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Docracy 1 Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Docracy 2 Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Docracy 3 Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Docracy 5

Restatement is a project from Jason Boehmig, Tim Hwang, and Paul Sawaya, funded through the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund.  They are building a repository of legal documents along with an interface-overlay to fill in the docs’ fields in a user-friendly way. They also promise that the site will allow users to use their document repository with other tools — to be able to run analytics, to be able to auto-fill and auto-create documents, and otherwise ‘hack and slice’ a legal document. Right now Restatement is not fully live, but it does have some demos.
Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Restatement 1

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - restatement 2

A similar project is coming out of Singapore, from Cofounders Pte. Ltd., with its Legal Boilerplate collection of documents. Their site is more populated with legal documents, each of which the user can fill out in their browser by scrolling through the document & entering numbers and words into the open fields. The site also has a Github repository attached to it.

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Cofounders Legal 2Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Cofounders Legal 3

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Cofounders Legal 1

Law firms have also created start-up oriented legal document repositories.  Cooley has a set of open source legal documents available on the startup-accelerator Techstars’ website.

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Cooley and Techstarts

Fenwick & West has the Series Seed repository available on its own project website, along with a Github page.

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Series Seed 1

Open Law Lab - Github for Law - Series Seed 2

From this quick inventory, the status quo model is clear:

  1. collect together some standard legal documents
  2. identify the fields that any user will have to change to customize the document to their situation
  3. build an interface in the browser that lets the user enter their custom data into these fields
  4. allow the user to export the document for their own use
  5. perhaps, make the document open for forking & editing, for others to customize, build upon, or improve

The question is what the next-level ambitions for Legal Document Repositories should be.

One path would be scaling up the types of documents available (like Docracy is doing, with different types of crowdsourced docs besides startup-focused ones, though their site is still mostly populated with startup-docs).

Another would be what Restatement is hinting at, with more integration of the legal documents into automated processes, analytics, and other work flows that could prove to increase efficiency & knowledge for legal professionals.

I’d love to see some more features & functions that serve the end-user of these documents.  Can we have some metrics associated with these docs?  Docracy has a love button, that allows a visitor to see how many people ‘love’ this document, and it has stats on downloads and views as well.  But there must be a better metric than just ‘popularity’.

Could we have Expert Curators who give their reviews & recommendations of documents?

Could we have Stats on the Document’s Worth, that document the number of lawsuits or other problems that arise after using a document?

Could we have Popular Ratings, Yelp-style, in which those who have downloaded the site are then invited back a year or two later to give star-ratings & comments to the document they have been using?

Could we have Customized Forks of Documents with clear descriptions of which scenario this version should be used for?

Could we have Best Practice Packages of documents, that have been vetted and staged so that a user who is on a certain legal path can use this series of documents and know that expert users recommend them for exactly the scenario she’s in?

Just some ideas — I’m sure there are plenty more improvements for stage 2 of these legal document repositories.  Post away in the comment section, or send me an email!

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Text for Legal Services-01

I’m working on a project right now to bring court reminder messaging systems into some California courts.  I’ve been reaching out to different open-source platforms that offer text-messaging systems to be customized in local installations. I’ll be publishing a full-blown write-up of the project soon enough — but first a note about another pilot going on, that’s worth following.

Frontline SMS is certainly a front-runner here — and they are doing some explicitly ‘legal’ projects using their tech. Many of their projects are outside the US, where target audiences don’t have reliable Internet access but do have mobile phones — thus making text messaging a great vehicle for outreach, organizing & process management.  But they are also working on projects in the US.

Keith Porcaro, the Legal Project Director at Frontline SMS, just wrote a post about one of their collaborations with the Legal Services Corporation — to help people find & engage with local legal aid providers through a texting system.

The initial pilot system is simple — a person can text a central number with their zip code & then find the contact info for the nearest legal aid office. But the system could be scaled up to include appointment-making, reminders, and coaching.

Piloting SMS for Legal Aid, by Keith Porcaro

Legal aid in the United States is broken. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the country’s primary funder of legal aid organizations, estimates that about half of eligible clients are turned away from the organizations it funds, and about eighty percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans remain unmet.

The problem starts from minute one, when a new client, unfamiliar with the legal process or the legal aid system, struggles to determine what to do next, who to turn to for help, or even what questions to ask to find help. The day-zero chaos a person faces before finding the right individual, department, or organization to provide help, and the time spent redirecting clients who have guessed wrong, adds up to a daunting burden for everyone in the system.

Technology can help solve this problem. To that end, LSC has recently deployed a “Find Legal Aid” page on their website, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to look up the nearest LSC-funded legal aid office to their address or zip code.

It isn’t enough. In order to be eligible for legal aid with an LSC-funded organization, a client’s household income cannot exceed 125% of the poverty line, which for a family of four is just a shade under $30k/year. The rate of internet users in that income bracket is about sixty percent. That means that even if LSC did the very best job possible with outreach, publicity, and web design (no mean feats, mind), the best they could do is reach sixty percent of the people they are trying to help.

We can do more. Successful engagement with marginalized populations must come at every level of connectivity. Here, the missing link is SMS, which some 95% of people in the US have access to. Nonetheless, there remains skepticism on just how effective SMS can be, particularly in seemingly high-connectivity countries like the United States, where the unconnected are invisible to a majority that increasingly relies on technology to find and help others. Technology is more than a tool: it’s a habit, and expecting a person facing the chaos of a legal emergency to suddenly acquire a lifetime of Internet-savvy—and spend time at a library or workplace to do it—is unrealistic and unfair. To reach the unconnected, we need to find ways to provide information and services they need directly to their home, with the technology they already have. SMS can help solve this problem.

We wanted to prove how easy it is to set up a legal aid lookup tool using SMS. So we did it. We used the data from LSC’s online legal aid lookup tool as a base, cleaned it up (there were some zip codes that pointed to the wrong place), and put that data into our own systems to create this demo (which is up for a limited time, and for US numbers only). To see it in action, text your zip code to 224-310-9108. You’ll get back the name, phone number, and website of your local LSC-funded legal aid office.

We can do even more. Using this system as a base, we can prompt clients to answer simple intake questions to direct them to the right department or person, or prompt them to book an appointment over SMS. Then, when the client arrives, their intake data will be ready and waiting. With the participation of independent, specialized legal aid organizations, we can expand the usefulness of the network even further, reaching low income people who aren’t eligible for LSC aid, or who need more specialized help, such as with immigration.

When someone realizes they need legal help, it’s almost always a pseudo-emergency, or it very much feels like one. Then, to make matters worse, one has to run a labyrinthine legal system, blindfolded. We can do better. SMS can be a key part of a multiplatform approach to inexpensively make finding legal help just a bit less painful, for client and provider alike. We’re looking for legal service providers and networks to run pilots in the United States (and elsewhere). Want to take part? Get in touch, at

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Legal Architecture and Legal Design Reading List


After I had the idea of calling myself a legal architect, quite a lot of people ask me to suggest some readings on Legal Architecture or Legal Design. (=information architecture, UX, service design, graphic design applied to the legal field).

While there’re a lot of good readings on…

Source: lawyersareboring


Law Comics is a Tumblr blog that features a handful of illustrated explainers of law — to start with, patents.

Visual Law - Law Comics - Alice in Patentland 1 Visual Law - Law Comics - Alice in Patentland 2

These first comics are authored by Julia Powles & illustrated by Ilias Kyriazis.

Their description of the general project:

Law Comics is a project steered by non-boring lawyers to render iconic legal cases in full-colour glory, accompanied by short, authoritative, whimsical texts. The aim is to animate the magnificent stories of law to engage and empower the curious public.

Their description of this comic:

This specific comic is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0. This means, that, with attribution, you’re welcome to share, reuse, remix, go nuts, and generally do most things except make money off the exact thing we’ve given you. Please keep us posted out of interest (and in case updates are made)!

Featured in Wired UK, Law and the Multiverse, Patently-O, The IPKat, Boing Boing, Forbidden Planet, Wildcat, FindLaw, ICLR, Adler Vermillion LLP, PatSnap

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ZoningCheck is a legal web app to help business owners navigate zoning regulations.  It’s a winner of one of the grants from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge from last year.

It’s an Open Government app, that processes local city codes into searchable, navigable experiences online. Rather than going in person to a government center, a business owner can search for their city’s code, find the rules that apply to their (prospective) business and property plans, and find what regulations & process will apply to them.

It’s in Beta for a limited number of cities, only in California.  The design is ultra-simple & clean.  It has four clearly demarcated steps: choose your city, your business type, your prospective location & then see if your business type would be permitted in that location or not.

Open Law Lab - ZoningCheck 1 Open Law Lab - ZoningCheck 2 Open Law Lab - ZoningCheck 3 Open Law Lab - ZoningCheck 4 Open Law Lab - ZoningCheck 5

Here’s a write-up from ZoningCheck’s team about their ideas & development.

ZoningCheck helps entrepreneurs find a home for their next business – Knight Foundation.

July 23, 2014, 8 a.m., Posted by Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney

Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney are co-founders of OpenCounter, a winner of the 2013 Knight News Challenge: Open Gov. Below, they write about their work and the launch of their latest project, ZoningCheck.

To most citizens, zoning is invisible: We’re aware of it in the abstract, but it doesn’t seem to affect our daily lives. But if you’re an entrepreneur trying to open a business, zoning has a direct and immediate impact on your plans and your pocketbook.

Thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, we’re announcing a new product that will help entrepreneurs navigate the zoning clearance process. We call it ZoningCheck.

Here’s where it will help: Like the computer code that powers our laptops and mobile phones, the legal code that runs a city is dense and difficult to understand. There’s a lot of jargon, references to other documents, and all the narrative tension of a phone book.

Large corporations navigate this complexity by hiring site selection experts and attorneys to read the legal code for them. Small business owners, on the other hand, are often left to their own devices.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to open a bakery in an up-and-coming neighborhood. First you would need to get a copy of the city’s zoning map, and find out how your location—if you even have one picked out—is zoned. Then you would need to dive deep into the code to look for a list of approved land uses for that location. This list of uses can include quite a few arcane business types (“wool pulling and scouring” is one of our favorites in San Francisco) while being noticeably silent on more modern operations, like co-working spaces or food trucks—let alone a maker space.

In addition to picking the right use, our baker will have to learn about issues such as zoning “overlays” and special districts, and “conditional” rules. A bakery isn’t just a bakery if it includes a retail component, and it might not be permitted in a downtown area if it operates a wood-fired oven.

Confronting this level of ambiguity, entrepreneurs often will resort to a trip to city hall to talk to a planner, which can be an enlightening conversation, but usually involves a fee and a five- to 10-day turnaround for a formal response.

Enter ZoningCheck. This tool asks a few simple questions, such as “what type of business are you planning to open?” and “do you have a location picked out.” It also  displays an interactive map of how the municipal code would process this hypothetical application. ZoningCheck turns a five- to 10-day process into a five- to 10-second process.

At OpenCounter, we believe that small businesses play a critical role in building strong local economies, and that governments can do more to help entrepreneurs get started. Our main product — — does this by guiding applicants through the business permitting forms, and calculating the costs and processing time to register the company. By moving the process online, we make an important city service available 24/7, and give municipalities a new level of insight into economic trends in their communities.

ZoningCheck expands this experience. It is built on open data and existing regulations. As part of our product launch, we’re offering to configure and host ZoningCheck for free for one year for qualified cities. If you work for a town or city and are interested in joining our public beta, please email us at

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from the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership's Toolkit

from the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership’s Toolkit

Among the many camps of ideas for how to increase access to justice, one of the strongest I keep returning to is Devolved Legal Services.  What I mean by this:

How can we devolve legal services out of offices — out of legal bureaucracies — and into community spaces?

How can we integrate legal help into other (often, more trusted & more accessible) organizations & institutions, so that a person can get easier access to legal professionals — as well as a more holistic solution to their problem?

Legal help may be devolved into schools, into libraries, into places of worships — and into hospitals.   Medical-legal partnerships are one of the most established forms of devolved legal services.

Open Law Lab - Medical Legal Partnerships

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University has established a National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, that provides information on the health centers & legal organizations that have made such partnerships — as well as best practices & a starter toolkit for those interested in opening a partnership (you just have to complete a short form on their site to download the toolkit).

Such a partnership can take many forms: with lawyers physically stationed inside emergency rooms, clinics, or hospital wards — or with the medical organization having established a channel to lawyers, to funnel certain clients to them for consultations & help.

Open Law Lab - Medical Legal Partnerships 3

This new universe of medical-legal partnerships is a great example of how other community touchpoints can be made into legal ones.  It also shows fruitful collaborations between other professionals and legal ones, to give a fuller & more satisfying service to the end-user.

As the National Center’s toolkit suggests — there is a huge crossover of medical problems & legal ones, but the two camps of professionals do not speak each other language.  A structured partnership can uncover these links & build new service models, that benefit the individual end-user in the short-run and the community in the long-run, by enforcing the laws in a more systematic way that will stop bad practices that lead to health & legal problems.

The toolkit addresses the medical professional’s mental model, trying to expand it to include legal services.

Legal needs are not currently part of the language of healthcare, nor is legal care a tool in the toolbox healthcare team members use to treat patients or address population health. The connection between legal needs and health is invisible in the provision of healthcare. Overcoming this invisibility will require considerable education, not just about the connection between legal needs and health, but also about how lawyers can help each member of the healthcare team provide the necessary care. Medical-legal partnership builds on an existing framework, asking healthcare team members to expand their understanding of social determinants of health to recognize that some of those problems require legal screening and intervention. It asks them to accept lawyers – as they have patient navigators, case managers and social workers – as unique but indispensable members of the healthcare team with a new expertise to help identify, treat and prevent these problems in patients, clinics and populations.

It also tries to stretch legal professionals’ service models, to start thinking outside of traditional ways of problem-solving and client-service.

Legal institutions already provide assistance to individuals around many issues that impact health, but do so in a justice-driven framework, not a health-driven one. Medical-legal partnership requires legal institutions and professionals to dramatically re-orient the delivery of legal aid to prioritize health and to practice law in a public health framework, valuing population outcomes alongside individual case outcomes. Lawyers learn from their healthcare partners how to evaluate their work and adopt health-related priorities. It also asks legal professionals to move from crisis driven care (justice is about righting a wrong) to practicing prevention and upstream care. Legal services provided still include traditional typical case representation, but significantly shift time and resources to training healthcare team members and collaborating with healthcare team members on clinic and population health changes.

For some case studies of partnerships in action, here is a recent article from Tina Rosenberg at The New York Times that profiles some such partnerships in action in Cincinnati, Boston & New York

Via The New York Times

When Poverty Makes You Sick, a Lawyer Can Be the Cure

By TINA ROSENBERG July 17, 2014 9:30 pm

By early summer 2010, the temperature had already reached 100 degrees in Cincinnati. At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, doctors were urging the families of children with asthma to use air-conditioning. One mother handed a piece of paper to her doctor: The child’s room did have a window unit, and she was using it. But then the landlord responded — he apparently didn’t want to pay the electric bills. Use that air-conditioner, the letter said, and you will be evicted.

A concerned doctor might have tried to call the landlord to fight the notice. Or, she might have handed the letter over to a social worker. But Cincinnati Children’s had something better — it had lawyers. In 2008, the hospital and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati set up a medical-legal partnership, the Cincinnati Child Health-Law Partnership or Child HeLP.

A week later, another family came in with the same letter. And the week after that.

“Our lawyers were getting the same problem referred over and over in a short period of time,” said Elaine Fink, who is the co-leader of Child HeLP. “They looked at the map ­— they were all in the same neighborhood. They looked to see who owned the buildings. In this case we hit bingo ­— the same owner.”

That was the Brooklyn-based NY Group, which held 18 buildings in Cincinnati and one in Dayton. Many tenants in those buildings had ended up at Child HeLP — to get help with mold, water damage, structural perils, rodents or bug infestations.

Child HeLP wrote to NY Group, including in its letters statements by physicians about the health impacts of its legal violations. It sued on behalf of one severely disabled boy with a tracheotomy whose health depended on air-conditioning. The repairs were done in a few weeks.

But the point was not just to help individual patients — it was to improve conditions in the buildings for all tenants. At the same time, NY Group was walking away from the buildings — Fannie Mae foreclosed on all 19 by the end of July. Legal Aid helped tenants to organize and have a voice in the foreclosure process — among other things, they wanted to make sure that the buildings remain subsidized housing.

Ultimately that pressure resulted in widespread repairs, and helped persuade Fannie Mae to sell the buildings to Community Builders, a Boston-based nonprofit that develops and operates good low-income housing (which is maintaining the subsidies). Reconstruction is about to start.

Being poor can make you sick. Where you work, the air you breathe, the state of your housing, what you eat, your levels of stress and your vulnerability to crime, injury and discrimination all affect your health. These social determinants of health lie outside the reach of doctors and nurses.

In the early 1990s, Barry Zuckerman, the chief of pediatrics at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), decided he was tired of seeing kids cycling back into the hospital again and again — asthmatic kids who never got better because of the mold in their houses, infants with breathing problems because their apartments were unheated. He’d write letters to the landlord, who ignored them, said Megan Sandel, who was an intern there at the time. Then at a cocktail party, someone listening to his complaints asked Zuckerman: What does the law say?

Zuckerman thought it was an important question. In 1993, he established the Family Advocacy Program with three lawyers to prod landlords, secure government benefits families were entitled to and fight with Medicaid, insurance companies, schools and other bureaucracies.

(Zuckerman deserves his own wing in medicine’s hall of innovation — he also co-founded Reach Out and Read, which supplies books and encourages doctors to prescribe them and family reading for kids. And he is co-founder of Health Leads, a program that trains college students to connect patients to food, heat and other basics of health.)

There were few medical-legal partnerships until about five or 10 years ago, but now 231 health care institutions have them, according to the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership. The largest is New York’s LegalHealth, which works in about 20 New York hospitals and is expanding — it will soon have clinics in all 11 of the city’s public hospitals.

Medical-legal partnerships are growing in part because of increasing attention to social determinants of health. Talking about inequality means talking about the vicious cycles that keep people poor; one of the most important is the intersection of poverty and health. “And sometimes a new asthma inhaler isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, and until recently director of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The vast majority of low-income Americans have unresolved legal problems: debt, immigration status, custody issues, child care, benefits, back pay, housing, a special education plan for a child — you name it. All of these affect stress levels, which is in itself a health issue, but many have a more direct connection to health.

Medicaid in New York State is now, in some cases, paying for supportive housing. (Medicaid has long bought housing in the form of nursing homes, of course.) This WNYC radio story describes one formerly homeless woman now in a Medicaid-paid apartment. “You could treat her epilepsy until the cows come home, but without an appropriate place to live she was going to be sick,” said Bergmark.

Clinics that have medical-legal partnerships approach health differently than others. When doctors have no options for helping patients with the social determinants of health, they tend not to ask about them. With a medical-legal partnership, they do. At Cincinnati Children’s, each patient’s family is asked: Do you have housing problems? Problems getting your benefits? Are you depressed? Are you unsafe in your relationship? Would you like to speak to a lawyer or social worker about any of these things?

That process can start right away. “We have attorneys and paralegals on site in the primary care center five days a week,” said Fink. “Many times we get a legal aid attorney to walk down the hall to talk to family while the child is waiting to get immunizations.”

A legal letter can often get a response where a doctor’s or social worker’s letter does not. The lawyers also save doctors time. “Everyone works at the top of their profession instead of the physician figuring out why mom is going to be evicted tomorrow and what they can do about it,” said Ellen Lawton, co-principal investigator at the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

The reverse is also true: adding doctors makes legal work easier. Lawton said that lawyers’ arguments carry more weight when they include a medical opinion. “The health of the kids changes the advocacy conversation,” she said. “It goes from ‘this is the law and you have to comply’ to a conversation that’s about community well-being and health. And when you’re able to use the clinical viewpoint rather than a legal framework, you’re able to resolve the issue much more rapidly.”

Most important, a medical-legal partnership goes beyond curing an individual. Child HeLP’s actions in Cincinnati’s sick buildings made life better for all the families there. “Don’t wait for the kids to be sick,” said Sandel, who is now the medical director of the national medical-legal partnership center. “Look for the pattern and find what’s making kids sick in the first place. The power of the model is moving upstream, going from person to person to population level” — legal action as preventive medicine.

Like other forms of preventive care, medical-legal clinics are a bargain. One striking example: New York City’s LegalHealth wrote formal legal demand letters to help adult asthma patients get their apartments cleared of rodents, bugs, mold, water and structural damage. The apartments were fixed. Patients improved, drastically, and there was a 90 percent drop in emergency room visits and hospital admissions. This was achieved by a one-shot intervention that cost an average of $225 per case.

But while society may save money, that’s not necessarily true for hospitals — and it’s hospitals that make the decisions. Fee-for-service medicine rewards hospitals for more admissions and emergency room usage, not less, and doesn’t reimburse hospitals for preventive services such as legal aid. Nor can legal aid lawyers rely on funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation, which never recovered from the Reagan administration’s cuts.

Increasingly, though, hospitals are establishing and paying for medical-legal partnerships, despite the lack of reimbursement. (New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation is paying for part of the expansion of LegalHealth, with other major funding from the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty group.) One reason is the growing move toward value-based reimbursement instead of fee-for-service — for example, Medicare now rewards hospitals for having low rates of readmission and good scores on safety measures. Nonmedical staff members such as social workers — and lawyers — are becoming a better investment.

Kerry J. Rodabaugh, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, started a medical-legal partnership at an earlier job at the Roswell Cancer Center in Buffalo. She studied how often lawyers were able to get patients into insurance or benefit programs, which allows hospitals to be reimbursed for their care. She wrote a paper on the partnership’s work and the savings.

At Nebraska, Rodabaugh established a medical-legal partnership in her department.

“In order to get funding for my program I’ve had to prove a financial benefit,” she said. “I’ve been able to document at my current program a 700 percent return on investment since 2009. When I’m talking to administrators they get very excited.” Now U.N.M.C. is expanding these clinics to every department and to its primary care clinics in places with significant poverty.

“So much of child health is the result of poor social and physical living conditions for kids — food on the table, shelter, quality education,” said Robert S. Kahn, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s who is the medical co-leader of Child HeLP. “So much of what we do in pediatrics is driven by these broader well-being issues for the family. We do much better when we partner with groups that have that as a mission.”

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Tina Rosenberg

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”

The post Devolving Legal Services out of law offices: Medical-Legal Partnerships appeared first on Open Law Lab.



Open Law Lab - Roompact 1

The New York Times profiled the start-up Roompact yesterday, framing it as a roommate dispute tool.  It also is a legal product — it’s a platform for two parties to come together and create a contract about the terms on which they’ll be roommates, and then flag potential violations & failures after the agreement is signed.  In this case, the university administration can intervene and try to lead a dispute resolution process through the platform.

Roompact has an interesting mix of the dispute resolution functions that have been popping up online over the past decade — and also conflict prevention tech.  It advertises an algorithm that will help a person find a person whom they’re less likely to come into conflict with, and then tries to allow for collaborative contracting and early responses to problems with the agreement that bubble up.

Open Law Lab - Roompact 2

It would be interesting to see other Dispute Resolution platforms aimed not at roommates, but in families, the workplace, or commercial transactions.  This model incorporates a full user flow rather than a simple dispute resolution function:

  1. finding an appropriate party to make a deal with,
  2. collaborating with her to create a custom, mutually satisfying agreement,
  3. solidifying & preserving that legal agreement,
  4. allowing for low-level complaints about deviations from that agreement, or other problems in the relationship,
  5. early-stage intervention to resolve these low-level problems,
  6. later-stage dispute resolutions if the problems spin into larger ones that threaten to sabotage the agreement

A platform with such a wider flow of services — focusing on earlier stages in a pair’s relationship as well as the later ones, when the problems have devolved into ‘disputes’ to be resolved — could be a new direction for the dispute resolution legal products to evolve towards.  Or it could be a service design for traditional courts to consider as they bring their mediation efforts online.

Here’s the New York Times article about Roompact:

via Today’s Students Don’t Have to Suffer if They Hate Their Roommates –

Over the last few years, many colleges and universities have adopted online roommate matching programs that help incoming students look for and select their own first-year roommates. Like dating sites, the roommate analytics systems can match people based on preferences like music volume, sociability and even tolerance for snoring.

But schools are not offering first-year students roommate personalization engines merely to ease their transition to college life, as I noted in my article for Sunday Business this week. These educational institutions are trying to reduce an expensive problem: roommate conflicts so severe that they can prompt students to transfer or drop out before their sophomore year.

Rona Skinner, the director of business strategies for student auxiliary services at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., for instance, said she had seen roommates develop conflicts over issues like overnight guests and even whether their dorm room windows should be kept open or closed.

To try to preclude those types of problems, the university uses StarRez, a comprehensive online housing management program that includes a roommate self-selection option for students.

“In today’s market, we have to be competitive inside and outside the academic arena,” Ms. Skinner said. “If we can give students a happy experience with a roommate, they are likely to be retained, not just at the school, but in on-campus housing.”

A start-up, Roompact, is trying to tackle college roommate conflicts directly.

The company has developed online roommate agreements that incoming college students can use to agree on parameters for dorm room cleanliness, security, property sharing and other issues. Then Roompact sends each student a text message on a weekly or twice-monthly basis asking for a rating of how the roommate relationship is going.

The Roompact system also allows university staff members to track the roommate relationship in each dorm room and notifies them when a problem seems to be developing.

“Today, a residence hall director who is in charge of a whole building might find out there’s a problem after a student has already been fighting with a roommate for two months,” said Matt Unger, the chief executive of Roompact. “We want to detect conflict earlier, notify folks in residential life and help with conflict resolution.”

This fall, the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., plans to introduce Roompact for its incoming class, which includes about 1,200 residential students.

The university already had its own strategy in place to try to mitigate roommate conflict. It used paper-based roommate agreements for students and assigned university staff members, like residence counselors, to regularly check in with each student.

While that oversight will continue, Shawn McQuillan, the university’s associate director for residential life, said he hoped features like the regular text messages from Roompact seeking updates will encourage students to better communicate their roommate situations to the university.

“With students becoming more high-tech, it was like pulling teeth to try to get them to fill out the paper forms,” Mr. McQuillan said. “For students who don’t communicate much with us directly, we’re hoping they are going to be more honest with the text messages.”

The post Roompact: Contracting & Conflict Resolution software for roommates appeared first on Open Law Lab.