On February 22nd and 23rd, I attended the 2nd Annual Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) Conference in San Francisco. The SRLN is dedicated to supporting justice system professionals who are focused on reforming the legal system so that it provides 100% access to justice for self-represented litigants (SRLs), also known as ‘pro se litigants’. The purpose of the conference is to promote collaboration among SRLN members to develop and share strategies for increasing access to justice.
It’s always exciting to be among like-minded people who are focused on serving SRLs and to learn from leaders in the field. After all good conferences like this one, the trick is to not lose the excitement and momentum after returning to the office and settling back into the daily grind. A lot of articles about attending conferences suggest writing a blog to help you integrate what you’ve learned into your day-to-day work, and also so that others can benefit (you’re welcome!). Here are three of my takeaways from the conference:
#1. The market price of coffee in San Fran
OK, I know this is off-topic, but it’s actually the very first thing I learned at the conference. A fellow conference attendee and coffee aficionado ordered a (small) cup of coffee that was listed as “market price” at Equator Coffee & Teas. The actual price: $14, which brings new meaning to using “the cost of a cup of coffee” as a donation benchmark. My immediate reaction was, “that’s crazy!” However, in writing this blog I read a little more about Equator’s philosophy, which is to create a positive impact through their position at the intersection between local and distant coffee communities. I’m still not sure why the coffee is $14, but their focus on relationships and networks within these communities actually creates a nice segue to the types of discussions we were having at the conference, where we talked about using partnerships to promote access to justice - and my next takeaway:
In Alaska, only 14% of municipalities are connected to other places by roads. In the conference’s opening “Thought Starter,” Stacey Marz (Alaska Court System) and Miguel Willis (ATJ Tech Fellows) presented about using the power of networks to extend the reach of legal services to isolated Alaskan communities. They noted several categories of providers that they work with to promote legal services, such as social, medical, and info services. The latter category includes places people go for neutral sources of information, like libraries, government agencies, and . . . post offices. Post offices may not be the first place most people think of when looking for legal answers. However, they are an important gathering place in Alaska’s remote communities. One of the key takeaways for me from this presentation was the lesson that rural communities are more networked than their urban counterparts because they have to be. The key is to tap into those networks.
Being a largely rural state, I think there is a lot for Illinois to learn from Alaska, which is one of 7 states to receive a Justice for All (JFA) grant. As part of this project, the Alaska Court System is working on creating a debt collection app like this one in Utah, focusing on partnerships to bridge the access to justice gap, and creating a legal access portal to provide better and more successful referrals. Alaska also created some really cool maps of their provider networks.
#3. Self-help doesn’t have to be all (or any) words
I don’t think there’s any doubt that lawyers LOVE words - the more the better. ILAO, like other organizations that produce self-help legal resources, uses plain language to explain the law and improve access to justice. But in the session titled “Using Visuals to Provide Legal Information and Improve Access,” Christopher Griffin, from the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, argued that one problem with most self-help resources is that they focus on getting SRLs to understand concepts, when people really just want concrete steps to follow. Another problem is that self-help resources lack analogies and visuals to aid retention and comprehension of legal process and procedures. IllinoisLegalAid.org is guilty of the latter, but our content and tech teams are currently developing process maps to assist our website users, so check back for those changes in the coming months.
In the second part of the session, Julia Weber led us through a series of drawing exercises to show us that it doesn’t take an artist to use visuals in self-help resources - anyone can communicate using basic stick figures and simple icons, like these:
Here is my stab at illustrating the eviction process:
(You would never guess it, but I’ve actually taken a ton of art classes.) Don’t worry, I won’t be in charge of creating the process maps on IllinoisLegalAid.org.
Julia focused on these figures and icons as a series of simple lines that we all easily recognize as representations of more complicated concepts (like Joel Shapiro’s balancing figure, which I saw the next day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). This approach made the whole process very accessible to those of us who don’t draw on a regular basis.
In summary, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can use these lessons to help expand the reach of ILAO’s self-help resources. The traditional legal system cannot meet the legal needs of self-represented litigants, and we need to keep searching for nontraditional ways to increase access to justice. The SRLN is a great place to learn from innovators in the field. Because we are always innovating at ILAO, I hope to submit a proposal for next year’s SRLN conference!