A key area where legal tech can make a tremendous difference is in the area of access to justice or, more specifically, making the legal system more accessible and affordable to those with little means. This interview is with one of those people who has dedicated his life to this very cause and I’m honored to have been able to interview him. Quinten Steenhuis has been with Greater Boston Legal Services for over 11 years and serves as their Senior Housing Attorney and Network Administrator. In his own words, “My work since 2009 includes both direct legal representation of low-income tenants, primary responsibility for systems administration and architecture of GBLS’s computer infrastructure, and development of open source user-facing technology projects. I focus my IT work on scripting, automation, and monitoring to build a reliable system that encourages collaboration and facilitates the service of our client population.”
Tell me a little about your background and how you first got started within the legal industry.
I was always interested in both law and computer programming. The only competitive activity at my small high school in Ithaca, New York was mock trial, and I participated in it throughout both high school and college. I began programming at a much younger age, starting out with BASIC in elementary school and moving on to Pascal and then C. My dual majors at Carnegie Mellon University combined political science and logic and computation, with a heavy concentration on computer science courses. But in college, my true passion was social justice. I founded the CMU Greens, was active in the Pittsburgh anti-Iraq war protest movement and in an early news collective that pioneered some open publishing concepts before social media existed, called the Independent Media. Center. I saw going to law school as the best way to work towards my social justice goals. After graduating from Cornell Law School, I was lucky enough to end up at Greater Boston Legal Services 11 years ago, and I’ve been there ever since.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about legal tech?
I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of techno-optimism. Technology is a very useful tool, but before reaching for technology, you need to have a good understanding of the process that you want to improve. Sometimes technology can just speed up a bad process: leading to efficient injustice. Sometimes old-fashioned paper makes more sense than a technological solution. That said, the ubiquity of mobile phones and high-speed Internet access make technology a much better solution than it was even 10 years ago. It often makes sense just to reduce errors and time wasted on data entry and reentry.
How do you use legal tech in your current job?
Document assembly is the technology we use the most. I’m a big evangelist of an open source tool called Docassemble, created by Jonathan Pyle at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. Our legal aid clients are poor and burdened by an endless amount of paperwork and forms and appointments to keep, just to maintain the thin web of support they have in place. $2 for the T is a barrier. Finding childcare or taking a day off work can threaten their ability to make it through the month. Whenever we can use technology to help reduce their need to come into our office, the better. Docassemble is one way we make things easier for our clients. We use Docassemble together with our case management system to send clients retainers and releases that they can sign right on their phone.
Two years ago, I created a project called MADE that has allowed us to completely transform our help for tenants facing eviction. We have always offered a once-a-week eviction clinic, but not everybody could attend. MADE is what I call a clinic in a box. It walks a tenant
through the forms they need to defend themselves in court, in 6 different languages and targeting a 6th grade reading level. It has help text and videos to explain the law along the way. It reminds
tenants with text messages about their court dates, automatically. We’re up to about 200 people a month using it now, in our clinics, at the Court Service Center, and completely on their own at home.
We use off-the-shelf tools as well, such as our case management system, some commercial form libraries, and of course, basics like Office 365 for collaboration and Zoom for video conferencing. We are not data-heavy, but we are accountable to our funders and our case
management system helps us with generating the reports that we need. I’d love to see more projects like MADE that can serve different legal needs.
How can non-profit legal companies benefit from legal tech? What about the fear that some may have of tech being either costly in terms of price or time or both?
Good technology can be expensive. Choosing the right project can greatly expand your ability to serve people or save on personnel costs, which almost always dwarf the cost of tech. Like any other tool, the advantages need to outweigh the costs.
The good news is that there are many free or low costs ways to experiment before making a major investment. The technology platform I like to use, Docassemble, is completely free. You can install it on a laptop or a server you already own. It can run on a low cost cloud server, or you could try one of the dedicated drag-and-drop frontends for it, like either Documate or Community.Lawyer.
I think many people will find that they can solve their immediate needs pretty well by choosing an off-the-shelf tool or experimenting on their own. Having a programmer’s mindset is a great advantage in an industry like ours, with so much room for automation. More complex or user-facing systems will probably benefit with the help of an expert.
To a new lawyer or law student interested in legal tech, what be your advice?
Get to know what’s out there. Develop curiosity and a programmer’s mindset. You may not find yourself becoming a computer programmer, but you’ll recognize waste in the way things have always been done and be willing to find a new solution, whether it’s just altering the process that exists, building a solution yourself, buying off the shelf software, or hiring a developer.