Liveblogging #ODR2016: Reconfiguring legal representation to provide justice for detained asylees

I’m here at the #ODR2016 conference at the Peace Palace in The Hague. ODR2016 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution. It is cohosted by the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, where I am a fellow.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

As part of the #ODR2016 conference I attended a working group meeting on asylum cases hosted by Vikki Rogers, Director of Institute of International Commercial Law Pace Law School. Her talk/slides: “Mining the Process: The Case of Asylum-Seekers from the Northern Triangle into the United States Using Technology to Promote the Rule of Law in Asylum Cases.

Vikki volunteers with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which organizes legal representation for asylees, particularly women and children, who have been impacted by the intensifying ‘deterrance’ policies and practices of the Obama administration. CARA works “to ensure that detained children and their mothers receive competent, pro bono representation and to end the practice of family detention entirely by leading aggressive advocacy and litigation efforts to challenge unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies.”

So what makes this an ODR issue? After canvassing the set of stakeholders, policies, and politics, Vikki tells the story of LawLab, a nonprofit software company/product developed by immigration lawyers to organize effective legal representation. In the most basic sense, LawLab is case-management software, but what it facilitates is a kind of distributed legal representation that has not previously been possible (or at least effectively applied). According to Vikki, the US government strategically places deportation centers in rural, relatively inaccessible areas in order to make it more difficult for sufficient lawyers to be able to do pro-bono work. With LawLab, CARA has organized a network of legal volunteers who can track, advance, and assist cases from wherever they are located in the country. Vikki is based in New York but continues to volunteer on cases via LawLab.

Vikki positions this as an interesting flip on the traditional model of providing legal services: instead of a small number of lawyers working on a small number of cases from beginning-to-end, the CARA project, facilitated by LawLab, has allowed a large number of volunteers, some (but not all) lawyers, to work on a large number of cases by breaking up the processs into modular tasks. The project was successful in closing one government detention center in Artesia, NM and continues to work today to provide justice to asylees and refugees.

What made me want to attend and blog this working group, besides my personal interest and investment in immigrant rights, is the way this project flips the traditional script for how technology will change the legal profession. For decades, Richard Susskind and others have predicted the ‘end of lawyers,’ arguing that new technologies, particularly forms of automated text analysis/processing and decision-making, will make human analysis/processess/decisions obsolete. And certainly this has happened to some extent; LexisNexis and WestLaw are easily searched than books, and LegalZoom has made it easier to fill out legal forms like TurboTax has for tax forms.

However, I tend to be skeptical of arguments that certain forms of intelligence will be replaced. As my friend Erik Stayton argued in his master’s thesis “Driverless Dreams: Technological Narratives and the Shape of the Automated Car”, the idea of automation divorced from human agency is only one of many possible futures of how humans and computers can work together to make things possible.

In this case, I see LawLab as reconfiguring the process of legal representation; not eliminating but rather redistributing the kind of work historically done by one lawyer across many people, some of whom have specific legal expertise and credentialing, some of whom do not. This offers genuinely new possibilities for providing legal aid and justice to some of the poorest, least-resourced populations who have historically struggled to obtain adequate representation.