Communitylegalclinic.com project now a 14 clinic partnership

Communitylegalclinic.com, a special project of the Community Legal Clinic - Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, has officially became a partnership of 14 community legal clinics to create interactive interviews that increase caseworker impact. The partnership is exploring whether online technology, a combination of interactive interviews, wikis and other knowledge management tools, can connect clinics and their communities in helpful new ways.

The project mission is to pilot a system of interactive interviews that reflect community legal clinic values. Project work involves capturing caseworker practice knowledge in a form that can be customized and used online, at a local level, to help a clinic.

What are interactive interviews?

Interactive interviews are computer programs that use animated characters to interview the user. The project uses A2J Author. The animated characters—avatars—ask simple questions. In response, the user types or selects an answer. This is recorded in the computer. More difficult questions are presented with help such as examples and public legal information—possibly with audio and video.

An elaborate decision tree comprised of hundreds questions, over a thousand in some cases, guide the user from question to question. The path taken by the user depends entirely on their answers. Logic helps organize the user’s information, tabulating damages, warning about limitation periods and providing other supports along the way. When the interview ends, the program organizes the collected information. This is used to populate one or more forms, letters or other records.

Building community legal clinic capacity

While interactive interviews have many uses, the partnership is interested in whether these tools can expand the scope of existing clinic practices. The development process is premised on supporting caseworkers—the heart of a poverty law practice. Caseworkers understand the poverty of their community and how the clinic can best help people who live in poverty. This poverty law piece includes working systemically to address complex problems.

The project seeks to develop interactive interviews that increase the caseworker’s ability to focus more on the complex aspects of clinic practice. Project work includes interviews that support intake, document drafting and file opening. These interviews aim to build non-caseworker capacity to collect information for use by caseworkers. Other interviews help caseworkers serve people in new ways or use technology to fill out time-consuming forms, letters and other records. In all cases, the desired outcome is greater caseworker capacity to work on the poverty law piece.

Designing online tools with local impact

The project has developed 10 interactive interviews. Another 3 are in development. Each interview can be customized by a participating clinic, creating a local version.

To design interviews, the project has drawn upon countless intake manuals, guides and other resources. These collectively reflect a small but rich piece of the clinic system's vast body of practice knowledge. It is information derived from diverse practices that serve very different communities. The resulting decision trees, which underpin the interactive interviews, embody years of tacit caseworker practice knowledge from across the system.

The design process starts with a template interview. Typically, one clinic of the partnership helps to take the lead on design. Project staff work with caseworkers at the clinic, but also seek the advice of specialty clinics as needed.

Once the template is finished, the interview is tested at the lead clinic. The results of the tests inspire further improvement. As the interview improves, it is also rolled out at other interested clinics. Reviews and requests for customizations by these other clinics lead to further improvement of the original template. Sometimes an alternate approach is identified that becomes the basis for a new interview.

Diversity by design

Local customization is important because it lets each clinic to use its local know-how to increase the impact of its service. This happens by tailoring the interview to meet local service needs like those of a specific newcomer community. It also happens through new use of local resources like a student program or agency relationship. These benefits are in addition to the role customization plays in improving each template interview.

In early pilots, the deployment of the interviews has varied greatly from clinic-to-clinic. Clinics can customize more than just the questions and output of an interview. Each clinic can also password-protect or otherwise limit access to the interview, interview outputs or both. The interviews now in use are primarily used internally at participating clinics. However, an interview can be tailored otherwise, for example, for use by a trusted intermediary to a hard-to-reach client group.

Wiki-based knowledge management

Supporting the system of customized interviews is a wiki-based knowledge management tool. This tool enables the project centrally maintain all the interviews. It also facilitates local customization and preserves each clinic’s local control. Knowledge NOW, an Innovation Fund project by the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, supports the wiki in a space accessible to all caseworkers in the clinic system.

Using a complicated taxonomy of tags, the wiki tool lets clinic caseworkers and interview designers compare different interviews across clinic version and interview type. The tags also let the project track local customizations. As each interview evolves, the wiki retains historic versions allowing the project to analyze development trends.

Promising pilots

The project is still in its formative stages. Sixteen community legal clinics have expressed interest in participating in the initiative. Encouragingly, so too have a number of community agencies in Simcoe County and the City of Kawartha Lakes.

Since November 2010, the Community Legal Clinic – Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes (SHKL) has used the interactive interviews to support paralegal and social work students to collect information for caseworkers during intake. More recently, Parkdale Community Legal Services has taken the lead in developing and piloting a tool for completing affidavits and statutory declarations common to its immigration law practice. Last December, Rexdale Community Legal Clinic and SHKL began pilots of an interview that populates a draft T6 Landlord and Tenant Board Forms. This spring, North Peel & Dufferin Community Legal Services directed the design of a new service eligibility and referral tool—piloting this and a customized intake tool for law students. And both Durham Community Legal Clinic and SHKL have separately tested an ODSP denial case file opening interview, which is designed for use by staff and paralegal students.

Many other interviews are also in development or testing. Involved in one or more these processes are Peterborough Community Legal Centre, Parkdale Community Legal Services, and SHKL. Much of the project's progress has been supported by the expertise of Community Legal Education Ontario and the Clinic Resource Office. And the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario – Tenant Duty Counsel has advised on the project’s housing law tools.

On September 27, 2012, the project officially became a partnership of community legal clinics—fourteen clinics are partners as is the Clinic Resource Office. The Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario and Legal Aid Ontario are also participating in the governance of the project. The web design company Principle Inc. is the project’s information technology lead and a past donor.

As part of the transition to a partnership, the project will be changing its name. This will be the third name for the project. Before it was Communitylegalclinic.com, the project was named Portal to Justice.