In this episode, we have a conversation with Nicole Bradick, our first three-peat guest on the show, about some of the systemic issues in the legal system. Nicole walks us through how she is using technology and the design process to approach those problems, and what needs to happen in order for justice to be accessible for everyone.
If you find this subject interesting, be sure to read Nicole’s post on her observations about self-represented litigants in court.
Nicole’s book recommendations:
Nicole is a former lawyer and the founder and CEO of Theory and Principle, a legal technology product development firm. Whether it is improving the delivery of legal services, the justice system, lawyer efficiency, legal education, or access to justice for all, Theory and Principle works with clients who are moved to innovate and build to create a better system. You can email Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org, or read her blog at www.medium.com/@NicoleBradick.
Listen & Subscribe
To listen to the podcast, just scroll up and hit the play button (or click the link to this post if you are reading this by email).
To make sure you don’t miss an episode of The Lawyerist Podcast, subscribe now in iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast player. Or find out about new episodes by subscribing to our email newsletter.
This transcript was prepared by Rev.com.
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Lawyerist podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. And now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: And I’m Aaron Street. This is episode 154 of the Lawyerist podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with our friend Nicole Bradick about using design thinking to build tech solutions to legal problems, and about why none of that can probably fix some of the problems built into the legal system today. Nicole is on the podcast for the third time.
Sam Glover: Yeah, she’s our first three-peater.
Aaron Street: Holy shit!
Sam Glover: I know, it’s kind of cool. Today’s podcast is brought to you by Law Pay, Fresh Books and Ruby Receptionists. We appreciate their support, and we will tell you a little bit more about them later in the show.
Aaron Street: I guess with today’s conversation with Nicole about technology design and access to justice, it’s another good opportunity for us to step back and kind of chat about what this access to justice goal is all about and how our listeners and the small firm legal community in general can support it in a way that makes sense.
Sam Glover: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it feels like this big multi-faceted, complicated thing.
Aaron Street: I think it is.
Sam Glover: It absolutely is, but we do have a professional obligation to try and help. I think most lawyers, at least the lawyers that I want to hang out with, believe that we ought to do something to help.
Aaron Street: And so we thought maybe it would be useful to talk about some of the things that you can do.
Sam Glover: Yeah. I mean it’s this interesting dynamic that we’ve talked about on the show before where there’s for sure the distinction between access to justice and access to lawyers, and that you can have your legal problem or your life problem with legal implications solved without necessarily needing to engage a lawyer, so not all access to justice problems are access to lawyer problems. Then I think there’s kind of this parallel track of issues to unpack where there’s a distinction between small firms that have built their business model around being able to help solve problems of access, whether that’s around unbundling their services or how they do their pricing, or giving away some free do it yourself content on the front end, whether that’s also as part of their lead acquisition strategy or just as a service to people who need it, is I think separate from people who then volunteer their time in pro bono efforts, or people who donate their money to legal charitable causes. Even those things are probably separate from what you can do as an advocate for justice system administration change, whether that’s through bar associations or lobbying, or whatever.
Aaron Street: Yeah, they’re all different. I guess part of it is trying to think about the way you can do the most good. I mean like i volunteer at the court self-help center, and I sit down with one client at a time. I usually help two, three, four, five people navigate the legal system every time I go. It’s probably not the most impactful use of two hours of my time every other month, but I do really enjoy it and I like doing it. But you know, I think there are other things that you can do. I used to make some forms available, and thousands of people used them to help their legal problem along. All I had to do was tweak some of the forms that I was using myself and gave them away. So I think there’s a variety of things that you can do up to and including just getting out there and volunteering your time in your community.
Sam Glover: Yeah, and we’ve got some TBD law alumni who have sliding fee or low bono firms, or who have DIY forms, platforms, for clients. Aaron Levine, who was on the show just a couple of weeks ago, has a divorce content option for people, both for no money or low money, before engaging a lawyer. So there are lots of opportunities to use your existing firm model to help in some way solve the access to justice problem.
Aaron Street: One of the things that’s interesting, now I’m spinning up off that, is the more deliberately and strategically you design your firm’s business model and client service model, often the more you incorporate things like technology into it, so it becomes easier, and easier, and easier to offer stuff for low price or for free that doesn’t give away the entire value of your firm, but that does provide value for the people who are able to use it that way. I think you talking about some of the people we know from TBD law made me think about that because a lot of them that was just sort of the natural result of the work that they were doing on building client centric firms.
Sam Glover: Right, and it can be effective marketing too for what that’s worth, but it’s definitely not the point. I mean I think there’s this question of I think there are absolutely a number of our podcast listeners who want to build firms hopefully that pay them a salary for the purpose of helping to solve the access to justice problem. Therefore, one of their core firm values and their business model should be centered around ways that they can help solve that. But I think any firm, even one that isn’t built around the purpose of solving this problem, has some obligation to do what it can, whether that’s donating time or money, or advocating for change, or just figuring out little ways that the firm’s model can be used to help in some way.
Aaron Street: So I think in this conversation with Nicole you’re going to see how much the system needs to be changed, but before that she’s going to walk you through her design process for building legal solutions, which I think will be really interesting for those of you who are trying to apply design thinking, or trying to build client centric firms.
Sam Glover: First we’ve got a brief sponsored interview with Ruby Receptionist about words to avoid when you’re answering your own phone. Then, my conversation with Nicole.
Diana Stapleton: Hi, this is Diana Stapleton with Ruby Receptionists. Ruby is the only remote receptionist service dedicated to creating real meaningful connections with callers, building trust, and helping you win business.
Sam Glover: Hi Diana. I was hoping you could help us with some tips for answering the phone. I know Ruby has answered a lot of phone calls and knows first impressions count. What makes a good law firm greeting, and what makes a bad one?
Diana Stapleton: Well let’s start with what makes a bad one. A lot of law firms answer with this, “Hello, law office,” kind of idea, or even worse sometimes just a gruff hello because they were in the middle of something and the phone interrupted them. But it’s much more reassuring for the caller to hear something that tells them a number of different things. Offers them some gratitude for calling, lets them know who they’ve reached, which firm they’ve reached, and ideally the person they’ve reached, and then give them some offer of help.
We have a very simple recipe for how to make a good greeting here at Ruby. It would start with, could include the good morning, good afternoon idea, could or could not, up to you. Then move right into the thank you for calling because you want to express some gratitude to them. You are grateful that they called. They might be your next giant client. Then let them know where they’ve reached, and the person they’ve reached, and then offer some help. When you roll it all together it could look something like, “Good morning. Thank you for calling ABC Law firm. This is Diana. How may I help you?”
Sam Glover: Fantastic.
Diana Stapleton: We think that goes a whole lot further.
Sam Glover: I love the recipe. Speaking of what to do, and especially what not to do, you’ve identified a few phrases we should avoid, which are I can’t, I don’t know, and hold please. What’s wrong with each of those, and what should we do instead?
Diana Stapleton: Well the problem with those is that they are very much dead ends. Someone calls you and asks if you can help with something and you say, “actually, I can’t.” Then they’re just stuck there with no idea what to do next. There’s so many easy ways around it. You will find yourself in situations where someone calls you and asks you for something and you can’t help them, but what you could do is put them in touch with someone who could help them. Rather than saying, “gosh, I can’t help you,” to say, “let me put you in touch with so and so,” or “let me see what I can do to help you,” or “let me figure this out and get back to you.” Anything that you can do is better than just a total dead end of I can’t.
The same goes for the I don’t know idea. Rather than … If someone asks you what time something happens, or when something is going, or what’s going to happen at a certain juncture, and you don’t know or you can’t manufacture information that you don’t have, but just to say I don’t know again just gives them this dead end. But to say “that’s a good question, let me find out for you,” or “that’s a good question, let me find the person who can help you with that,” or “Suzie would be the best person to talk to about that, let me see if she’s available.” Any of those kind of answers is just so much better.
Then finally on the hold please, particularly if you call someone, and a lot of time when people are calling attorneys they’re very stressed, and they’re calling someone and the person who answers the phone just immediately says, “hold please” and slams them on hold, it’s very distressing. Often people will actually just hang up because they don’t feel welcome if you will. It takes only a couple more seconds to say, “would you mind if I place you on hold for a moment.” Then wait for them to say sure, or no I don’t care, and you put them on hold. “May I place you on hold,” or “do you mind holding for a moment,” goes a lot further than just the hold please, click.
Sam Glover: I feel like when somebody says hold please it’s right up there with having a robot answer the phone as far as how off putting it is.
Diana Stapleton: Exactly. It’s does not breed confidence either.
Sam Glover: Ruby has obviously answered a ton of phone calls and knows a lot about what makes effective phone answering and what doesn’t. You can find out more and get Ruby’s free guide to the words that can help you turn callers into clients at callruby.com/lawyeristpod. Once again, that’s callruby.com/lawyeristpod. Thanks Diana.
Diana Stapleton: Thank you Sam.
Nicole Bradick: Hi, I’m Nicole Bradick. I’m the CEO and Founder of Theory and Principe. We’re a design and development firm that builds exclusively legal technology. We work with clients all across the legal industry to create custom web and mobile applications.
Sam Glover: Do you know how strange it sounds to say that you are a design and consulting firm building legal technology. That is such a 2017 thing.
Nicole Bradick: Why?
Sam Glover: Wait, I mean 2018. Geez, what year is it?
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, we’re 2018. I thought you were telling me that I’m old now.
Sam Glover: No.
Nicole Bradick: Old news.
Sam Glover: No, those words wouldn’t have even made sense to anyone five years ago, and maybe not even two or three years ago.
Nicole Bradick: Yup, [inaudible 00: 10: 35] that’s true.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Nicole Bradick: And as far as I know we’re the only shop that’s dedicated exclusively to legal tech. There’s not a lot of it going on right now. There’s other firms that do some legal tech as well as other things, but that’s all we do.
Sam Glover: So what does your typical or ideal client look like? Are you working for firms, or bar associations, or what?
Nicole Bradick: It really can be anything. It can be bar associations that are looking for new ways to serve their members. It could be law firms that are either looking for ways to improve their processes internally, or are looking for new ways to engage with their clients. It can be a legal aid organizations or other people, funders that are interested in legal aid who want to build products to improve access to justice.
Sam Glover: And access to justice is kind of your, that’s what you’re really interested in, or most interested in I should say.
Nicole Bradick: Yes, we do a lot of access to justice work.
Sam Glover: Very cool. I wanted to talk to you about one particular bit of access to justice work that’s still in process, so we’re not going to talk specifics about it, but maybe first we could talk a little bit about the design process that you bring. I’m curious how you approach designing solutions for legal problems.
Nicole Bradick: I guess we’ll use an access issue as an example. One of the first things that we do is we’re [inaudible 00: 11: 55] to the problem. That’s how I like things to start out is a problem. I always get a little wary if somebody comes to me and says, “okay we have this app we want to build, and we want it to do X, Y, and Z.” I always sort of encourage backing up quite a bit and starting at the beginning, which is to really understand the problem. Annoying designer people call it the problem space, and then there’s the solution space, but those are really annoying words, so we’ll avoid those.
Sam Glover: Well I was going to ask, do you prefer the Stanford introduction to design thinking paradigm, or is this the empathize phase for you, or the discovery phase?
Nicole Bradick: Yeah. We focus exclusively on product development, which means we borrow a lot from a lot of different methodologies. Design thinking is not necessarily geared towards the development of technology, but the early phase before there has been a solution that has been validated, we do pull from a lot of design thinking principles. Yeah, this is where we get down and dirty. The first thing we usually start with is just looking at the available data. If we’re looking at, so we’ve built a product in the past aimed at veterans. Naturally there we start with looking at what’s the age of the typical veteran in the U.S., where do they live, what kind of jobs are they doing after they’ve left their service, what’s the typical grade level that’s been achieved, what are the common problems. So we look at the available data, the hard data, and then we also start mapping out the existing issues.
Usually a more specific issue has been identified, or a more specific problem has been identified, so we’ll do a lot of mapping of the existing legal landscape that affects this particular problem, existing processes, whether it’s court processes or intake, whatever it may be. We map out what the existing process looks like, and we do a ton of interviews. That’s usually a really large part of this early phase. That’s talking to experts who work with the target demographic. Sometimes that takes months. That early process of just understand the problem and digging down really deep is a very substantial chunk of the process of discovery.
Sam Glover: This is I think something that distinguishes design, but also is something that lawyers ought to be able to get their heads around, which is when somebody brings you a problem, you don’t immediately assume that you know what the solution should be. If somebody says I need a new calendar, well hold on, let’s take a step back and understand what your needs are, what the problem you face is. I think it’s that idea of let’s make sure we really have our heads around the problem, that we understand, and that we are empathizing with the people who need the problem solved, we understand what’s been tried and what’s failed, and what may be the problems with what those solutions were, and all that kind of stuff. I think this is one of the things that really makes design thinking stand out is that process of taking a step back and trying to get the big picture.
Nicole Bradick: It’s very true. I would say that clients come to us in a variety of circumstances. One is they have not done any sort of in depth research into the problem. They just know there is a problem. Then we’ll take that and run the full discovery process. Some clients have a very good understanding of the problem, and maybe have even validated a potential solution. That’s fine as long as, I think having sort of an objective third party to look at it sometimes really helps as well. But yeah, it’s very easy, specifically in technology where building an app is very sexy. Law firms want to build apps. Everybody wants to build some sort of app. Often times it doesn’t make sense for who the user is, how they’ll be using it, what they’re problem is. It’s very hard to walk back once that process gets started, so it’s good to get in early and get a really firm understanding. The best clients are the ones who sort of understand that you can’t walk into it with any preexisting ideas of what this product is going to be. That’s very hard. It’s hard even for designers.
Sam Glover: You go through this discovery phase, you’re trying to learn as much as you can. Then what comes next?
Nicole Bradick: During this period we’re trying to sort of build an understanding of who this user is, what their barriers are to achieving a certain goal. Through that we’re work shopping what are the users goals, and what’s getting in the way. We’re building, during that whole time, what we all a provisional user persona. User persona is another annoying jargony word, which really means trying to put together a sketch of what the person, the user, looks like. Obviously you’re building for one user, but it will scale to a much broader range of users. It’s very helpful to have one person in mind.
I say provisional because you want to keep an open mind about whether or not you have the right user for whatever the product is. From all of this understanding, we create prototypes, which is our next step. I think I’m jumping around a little, but basically we want to make sure that the solution that we come up with is going to match with the provisional user persona. If it doesn’t, maybe we have a great product for a different group, or maybe we have the right user but just the wrong solution.
Sam Glover: I worry a bit about personas because I worry about social and cultural biases creeping into those personas. I’m wondering are you on guard for that, and how do you try to keep that out of the process?
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, I really actually am very hesitant about the use of personas in a lot of circumstances for that reason. What I really like to do is create this provisional persona and then after prototyping and getting some actual users in, try to identify what a real user looks like. Then I start building in my mind for an actual person that I have talked to and met and understand their problems. I think that helps eliminate a lot of the biases. But then also you can update your provisional persona when you have a better sense. I think when you’re actually out there talking to the potential user, it helps you identify where those biases lie.
Sam Glover: Very cool. When you’re prototyping, what can that look like? I mean specifically tell me more about the process of prototyping.
Nicole Bradick: Sure. What I’ll say is that I think a lot of people design generally. You see on Twitter and stuff there’s all people who sit around at design sessions and they’re creating things with Play-doh and stuff. Our job is a lot easier because we’re building technology. I think when you’re thinking really broadly about a problem, like how do we make the actual physical [inaudible 00: 18: 46] more accessible, those things are much harder to prototype then let’s come up with some options for technology. We always start with the output that we want the user to get, what is their goal. Then we sort of work backwards from there about what this product should like.
The first thing we do is sketch out what we call the critical paths, what are the critical activities that a user needs to take to get to this goal. The goal may be understanding an area of law. The goal may be having a client understand if it’s time to call you as a lawyer. It depends on whatever the user’s goal may be. We start out by sketching the critical paths, and then from there we do a lot of sketching sessions just on paper. We get a group of often times our clients involved, and then a group of designers and engineers. We get sort of a multi-disciplinary team. Backend developers love it when you rope them into sketching things. It’s their favorite. But then we start sketching out options for each state in that critical that. We do that in a very design thinky style where it’s very timed.
We can say we’re going to sketch this state, everybody draw. Take 10 minutes, draw as many things as you can, as many ideas as you can, and then we’ll come back and share it. We’ll share it as a team, and then we’ll all sort of mark the ones that we like better. Then we’ll continue to refine it that way. Once we have a refined physical sketch on paper, then we turn to, there’s a million prototyping applications out there, to turn it into a really rough idea of what the application could look like.
Sam Glover: It’s like a pretend app right? Like you’re trying to-
Nicole Bradick: A pretend app, yeah. There’s buttons you can click, but all of the data is fake, and it’s not going to be as pretty. It’s not going to be nearly as pretty. I mean you can put a lot of effort into prototyping, but for our purposes that sort of defeats the point of really quickly getting something out there, getting input and feedback. Actually, there are circumstances where the prototyping looks quite different. We recently tested a chatbot for example. Believe me, I’m not big on the chatbot hype, so I was a little skeptical, but the best way for us to test this chatbot was not to spend all this time building this fake app.
Instead, we did, it’s called like a Wizard of Oz test. The test participant was in a different room, and was using like a Facebook Messenger interface. They thought they were talking to a bot, but in another room we had people on the administrative side of that bot actually responding. It was pretty funny because there were some times where we instructed the person who was responding to insert more I don’t know what you’re saying to add a little bit of frustration for the user. Sometimes it’s rigging up a lifelike setting like that that’s short of creating a fake app.
Sam Glover: So prototyping helps you figure out if you’re on the right path. Then I assume you decide what you’re going to test, and then commit to it.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah. Well decide what you’re going to build.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Nicole Bradick: What often happens in the first round of testing, we call that validation testing, is you want to validate that you have a solution that you feel pretty certain is going to solve the problem of the user. If you go into that first round of testing and you get amazing validation, everybody’s saying “wow, this is incredible,” and you’re seeing I have a [inaudible 00: 22: 18] application that, that this is something that’s going to provide value, then yeah, you commit and you start to build. But often times there is some course correction there. You’ll see that there’s some things that worked, some things that didn’t. You may get, if you’re testing with five people, you may get two people who like it, three people who don’t, so you incorporate that feedback.
Sam Glover: You’re trying to prove your concept basically.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, as best as you can.
Sam Glover: Then you decide what you’re going to build.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah.
Sam Glover: So at that point you just build it. Then do you continue testing and evaluating it once it’s done?
Nicole Bradick: Yes. That’s the … We test during the process, the building process as well, not just after it’s done. Once we have a state that’s in reasonable working format, we’ll go out and test that as well. But then at the end, ideally we’ll do continuous user testing. The product is never done. Part of our challenge, as an agency, is that I think it’s really hard for clients to, no matter how much you explain to them this is an agile development process and the benefits of continuous testing and iterations, it’s very difficult once the product is out there for clients to want to keep engaging you to do that work.
Sam Glover: Right. They feel like hey we bought it and we have it, so we’re done.
Nicole Bradick: Yes, exactly. My job, our job, is to make sure clients understand that the whole way through because what we’re putting out there is going to be useful, but it can always be more useful. If you stop there, then you’re not seeing the full capabilities of this platform that you’ve built, or this software that you’ve built. So yes, we think it’s critically important.
Sam Glover: I mean I am curious how you talk about that though. Sometimes this process feels like a big expensive, labor intensive bit of overkill. From the outside looking in, it feels that way. I mean I design shit all the time. I often just throw something together and see if it works. If it doesn’t, then I try to make it better. I mean how do you persuade people that this process is more likely to get them to the good outcome then “hey you’re telling me I need to do all this stuff, but I see a tool right there and I’m pretty sure that’s the one I need.”
Nicole Bradick: Yup. I think part of the benefit we have right now is that agile is seen as very sexy. You can’t go a day without seeing an article. I think clients who are interested in application development usually come in with some understanding in framework of how agile development works, but it’s a challenge. We give our clients a lot of information up front, written information and talk through the process. I think the fundamental truth is that the client, not the user, the client has some goal for this product. The goal may be I want to generate more clients. The goal may be I want to be able to bill more hours by creating some efficiency. The goal may be I want to serve a greater number of low income people who have family law issues. No matter what … So you’ve got to think about what the actual client’s goals are, and you can always do better at meeting those goals.
I think it’s always in the client’s interest. If your goal is to serve as many people as you can, then let’s keep making it better. If your goal is to get more clients, well let’s keep looking at the data, let’s keep testing the clients and find out how we make this even better and get you more clients. I think one of my fears is I think there’s been an explosion and an interest in legal technology apps, especially in the access to justice context, but I think so much of it is great we launched an app, let’s check the box and have no idea, never look at the data, never look at how people are using it, never try to make it better. It’s very easy to build software products right now. You can spit them out no time, but it’s very very hard to build a good product.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Do you have a favorite design book that would be a good book for somebody who wants to get their head around it a little bit better?
Nicole Bradick: Hooked is a good one. There’s a book called Build Better Products, which I like, which takes sort of the basic design thinking concepts and he makes it a bit more concrete if you’re building actual technology. That’s a great one. Then there’s the Google Ventures one, Sprints. That’s an excellent one to read to get your mind thinking about this stuff. I think the process they outline there is not super practical unless you’re a large enterprise, or your company is a fast company and that’s all you’re doing is building the software, but I think it’s very good to get people oriented into why we do all this design legwork.
Sam Glover: We need to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. When we come back, I want to switch gears and ask you some questions about what this looked like in practice during one of your recent projects. We’ll be back in a moment.
Did you know that attorneys who accept online payments get paid 39% faster on average than those using traditional payment methods. With Law Pay, the only payment solution offered through the ABA Advantage Program, you can accept client payments online via email or in person, no equipment needed. Visit lawpay.com/lawyerist to sign up and get your first three months free. Trust the only payment solution developed for attorneys and recommended by 47 state bars, Law Pay.
Being a self-employed lawyer is hard enough, which is why dealing with your day to day paperwork on top of it all shouldn’t have to be. Freshbooks makes ridiculously easy to use cloud based time and billing software that will help you work smarter, get paid faster, and become more organized. With Freshbooks invoicing, you can create and send polished professional invoices effortlessly in mere seconds. Freshbooks can set you up to receive payments online, which can seriously improve how quickly you get paid. You can track your time either by using their mobile app or your desktop, meaning you’ll always know what work you did, when you did it, and who you did it for. There’s also a super handy deposit feature so you can invoice for a payment up front when you’re kicking off a project. To feel the full impact of how Freshbooks can change the way you deal with your paperwork, Freshbooks is offering our listeners a 30 day free trial. To claim it, just go to freshbooks.com/lawyerist and enter lawyerist in the how did you hear about us section.
Aaron Street: Ruby Receptionists is a live, remote receptionist service that is dedicated to helping lawyers win clients and build trust one happy caller at a time. From their offices in Portland, Oregon, Ruby’s friendly professional receptionists ensure exceptional client experiences by answering calls live in english or Spanish, transferring calls, taking messages, collecting new client intake, addressing common questions, making outbound calls for you, and more. Just like an in house receptionist at a fraction of the cost. More importantly, they sound like they’re sitting in your office. For a special offer, visit callruby.com/lawyerist2018, or call 844-715-7829. That’s 844-715-RUBY.
Sam Glover: Okay we’re back. Nicole, I was just fascinated by this recent post that you did for us, which now you were doing a design project for somebody where you’re trying to work with low income tenants. As part of that, you went into the court room to do some research and see what the experience of going to court was really like for who I imagine were the kinds of people who this solution would eventually serve. I mean just walk us through that experience trying to look at this through the eyes of just trying to learn rather than a participant in the court system.
Nicole Bradick: Sure. I guess for this, there is some of this in the article, this background, but I think it’s helpful to know my background, which is I was an attorney. I guess I am always forever an attorney, but I was a litigator predominately in federal court for eight years. I spent a lot of time in the court room, and because I was in federal court I didn’t often see self-represented litigants. I occasionally, from time to time I’d have a client with a small matter, an estate court matter, and I would pop in. So I’ve been in state court from the view of an attorney, and those were tended towards early days of my practice. I was really focused on learning how to practice law. I saw what was going on there, but I was more concerned about am I standing in the right place, am I saying the right thing. If you come from federal court and go to state court, it’s the wild wild west. I was just trying to get a handle of it because it’s a wild ride.
Sam Glover: So you were kind of coming in with fresh eyes.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, absolutely, but I didn’t realize how fresh they were honestly. I thought I was a litigator, I was in court all the time, I thought I’d seen what there was to see, but I think the distinct difference is seeing what there is to see from the eyes of somebody who’s going through it as a participant and not as a lawyer, or a judge, or a clerk. That, it creates a phenomenally different experience, and one that was really very uncomfortable to be honest.
Sam Glover: Say more about that.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah. I think one of the first things that you notice when you’re in … This was sort of a cattle call day for eviction cases. It was a situation where we walked into the courtroom … First of all it was a bit complicated trying to figure out where, which courtroom to go to, but we walked into a courtroom and there is just the clerk at the front and there’s a lot of people in the gallery. Everybody in the gallery was a person of color that I observed, and the clerk was white. When the judge came out, the judge was white. When the lawyers came in, the lawyers were white. There was, you walk in and there’s already this strange feeling of imbalance that I hadn’t experienced. Part of that is I practice in Maine and everybody here is white, but it was sort of very notable and very tangible.
Then the clerk was not the world’s nicest guy. I’m saying that, a very nice way of saying it. One of the first things we saw is the defendants had to walk in and tell the clerk their number, which they were supposed to have gotten from a list on the wall outside. One of the first experiences we saw was a man come in, obviously had very limited english capabilities, a Hispanic man, and the clerk started screaming at him. “What’s your number? What’s your number?” This guy, he had no idea what he was saying and the clerk just … This enraged the clerk that this man had no idea what he was saying. I think this man could have understood had the clerk sort of told him in a calm normal voice. Then he starts, and the gallery is full of people, he starts screaming at this man who’s standing in the aisle going up to the court, to get outside and leave the courtroom to go get his number.
It was, I had goosebumps. I had goosebumps all up and down. It was really like a-
Sam Glover: I mean it sounds super uncomfortable.
Nicole Bradick: It was really uncomfortable, and that was the first of many similar experiences that we witnessed while we were there. The defendants were just treated like animals. There’s no better way to say it. That was pretty upsetting. There’s already people who are coming in with no legal representation, probably no full understanding of what their rights and obligations are, so everything is stacked against them. The landlords, most of the landlords have attorneys. The attorneys, there were conference rooms actually in the court, which I thought was really strange too, where some of these negotiations were happening. I can’t imagine that many of those were very favorable to the defendants. It was a zoo. It was crazy.
Sam Glover: Yeah. I practice in some federal court, but I practice a lot in state court and because I handled debt collection cases, I sued the debt collectors and I defended people sued by debt collectors, I used to sit in on some of those similar calendars. Sitting there you realize just how stacked everything is against the prose litigant. I didn’t encounter clerks yelling at people, but every day people wander into court and they aren’t sure what to do because there’s no sign that says check in with the clerk that explains who the clerk is, where they are, and how to check in with them. Just check in with the clerk, and what the hell does that even mean. I was never even sure how to go about it.
Nicole Bradick: And this is a big high rise building. This wasn’t like a typical courthouse. It’s a huge high rise. There was absolutely nobody in any part of the process, getting through security, getting to the elevators, there was nobody available to tell you anything. There was no signage on the ground level to tell you where to go. Certainly no signage in multiple languages. If you got up to the floor, if you were able to make it that far, all of the signs was in English. Nobody there, there’s not a soul there to help you. There’s an organization in the basement of this particular courthouse that is there to help, but I had a really hard finding it. It’s hidden.
Sam Glover: I assume because it was housing court you were basically just watching one tenant after another lose.
Nicole Bradick: I’m sorry, most of what I watched were not the hearings. It was going up in the end, talking to the judge about a contingency order, which is similarly hard to watch because I saw circumstances where the judge would say, “All right, understand what you’re signing right? Yup.”
Sam Glover: Which like no they don’t.
Nicole Bradick: I feel very doubtful that in most cases they understood that. In one case there was a man who had limited English skills and he brought his family member, who was a minor, to help translate. She asked the minor, “Does he understand all of this?” The minor says, “Yup.” Albeit a secondhand translation, it all felt icky. That’s the best word is icky. The fact that you could even get there and show up is great. Then once you’re there the imbalance is palpable, but if you can get over that and get through negotiating something with a lawyer, hopefully it’s something that’s beneficial, and then you have to appear before the judge who thinks you understand what you signed. Then there are things you don’t even know to ask for like sealing of records. Can this record be sealed? That’s the one thing that, because if it’s not sealed, then screwed ever getting housing again.
Sam Glover: In the article you wrote, speaking of kids, in the article you wrote it’s interesting because we ordinarily think of access to justice as either access to lawyers or do it yourself legal services. But what we don’t actually think about is that sometimes access just means actually accessing the halls of justice. You point out that in order to get there, just to get into the courtroom on your day, you have to know and understand English. You have to get time off of work. You might have to get childcare. You have to figure out how to get there. You may not have to drive. You may have to find parking, which is really expensive in most urban area. You have to bring the right documents. You have to spot your number on the wall. You’ve got to get through the building. You’ve got to get through security screening. You’ve got to figure out what floor to go to, and get into the court, and check in, and then wait.
Then you probably have to confront a lawyer on the other side who is basically just toying with you at this point because they can do, they know everything about what’s going on and you know almost nothing. Then you have to tell the judge that you know what you just did. Just access, just physically getting to the court and going through the motions of getting screwed is actually difficult much less actually getting any sort of justice out of it. It’s really a monumental challenge.
Nicole Bradick: It is. It is, and honestly I’m not quite sure how we overcome it at this point. I think this whole system, this whole process, was designed by people who are not in the shoes of these self-represented litigants. So I think from the start we didn’t have considerations of how hard these things might be. For you and me all that is easy. We don’t even have to think about it. If we were writing the rules, yeah just show up. Come to court, talk to this lawyer, if you can’t agree to something let’s have a hearing. That’s just not how, that’s not the reality for the vast majority of Americans.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I mean for many people what it looks like is you overcome all of those challenges to get to court to watch the judge quite literally rubber stamp a document that decides what happens to your case. I mean what do you take away from that? How do you, I’m wondering how to start to even the scales?
Nicole Bradick: Yeah. I care, obviously I care a lot about how we can use technology to improve the system. Technology can do some things. Technology can help people better prepare. Technology can help to demystify getting to court, where to sit in the courtroom, sort of take away some of that unease of the unknown. Technology can help you understand what is a good deal in a negotiated settlement, what is not a good deal. Technology can help connect you to experts who may be able to help you. Technology cannot change the physical plant. Technology cannot change court rules. Technology cannot change culture and attitude and behaviors that are well ingrained. I feel like, me and my team, we can have some impact on helping people through a shitty system. Sorry, am I allowed to curse on this?
Sam Glover: Absolutely.
Nicole Bradick: Okay great, cool. I should know that. Oh, we didn’t talk about the fact that I am the first three-peat you’ve ever had, and that’s really kind of cool. We should acknowledge that.
Sam Glover: That is. You are our first three time podcast guest.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, and so we can make some impact, but the impact has to be systemic and that’s the really hard work.
Sam Glover: I mean what you really want to see is courts knocking on your door saying the problem is we’ve become rubber stamps-
Nicole Bradick: Yes.
Sam Glover: -for many, many legal problems, and we don’t want to be, can you help us fix that. That’s the problem you need to walk in your door.
Nicole Bradick: Sure, although I just don’t think technology can solve all of those either.
Sam Glover: Yeah, well that … Yeah.
Nicole Bradick: Yeah, so I do think it’s great that there’s so much focus right now on access to justice technology, but the people who are doing the really hard work are the people who are out there sort of pushing for a systemic change and trying to make changes to court rules or processes. I think that’s really the hard work that has to be done to make any sort of improvements. Otherwise people are going to start working out of the system however they can.
Sam Glover: Well I guess that’s a really good point. I guess I’m going to climb up on my soapbox now, which is that it’s great to do everything we can to make it easier for people to get justice within the system we have, but all of this talk of disruptive technology in legal tech is silly when the one thing that could really make a difference is the courts themselves. That could just snap their fingers and decide to change the way things work in a way that makes them truly accessible to normal people.
Nicole Bradick: That’s a fine soapbox.
Sam Glover: I’ll step back off my soapbox and say thank you for walking us through all of that. I don’t know that we have anything to take away. I don’t know that we can really wrap that up in a tidy bow, but I suppose one thing to say is if you are a lawyer, you should spend the day in housing court or on a regular civil calendar call. I think it will be really eye opening for you. Nicole, where can people find you online?
Nicole Bradick: I’m on Twitter pretty actively @nicolebradick is my handle. You can always email me at email@example.com. That’s principle, P-L-E not P-A-L. I think that’s, I have a medium blog too, which is @nicolebradick. If you are interested in topics along the lines of product design and access to justice issues, I ranch regularly there.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Thanks so much for being with us today Nicole.
Nicole Bradick: Thank you Sam.
Speaker 6: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist podcast by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast app, and please leave a rating to help other people find our show. You can find the notes for today’s episode on lawyerist.com/podcast.
Aaron Street: The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.