On this week’s podcast, Sam and Aaron talk about just how to actually measure the access to justice gap. Then, Sam talks with Susan Garcia Nofi about using fotonovelas and video games to increase access to justice.
Susan Garcia Nofi
Susan Garcia Nofi is the executive director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.
Susan has been Executive Director at LAA since September, 2012. Previously, Susan worked for the Connecticut Department of Labor’s Employment Security Appeals Division. Susan speaks Spanish and is a member of the bar in the State of Connecticut and the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. Susan serves on the Boards of Directors of the Community Fund for Women and Girls, and the New Haven County Bar Association. She is a member of the Connecticut Judicial Branch Access to Justice Commission, the Connecticut Judicial Branch Pro Bono Committee, the Connecticut Bar Association, and the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association.
You can follow Susan on LinkedIn.
Thanks to Ruby Receptionists and Xero for sponsoring this episode!
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Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I am Aaron Street, and this is episode 92 of the Lawyerist podcast where we talk with Susan Garcia Nofi about video games, fotonovelas, and access to justice.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Xero, beautiful legal accounting simplified. Find out more at xero.com. That’s X-E-R-O.com.
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Ruby Receptionists. Ruby answers our phones at Lawyerist so we don’t have to worry about getting interrupted when we’re being productive and we think they are awesome. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Sam Glover: Aaron, usually we kind of pick a random subject in the news and discuss it at the launch of our podcast episode for the week, but I thought it might be interesting today to kind of tee up the interview by talking about a little bit of background information. Today we’re interview Susan Garcia Nofi who is the current executive director of New Haven Legal Aid in Connecticut and they’re doing some really cool stuff with their self-help website and you’re going to hear all about that with her.
As I was talking with her, I was thinking about the access to justice gap, or gaps, and the number of different numbers that get thrown out there and ways that people talk about it. I thought it might be helpful to clarify, in her case where we’re talking about legal aid there’s a very well defined number and gap and need, and it’s not the same thing that we talk about when we’re talking about all the opportunities to make money by changing the way we package services.
Aaron Street: I remember you were at a conference a few weeks ago and Tweeted that one of the speaker had mentioned the corporate access to justice gap.
Sam Glover: Oh God, yeah.
Aaron Street: That is not what we’re talking about here.
Sam Glover: That was an access to justice gap I wasn’t even aware of before I heard that. Sure there’s a corporate access to justice gap, why not?
Aaron Street: I guess. Whatever that means. At some point, these terms become meaningless. I’m hopeful in the context of today’s interview that is absolutely not the case.
Sam Glover: No, and so there’s this middle market. People often say 80% of the legal need goes unmet, and what they’re almost always talking about when they say that, is this Legal Services Corporation study that is probably getting a little bit long in the tooth, but was a well done study that shows that about 80% of the people who qualify for legal aid and have a legal problem that legal aid could help with, nevertheless get turned away, mostly because of a lack of resources. Now, that isn’t the same number we’re talking about, although people use that, now that isn’t the same number we’re talking, although people use that number, when we’re talking about the gap between people who can qualify for legal aid and get service and the people who can afford legal services. We talk about this middle income market that can’t afford a lawyer.
If you here people describe that with an 80% number than it’s probably just wrong, they’re just using the wrong number. When it comes to what Susan Garcia Nofi is doing and what legal aid is doing, there’s a very well-defined and enormous gap between those that legal aid does serve and those that qualify for services, so that’s where their website comes in and they’re trying to figure out how to get legal help to that gap. She says a really interesting thing, which I think is worth repeating and highlighting. It’s that we can’t get a lawyer to everybody, but if we can’t get them the lawyer, we want give them as good of legal services that they can. Self-help is not a substitute, but we want to make it as good as we can, because they don’t really have an alternative. That’s, I think, the kind of the backdrop. There’s a huge need and that what they’re trying to do it with.
Aaron Street: I cannot wait to hear how video games are the solution to that. I’m sure they’re are. I want to understand how.
Sam Glover: They’re partial solution and so are fotonovelas and some other really clever things. Here is my conversation with Susan.
Susan Garcia Nofi: I am Susan Garcia Nofi. I am the executive director of New Haven Legal Assistance in New Haven, Connecticut, and we house Ctlawhelp.org.
Sam Glover: Thanks for joining us, Susan. I want to talk about Ctlawhelp.org and some of the projects that are attached to that. It comes from a need, and I feel like we cannot talk about the need too much. Do you have any idea how many people needed the help that you are now providing through the website, or trying to?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Sure. Most of the studies that have been done in other states and nationally put the need at about 80%. That 80% of the people who have civil legal needs and can’t afford a lawyer are not getting any help at all. When we’re sort of a typical civil legal aid office. We have a lot of people coming to us for help and we struggle with that, just like all civil legal aid law providers do.
Sam Glover: Yeah, you know it’s interesting, that 80% number, it totally, when it comes to legal aid, that’s where it comes from. I hear it a lot when it comes to can’t afford a lawyer but don’t qualify for legal aid and I’m not sure it that’s looped in, but 80% of people who qualify for legal aid are getting turned away because they’re aren’t enough resources to serve them, which boggles the mind really.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yeah. Yeah, it’s rough. We have for years, the legal aid network in Connecticut, and there are a number of providers working together, we provided self-help materials because it’s not as good as having a lawyer, but it’s better than saying, “Sorry, we can’t help you.”, and not giving people any information. For years we’ve had pamphlets and booklets, then as websites came about, we put them online, which are mostly just links to PDFs. Then in 2010, the Connecticut Bar Foundation decided to make an investment in a statewide website with help from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grants Program, which has supported websites like CT Law Help throughout the country. That has just taken off. That was only in 2010 and we’re projecting by the end of the year we’ll probably have over 2,250,000 sessions, so the sites getting a lot of usage and it just grows every year.
Sam Glover: How does that compare to the number of clients you are able to actually serve in a traditional way?
Susan Garcia Nofi: It’s much, much larger.
Sam Glover: Do you have the numbers on hand? Is it in the thousands or ten of thousands of clients that actually get served through legal aid there?
Susan Garcia Nofi: I can tell you what our numbers are, but we just serve one region in the state, so I apologize, I don’t have the statewide numbers off the top of my head …
Sam Glover: Oh no, that’s fine.
Susan Garcia Nofi: … and of course there’s different levels of service as well. We, for the most part, for our clients, we’re giving them full representation. Then we have a sister organization that’s a hotline, that gives more advice and brief service. We give what we can, but I can tell you that that’s a lot larger number then …
Sam Glover: Yeah, I bet. You get some funding then how do you decide what you want to do?
Susan Garcia Nofi: The first step was getting the website up and taking our written, print content and offering it on the web in a way that was accessible and usable by people. There had been some work on putting some things into plain language. I’m a little embarrassed now when I look about how we used to write things as lawyers and expected people to understand what that meant. We begun a process of simplifying and putting information into plain language.
We hired a terrific person. She’s now called our publications manager. She runs the website and is in charge of the content on the website. Her name is Kate Frank. Aside from being talented at things like search engine optimization, and being able to shoot videos and photography, she’s great with plain language, she has an editorial background. She is not a lawyer, which is really helpful, because she immediately started saying things like, “You know people call themselves renters, not tenants.” It was an eyeopener for us. That was the first step, so it was sort of getting it up there. Then, once we had the website going, the thought process was, how can we make it a little more engaging, because it was so text heavy.
Sam Glover: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You’ve done a bunch of cool stuff, actually. Why don’t you just tell me about some of them. Pick your favorite one and let’s talk about how it came about and what it’s all about.
Susan Garcia Nofi: I guess, chronologically, one of the earlier ones we did was an a fotonovela project. Kate and I had seen some samples of how that had been used. A fotonovela is sort of like a comic book but with photographs instead of drawings, and then people are speaking in thought bubbles, so the idea was to make these. What we ended up doing was making these into videos with a voiceover behind it, but then it’s also a printable PDF so they could work as pamphlets as well. We had seen samples of this style used in public health education, so that seemed like a less text-heavy, simpler way to get some ideas across.
We made a proposal to the Legal Services Corporations Technology Initiative Grants Program with out sister organization, Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, and because they’re the grantee from Legal Services Corporation, they’re really the ones who managed these projects and these grants. They liked it and they gave us some funding to do it, so we did a series of them. One thing that the TIG program does really is they encourage people to do projects that are replicable, that can be used across jurisdictions. It’s not an accidental that a lot of the topics we covered were federal law topics we’re you’re not going to find a huge amount of variation from- You know, is going to be the same nationally. We were able to customize some things. For example, FMLA. Obviously, we have state FMLA laws as well.
Sam Glover: Can another state legal aid organization just grab that and put it on their website with a little bit of editing then?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yes, and many have.
Sam Glover: Very cool!
Susan Garcia Nofi: We’ve offered them in other languages as well.
Sam Glover: Wow!
Susan Garcia Nofi: It’s because of the thought bubbles and the voice over behind the video, it was easier to redo it in another language, that you didn’t have to re-shoot a bunch of video.
Sam Glover: How do you gauge the success of that? Page views or video views, or how do you know it’s having an impact?
Susan Garcia Nofi: That is really what we go on. I think with all of these things, that’s sort of the million dollar question, right? I would love to know if somebody relied on this, what actually happened it real life with their case. Obviously, when we’re doing these projects we do some user testing and we do evaluations. There haven’t been a lot of studies, I think that’s sort of the next phase that folks are working on now is trying to do real follow up studies on what difference does it makes to the outcome.
Sam Glover: I’m on a board of a legal aid organization landlord/tenant work and that’s one of the things that we’ve been trying to figure out too. How do you actually track outcomes when you’re delivering services through your website? Both because you want to know, but also because your funders want to know and that’s one of the ways you can support your grant applications is by saying that, “Hey, we actually did something.” Page views and downloads work, but you want more. Have you not been able to grab more information yet and you’re just going with what you have, or do you have some ideas for what you want to do?
Susan Garcia Nofi: We’ve done follow up. We do evaluation afterward, but I would say what I’m aware of and what I think with one of this year’s projects, part of the funding included- Because we’re not evaluators, we do the best we can. I think there are people who actually studied this stuff and should be studying this stuff. One of our projects for the upcoming year, there’s some funding in there to do an evolution piece. The Michigan Legal Help website had that type of evaluation done on whether it helped self-represented litigants navigate the divorce process, and when they followed up with the group they had studied, 74% using the website got the divorce decree. The study concluded that the process took less time than self-represented litigants who did not use the website. That was good news for us who do that kind of work.
I was just speaking to Jim Greiner at Harvard Law School this week and he called me attention to an article that came out this year that he co-authored with Dalie Jimenez at U Conn law school. It was really all about self-help materials. Reading it, I felt good because things that we sort of intuitively thought to be true about how well things get deployed and what you need to do to get through to folks to be able to enable them to use these tools, were highlighted in there. He’s known for doing some of the handful of randomized studies that have been done on legal aid, generally. I’m really interested to see now, this focus on the self-help materials, because we all do it because we all feel intuitively that it’s better than nothing and it’s got to help. I’m really curious to see outcomes of more rigorous clinical trials so we can learn what works and what doesn’t.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Another one of the tools that you have, which I actually experienced earlier today. I was just Googling around you and the website to see what kind of stuff pops up, and I landed on the FMLA page, and after a few seconds a little “Can we help you?” box pops up, which I assume- It says that you seem to be interested in issues around Family and Medical Leave Act, so it’s a little be customized. Is that your triage tool, to try and get people where they need to go before they get frustrated and leave?
Susan Garcia Nofi: It is. That was another project funded by the Legal Services Corporation Grant to Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut and something we did with a couple of other New England states and then we customized for our own jurisdiction. We have a lot of information on our site which is great, but it can be overwhelming. We know that most people are coming into the site because they do Google searches and they land there, but they could be landing on our site and maybe they’re really from another state and they should really be going to their state’s legal aid website because it’s a different jurisdiction, or maybe they shouldn’t be told to call legal aid because really they would be over income for us and they should be told to call to the Lawyer Referral Service.
We wanted something that would kind of sort people out and and point them in the right direction. Behind the scenes, this programmed with a series of questions, there’s a logic tree, so depending on what the person’s legal problem is, it’ll ask a series of questions and those are all vetted with legal aid lawyers, and also ask questions about their income and where they live, which they can answer not, but answering those questions will, at the end of that, I don’t know if you followed it out to the end, but it produces a little customized page of, “These are resources you should be looking at. Here are the places you can call for help.”
Sam Glover: What’s the software that you use on the backend of that?
Susan Garcia Nofi: I’ll have to confess here that I don’t. You talk on the podcast all the time about lawyers who code, I’m not one of them.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Susan Garcia Nofi: It’s a Drupal. The website, it’s Drupal. It’s open source. That’s another thing that’s in the legal aid community. It facilitates a lot of sharing. I know on that project we had a coder in Maine who created it.
Sam Glover: We could probably go track it down and see what’s functioning on the backend. That’s cool. Where I actually landed when I was doing it, I think I got distracted and got out of the triage tool by something else, but I landed on a video game about representing myself in court, which I didn’t get a chance to play, but that strikes me as a really interesting opportunity. When I help out at the self-help desk at the court every couple of months, and the people who come with their questions are almost universally, one of their problems is, they just don’t even know how to represent themselves. They have legal questions, but often underlying it is, “I don’t even know what do in this building.” Is that kind of the target there, is to try to get people how to actually comport themselves and get through the process of representing themselves?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Absolutely. Absolutely. We had this idea because a lot of our efforts had been focused on helping people get to court, getting the right papers, getting them filled out, getting them filed, getting them served. People were kind of on their own once they got to court. We connected with NuLawLab at Northeastern University, who wanted to work on this project with us. Lucky for us, also at Northeastern, have a game design department. There’s Dr. Casper Harteveld, who had done other educational games, was interested in the project. Once we got together and started talking, it went from there. We’d been looking at a study that was done in 2013 that had just come out when we were starting this project, by Dr. Judy Macfarlane in Canada. They had surveyed many, many, many self-represented litigants. It’s sort of heartbreaking reading the study because the one thing that kept coming across is just the level of, I can’t think of a better word than trauma, by people going into court on their own.
We thought, yeah, a video game it may sound a little silly, but maybe that’s good to have something that’s a little familiar and a little fun, dare I say. People are going to court for serious matters, but something to demystify process a little bit. That was what we started with, then our partners at NuLawLab really emphasized, and this went into the proposal, is to do a code design process where we would actually bring in people who work on the front lines, in the court house, in the law libraries and centers that help self-represented parties, and self-represented parties themselves, and they would help up co-design the game. We wouldn’t have a pre-conceived notion. That was a real eyeopener for me. I think initially I thought we were going to teach people how to cross examine a witness, but we learned through that process that people really were very intimidated just going into court, there’s this feeling that everybody knows each other …
Sam Glover: They don’t know where to stand even.
Susan Garcia Nofi: … and the lawyers are all talking to each other. Exactly. Exactly. One of the testing sessions we had when the first version was done, one of the testers said that what she liked about it was almost like and etiquette lesson. She compared it to going to a restaurant when you don’t know which little fork you’re supposed to use for each course, it was that really basic stuff.
Sam Glover: Sure. Let’s say we’re visiting China, they don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the customs, my job as the lawyer is to be the tour guide. If you don’t have a lawyer, you need something else.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Exactly. I think being a lawyer, I was very focused on we have to help people when they get in a courtroom, but there’s a lot that happens before you get to the courtroom, so a lot of the game focuses on that. We found that the hallway area was a big anxiety point for people, because that’s when maybe the landlord’s attorney is going to come up to you say, “Hey look, we’ll be waiting forever to get in there. Why don’t we just write up a little agreement?” Or they’re sitting next to some other nervous person who’s telling them information that may or may not be correct, so we focus part of the game on that.
Sam Glover: Oh, wow. Yeah, that all makes a ton of sense to me. We have to take two minutes to hear from our sponsors, but when we come back, I want to talk about the online classes you put together, and talk about what’s next and then some of the issues around funding, which we’ve been talking about, but I think it worth spending a little time on.
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We’re back. You’ve also put together some online classes. In a way, some of the things we already talked about a educational, the photo novellas, the video game, but tell me about the classes.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Sure. The idea for the classes came because what we were finding is that people often, we were getting feedback they wanted a little more hand holding. As much as we tried to really simplify our articles and our booklets, telling people these are the steps you need to take, it wasn’t so easy. Pieces that we wouldn’t take as we- Well, it’s relatively simple, go to small claims and get your security deposit back. It’s like a 14 page booklet and then they have to need another booklet, once they learn security deposit law.
Sam Glover: Have you ever heard of the drawing the owl?
Susan Garcia Nofi: No. No, I haven’t.
Sam Glover: It’s a programmer joke, but it’s like an old how to draw things tutorial. The first picture is like you draw an oval, then the second step is draw the fucking owl, and it’s a picture of a fully drawn, beautiful sketch of an owl. That’s kind of how lawyers talk to clients about how court works. Oh yeah, just go to court and get your security deposit back.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yeah.
Sam Glover: Right?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yeah, I love that. I have a colleague here who does a lot of wage theft work, suing employers that haven’t paid their employees. For whatever reason, I think because the amount was so small, he decided it made more since to just file in small claims court, which we don’t spend very much time in small claims court. He looked at me and said, “This is really complicated.” Which was hilarious, because he files huge lawsuits in federal court.
Sam Glover: Right. We never experience court from the other end.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Exactly. That was the idea. The first part of the project Kate worked with a great programmer who got it set up and we kind of broke everything down in steps and manageable chunks that you could check off. There’s some functionality in there to set up there to email yourself reminders if you want to. Nothing private is saved anywhere, but if you want to be able to pick up where you left off, you can create and login that will let you do that.
Sam Glover: Am I right this is based on Cali’s A to J Author?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yeah, so we initially had this idea then our thought was, it would be great if we could share what we’ve done with other states, because it would be so easy to swap in and out the parts that are a little bit different from state to state and we wanted to expand it. That’s when we started working with Cali, which they’re very known for A to J Author, and in some of the classes that is one of the steps where it take you through. We talked to John Marrin , he really liked the idea. We’d read the book The Checklist Manifesto, the bestseller. It’s very appealing, the idea of having manageable steps in a list that you go through. That got expanded to Learnthelaw.org, which is a national repository for these classes, any non-profit, legal aid organization for free can go on there and create their own classes. One of the classes on there is a tutorial showing you how to do it. You provide the content, but the home for it is already there.
Sam Glover: Oh, very cool. Anybody’s who’s going to file in small claims courts or I assume there’s other types of things that they can do, but if the video or photo novellas weren’t enough that can actually be educated on the more nuts and bolts of how the system works.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yeah, It’ll take them through each step of the process.
Sam Glover: Very cool. What’s next for CT Law Help or for you? What are the next projects on the back burner.
Susan Garcia Nofi: We’re planning on doing a second iteration of the video game project, which is very exciting. That’s the one I referenced that will have more of an evaluation piece, so it’ll be interesting to see what we learn from that. We’re looking forward to that. The other thing we’re going to be focused on for the next year is making the site, we’re saying mobile first. Anything on the website really needs to be designed with the mobile user in mind. We had a volunteer researcher who’s wonderful who really did a deep dive into our Google analytics and he was able to glean some things about our users. Like you said, it’s hard to tell just from page views, what does that mean? This is not a surprise, this is consistent with national findings, but our mobile users have gone way up as it’s gotten easier for our clients to get smartphones. That’s the main way that people with lower income access the internet.
Sam Glover: Right.
Susan Garcia Nofi: He also found that there were very specific- They tend to visit the site on a more regular basis, they were looking for very specific topics than desktop users. Their experience could really be improved because some pages take longer to load and we want to make sure we’re delivering the content to people efficiently. If we can’t provide a lawyer to everyone who needs one, which I would hope we could someday, but that’s certainly not going to happen any time soon, we want to be there in their hand when they need us, need the help.
Sam Glover: Right, like a PDF is totally useless on a phone.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Yes. We definitely …
Sam Glover: You need to have a fancy new printer with Air Print or Google Cloud Print enabled, in order to print anything out and fill it out, but then how do you- It’s a totally worthless exercise. We’ve talked about, at Homeline, because this is something that we could probably figure out how to do, but the standard for our website we want it to be you should be able do everything with a thumb. You should be able to fill out a form, get a completed form and email or mail it to your landlord all from your phone. There are services that you can hook into that will let you mail things and send certified emails and stuff. That’s at least my big shot objective that I would like to get to someday, because that would be amazing if you could actually let people use forms and mail things without having to somehow print them out from their phone, which really is impossible for many people.
Susan Garcia Nofi: I think that is exactly the right vision. Yes. Yup.
Sam Glover: Cool. It sounds like you’ve got a few technology grants from LSC, but I know we’re going to have other people listening who are saying, “Hey, this all sounds neat. Where’s the money?” How would a legal aid organization, or a small nonprofit legal aid organization in particular, go about getting funded, do you think?
Susan Garcia Nofi: Right. That’s the perpetual struggle as an executive director of a legal aid program. I should’ve introduced myself by saying, “I’m the person that tries to do everything I can to keep the lights on.” It’s not easy. We’ve been really fortunate in Connecticut, and I think this is CT Help has really thrived, is because our bar foundation, which is the primary funder of legal services, really believes in us. They realize as they’re watching, need increase and available sources of funding not keeping pace with the need. They get it. We’re very fortunate in that they are supporting a full-time position and that we have Kate in place. I think without that, we couldn’t do it. We have various attorneys who all contribute in different ways, with writing content and so forth, but you need someone to really spearhead that effort.
I think for the things the site has does and for the usage it gets, the return on investment is huge, but we’re lucky we haven’t had to convince anybody of that, and obviously, we report back to them. That’s our main source of funding is the Connecticut Bar Foundation. Every state has their own version of that. Then we’ve been fortunate to get through Statewide Legal Services the Technology Initiative Grants. Then we found a nice partnership with the Connecticut Judicial Branch.
I think that’s the key. Any place you’re applying for funding, obviously they want to see people not duplicating efforts, people working together. Every single project I’ve mentioned here, just about, you’ve noticed, we’ve had a significant partner, like NuLawLab at Northeastern or Cali. That really is a way to take, what may not be a lot of funding and kind of, I don’t know, I feel like we can do more together, so that’s been huge, and absolutely cooperation and coordination with our judicial branch. I would hope in most states, seeing the number of self-represented parties that this would be the case everywhere, but we’re particularly lucky in Connecticut, we have an advisory board for Ctlawhelp.org and we have representatives of the judicial branch who sit on that. Kate and I sit on the committee that oversees the court system’s website, so we always know what each other’s doing and we’re always coordinating and collaborating.
Sam Glover: Partnerships are key then, and buy-in, getting partnerships, getting buy-in from your organization, for the bar, from the courts, that all seems pretty important, because then you’ve got a really strong case, that we’re not just going to do something, it’s actually going to make difference because we’ve got these other people who want it to succeed.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Absolutely.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Thank you so much for being with us today, Susan, for giving us a preview to the really cool, innovative access to justice work you’re doing. Where should people go if they want to find more, whether they’re a nonprofit or a legal aid organization, or they just want to see how this stuff works, where can they find out more about the projects you’re doing and maybe find out more about adapting them for their own needs?
Susan Garcia Nofi: They can do straight to Ctlawhelp.org. They can go to Learnthelaw.org, if they’re interested in the classrooms, there’s a lot of information there. I would also recommend checking out the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grants page because they have a lot of information about projects that have been done, not just in Connecticut, but in other states, that would be great to replicate and expand for organizations that are interested.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Susan Garcia Nofi: Thank you.
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