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Legal Design Lab’s 2021 Year in Review

Margaret Hagan, Dec 22, 2021

Greetings from the Legal Design Lab! Our team has been busy throughout this year on both emergency projects and long-standing research & development work.

We wanted to say hello, send our holiday wishes, and give you a few updates on what we have been working on. Hope you had a great 2021, and that 2022 will be even better.

Our big themes — much like in past years — are

  1. Eviction prevention and, more broadly, access to justice innovation,
  2. Imagining new and more accessible Virtual Legal Systems, and
  3. Making a Better Legal Internet that can connect people to good legal help.

We’d like to share some of our work in 2021 on these themes!

Eviction Prevention policy lab classes

We have taught two rounds of our Policy Lab Justice by Design: Eviction, with the NAACP as our partner. Our team has worked with the NAACP on the service design, outreach, tech strategies, and court roundtables, for their innovative new Community Navigator and eviction diversion programs in South Carolina.

Eviction Prevention multi-city cohort

The Lab partnered with the National League of Cities to create a cross-USA cohort of city leaders who wanted to develop, pilot, and evaluate new models to prevent evictions in their jurisdiction. This work was motivated by recent research on the role of evictions in exacerbating families’ financial, health, educational, and security problems. Many cities were interested in trying new technologies, eviction diversion programs, mediation services, right to counsel in housing court, collaborative court arrangements, and data-driven outreach in order to get more resources and knowledge to people at risk of eviction.

The Lab and NLC recruited 5 cities, Richmond, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Grand Rapids, as part of the first cohort. We organized one in-person kickoff meeting in March 2020. Then all subsequent sessions were virtual. We ran learning sessions, gave technical assistance with program design and evaluation tools, connected cities with peer cities that had already rolled out similar programs, and facilitated city teams in the design and roll-out of new programs.

You can read our report on our initial 5-city Eviction Prevention cohort. At this website, you can also find more details on our work, and the outcomes that have resulted in each of the cities.

Based on the first pilot version with 5 cities, the Lab and NLC have now expanded to a 30-city cohort. Our new Eviction Prevention Learning Lab is an 18-month program that again coordinates cities committed to housing justice and eviction prevention, with best practices, technical assistance, and peer learning.

More about our expanded program is here: We are now working with many cities on effective implementation of rent relief programs, developing eviction diversion programs, and establishing court and government data collectives.

Eviction Innovations website

With the support of the Hewlett Foundation, our team has built a central website to gather best practices and case studies of eviction prevention services, technologies, and policies. We have used this website in our cohort and also shared it widely with policy-makers and service-providers as they develop new anti-eviction plans of action:

This website has had thousands of visitors, to learn about how to establish eviction diversion programs, court mediation, housing navigators, data collectives, record masking, and other key strategies to improve people’s outcomes when faced with an eviction.

Legal Help FAQ website on Emergency Eviction laws

Back in the middle of 2020, we launched a new website with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Legal FAQ: It has state-by-state legal information for what renters have during the pandemic, including eviction moratoria, rent relief, utility bill relief, and other special protections. It also has state-by-state resource links to legal, financial, and other social service help. Our team drafted all of the content for the site, and then assembled a network of legal aid lawyers across the country to check and improve our content.

We have approximately 800–1000 visitors per day, with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and 211 (among other providers) referring many users to us. This site connects people with local, actionable, plain language help if they are behind on rent or facing an eviction lawsuit.

Better Design of Court Documents

We launched our study with Cincinnati courts on a new court summons design. Could we get more tenants to come to their eviction hearing if the court summons was clearer, more action-oriented, and with stronger referrals to self-help and legal aid? We are gathering the data now.

We’re also working with several jurisdictions in Montana to develop their new summons design, to run a similar study to see whether we can reduce tenants’ default rate, and increase participation in the justice system.

Text Message reminder and hotline systems

We’ve also been building texting tools to help legal aid and tenant advocacy groups get services to tenants in need. Our Wise Messenger tool (developed by Metin Eskili) allows us to work with a court or legal aid group to set up automated text message channels to communicate with clients or litigants.

This includes developing a tenant’s rights hotline with the nonprofit group Tenants Together, signup for housing navigators, online legal aid intake with Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino and Legal Services of Northern Virginia, and court reminders. We are studying if we can improve people’s uptake of legal help resources and attendance of court hearings through text message channels.

Policy Leadership

In addition to our design and tech work, we have also been focused on policy by design to prevent evictions. Margaret has become the interim director of the ABA Task Force on Evictions, Housing Stability, and Equity. This diverse group of people from across the country is setting an agenda of legal reforms for eviction laws. We are also working on data standards, shared resources, and a shortlist of due process reforms to be made. Several student research assistants including KC Shah and Roda Nour have been working on the Task Force as well.

Our team has been presenting and facilitating workshops on the national stage on topics like eviction prevention & housing stability policy. This has included working with the White House, HUD, Department of Treasury, and other groups who are developing new strategies to mitigate the harms of eviction.

Nora has been leading the Virtual Legal Systems track! This has included classes, repositories, and new pilots of how online, hybrid, and ‘new normal’ courts may be after the many lessons learned during the early days of Covid.

New Spaces of Justice classes: She worked with the path-breaking designer Virgil Abloh and architect Oana Stanescu to create & launch two classes on this topic at MIT and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

These classes, Blueprints of Justice and New Spaces of Justice, included partnerships with Massachusetts and Utah court systems to understand what was happening as courts quickly transitioned to online services during Covid — and what opportunities exist to make a fairer, more dignified, more accessible online space for justice.

The classes paired law, architecture, and design students on teams to learn from court experts, architects, designers, and people with lived experience to set an agenda on human-centered online spaces of justice. Student teams proposed pilots to make online hearings more understandable, to bridge the tech divide for people who don’t have their own devices, to protect the privacy of vulnerable people, and other challenges.

The first pilots from the classes are rolling out and evaluations will be shared in the new year.

The Court Observation Hub: This new website is a starting point for groups who want to do online court watching. The Lab team of Nora, Marina DeFrates, Eli Shi, and Roda Nour, built the Court Observation Hub in order to track where you can access online courts & what existing court watch programs you might volunteer with.

Better Legal Internet has continued as one of our major themes. We’re working on a few tracks: setting up better, common tech infrastructure; building new tools; and spreading best

Legal Help Online Cohort: This year, we have been very excited to kick off the Legal Help Online Cohort. With the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, we have recruited and coordinated this national network of legal help website managers.

In the Cohort, we are developing standards, metrics & audit tools for the quality of their Content, Technology, Design, and Authority/SEO. Then we work through group meetings, technical assistance, and peer learning to help website owners improve in all 4 of these areas.

We will continue to work on this, including more dashboards, out-of-the-box tool kits, and resources in the coming years. We want to see every single jurisdiction in the US have a user-friendly, free-to-use website that can help them understand & get started with the most common legal problems.

Legal Help Infrastructure & taxonomies: When someone searches on Google, Yahoo, Reddit, or other places about a legal problem they’re having (help, I’m getting evicted — or, someone is calling me about a debt ), what do they see? Our work on internet infrastructure improvements can help more legal aid and court websites, with public interest information, to appear more prominently — and to have a higher quality technical and design experience to improve how people can use their online tools.

Our work here includes building a markup tool that lets public interest websites improve how Google finds and presents their website to the public (, and a taxonomy of codes for all legal help problems people might have (

These ‘standards’ tools help make sure that various jurisdictions are encoding their online legal help information with standard terms, codes, and markup. This makes it easier for search engines to know how to present their information to the public, and it makes it easier to refer visitors across jurisdictions.

Legal Internet Steering Committee: Our group has also assembled a working group, the Legal Internet Steering Committee, which has 30 leaders across the world to review these infrastructure projects, suggest new ones, and work on more coordination of online legal help.

Let’s go!

What does 2022 hold for us?

We will continue working on our themes — but with a conscious turn to move away from our past 2 years’ “emergency focus” and back to our pre-Covid practices of more community interviews, pop-up user testing, hands-on workshops, and policy roundtables. We have many classes coming up in early 2022, including on:

  • How do we get courts to include more people with lived experience in their policy-making, as they create new eviction diversion programs, online courts, and post-pandemic improvements?
  • How can we make computable contracts that empower consumers, so they can understand and use the insurance contracts they have to wrestle with?
  • Can courts collaborate to develop & roll out tech infrastructure, that allows more non-profit and for-profit technology groups to develop SRL-friendly innovations?

We don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to fully in-person classes, design sessions, and convenings, but we can’t wait to see you all soon when it does happen!

Thank you so much for your interest and support in the Legal Design Lab! Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements about our work! And have a wonderful holiday season.

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