Current Projects

Can a legal aid group send proactive texts to people who have been sued?

More legal aid and court groups are excited to use text message strategies to reach people facing lawsuits. Texting may help encourage participation, increase uptake of free services, and empower people to avoid defaults & other bad legal outcomes.

But the problem many of them face is how to legally & ethically reach out to members of the public through text. If they don’t already have a relationship with a person, can they initiate a texting relationship with them?

For example, if a legal aid group sees that a person has been sued for eviction in a local county court, can they proactively send them a text message (especially if they have the person’s phone number from the court docket info or from a phone-lookup service)?

The Legal Services Corporation recently published an Advisory Opinion that walks through guidance to this question, to show legal aid groups how they can do this proactive text message outreach on a topic like eviction services — and still be in compliance with the law. They also have a Program Letter that explains how legal aid groups can do proactive texting without violating federal anti-spam laws.

Advisory Opinion on legal aid proactive texting

See this 2020 Advisory opinion on proactive text message outreach from the LSC to legal aid groups.

Program Letter on legal aid proactive texting

Also see this 2022 Program Letter from the LSC that walks through explicitly how proactive text message out reach can be done, in compliance with federal laws. Our Lab had written to the LSC to ask this question, because we had many legal aid colleagues who were thinking about adopting a text message reminder strategy & we wanted to make sure that the community knew how to do this in compliance with laws against spam or other violations.

Class Blog Design Research

Eviction design class

In late April 2018, Daniel Bernal and Margaret Hagan taught the first part of the pop-up Design For Justice: Eviction. The class focused on how we might better empower people who have received eviction notices (specifically, in Arizona) to know their rights, their options, and to go to court to fight eviction.

In the class, our 2 teams focused on what intervention we might send in the mail to activate someone right after they have received an eviction notice, and what intervention we might point them to for greater support and guidance.

We worked in 2 phases. First, we did a recap of key insights, personas, players, and trends regarding the eviction process, user experience, and legal help resources in Arizona. We did this with calls to Arizona legal help leaders, a service designer who has been working on eviction help, and Daniel’s presentations on his research into eviction trends and strategies in Arizona.

Our second phase of work was brainstorming and prototyping. Our 2 teams focused on the different intervention points, to create an Idea Catalogue of possible ways to empower users through a mailer or a digital resource.

From this brainstorm, we critiqued the ideas with some help from our frequent collaborator, Kursat Ozenc, who is a design strategist. We will now write up these ideas, formalize them slightly, and invite a panel of legal, sociology, behavior change, technology, and design experts to give further feedback. From there, we will begin to develop first versions of several of the concepts that we will test with the public in our second half of the class.

Current Projects Ideabook

New Generation of Tech for Access to Justice

A great article from Slate on Tech being used for Legal Aid & Access to Justice, with lots of specific examples of how SMS and other basic tech can give reminders, process updates, basic advice, and more lawyering to people who can’t afford lawyers.
The concepts:
  • Automated Call Back Systems from legal services to people who have reached out
  • SMS reminders from courts to litigants about what expectations are
  • Using data for legal services to better track their work & targets
  • Virtual office kits to provide legal services on the go, or outside of legal offices
  • An app that gives checklists to lawyers to ensure they’re catching all the issues

“Don’t Forget Your Court Date”

How text messages and other technology can give legal support to the poor.


It has been three years since the Great Recession ended, but the nation’s courthouses are still swamped with eviction cases, foreclosures, and debt collection suits. If overdue bills and late rent were crimes, all low-income tenants and debtors could get a public defender for free. Because those cases are civil suits, though, the state doesn’t provide an attorney. Which means that in civil court, most people don’t have a lawyer in their corner—even though their homes and financial stability are on the line.

What many do have in their back pockets, however, is a smartphone. And soon, they might be able to find some legal help there, too.

Like everyone else, lawyers for the poor are trying to do more with less, as government grants and private funding have dried up. Increasingly, that means turning to tech, using new tools to deliver information to clients, support volunteer lawyers, and improve their own systems. They’re using text messaging, automated call-backs, Web chats, and computer-assisted mapping.

A crush of new clients is pushing the growing reliance on technology, as the old systems just can’t keep up. For years, people seeking help have called their local legal services offices, only to wait on hold for 20 minutes or more. If someone has a pay-by-the-minute cellphone, as many low-income people do, that gets expensive fast. Many callers just give up, says Elizabeth Frisch, the co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. So Frisch and her team are piloting an automated call-back system, using voice over IP, to reduce hold time and save those precious minutes.

Text messages can also improve efficiency. If courts sent SMS reminders to litigants, that would help move along cases that get postponed over and over when one party doesn’t show up, says Glenn Rawdon. Rawdon runs the technology grants program at the Legal Services Corp., the federal program that funds legal aid groups. A text could also help people remember to bring documents to meetings with their overworked lawyers. “It’s very time-consuming if they come to the appointment and say, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot to bring the papers,’ ” Rawdon says. And SMS can be used to deliver basic legal information, like what to look for when signing a lease, or the laws surrounding a wage claim. Legal aid groups in Georgia, New York, Washington, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are all piloting text-based campaigns this year.

For simple questions, technology can help deliver information to clients. For more complicated problems, only a lawyer will do. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough lawyers to go around. That’s particularly true outside of cities.

For example, 70 percent of Georgia’s lawyers are in the Atlanta metro area, although just under 30 percent of the state’s population lives there, according to the State Bar of Georgia. Six counties have no lawyers at all.

“It’s really expensive to deliver legal services in a rural area. Lawyers have to travel,” says Michael Monahan of Georgia Legal Services. Some lawyers at his organization cover six or seven counties, he says, working in the field three or four days a week.

So five years ago, Georgia Legal Services created virtual office kits, with laptops, portable printers, and scanners. They also got an assist from Sprint, which provided free air cards for mobile Internet access and an “extremely low data rate” for unlimited usage.

In Ohio, which also has big rural areas and a shortage of lawyers to serve them, Web chat can help volunteers reach more clients.

The system “allows us to address an imbalance between where the attorneys are and where our clients are,” says Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.

But logistics aren’t the only hurdle for volunteers. They can be “a little uncomfortable taking cases that are outside their practice area,” says David Lund, who runs the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota.

If you’re used to dealing with real estate contracts, for instance, a Medicaid case can be intimidating. So he’s developing a set of checklists for specific issues, optimized for tablets, that lawyers can use when they’re volunteering.

They’ll use it at the start of a case, as they’re laying out a client’s options, and at potential settlements, to make sure that they haven’t missed anything crucial. In eviction cases, for example, a landlord can get a judgment of possession. This allows the tenant to leave without paying back rent, but it’s still a judgment against him, which means it can jeopardize eligibility for future subsidized housing, like Section 8. An experienced landlord-tenant lawyer would know that. An occasional volunteer would not. Which is where the checklist comes in.

Some things are best left to full-time legal aid lawyers. But since there are so few, groups are using data analysis and mapping to better focus their scarce resources. Prairie State Legal Services in Rockford, Ill., is using its “incredible mass of data” to develop a mapping project, plotting addresses and legal needs. Director Michael O’Connor says this will help them answer questions like, “Are there clusters in certain communities where lots of people are facing issues with access to public benefits, or substandard housing?” Armed with that information, his staff can do targeted outreach campaigns or ramp up for litigation.

No one thinks technology is a cure-all. Even the best app or website can’t stand next to you in front of a judge, responding to the opposing counsel.

And despite these promising tools, unmet need is enormous. Many clients want more support than they can get from an app or a chat, but limited funds make that unlikely. “For a large percentage of those folks, [help via technology] will be it. That will be the most that we will be able to offer,” says Deb Jennings, who manages a phone helpline at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, Ohio. And the use of new tech tools is in the early stages—many projects are somewhere between concept and beta.

The tools that are in use show great promise. Groups across the country have developed self-help websites, and they’ve been hugely popular. In 2012 so far, more than 3 million people downloaded resources from, a nonprofit site that offers legal information and legal aid referrals. Through an affiliated site, people can answer simple questions and produce documents ready to file in court. More than 300,000 people have created documents this year, for things like wills, leases, and custody agreements.

In an ideal world, everyone who needs one would have a lawyer. But few people know better than lawyers for the poor just how far from ideal this world is.

Relying on technology “is a bit waving the white flag and saying we acknowledge we’re not going to help everybody, so here’s a second best solution,” O’Connor says. “And it is second best, but it is at least providing help to some people who otherwise wouldn’t get anything.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.