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Best Practice: Using Automated Interviews and Document Assembly to Support Volunteers

Monday, January 20, 2014

Automated interviews and document assembly packages, which guide users through a series of questions and use the answers in order to complete legal documents, can be customized to support volunteer attorneys.  Though legal aid organizations have been focusing their efforts with automated interviews and document assembly packages on unrepresented litigants, providing volunteer attorneys with interactive forms can decrease training time, increase efficiency, and provide quality assurance.

Benefits of Using Automated Interviews to Assist Volunteer Attorneys  
  • Standardizes content. Automated interviews and document assembly packages limit users to answering specific questions, and uses those responses to auto-populate standardized forms.
  • Improves the impact of training. Since trainings are held infrequently, it is easy for volunteers to forget what they have learned. Automated interviews can be designed to include prompts at common problem areas, which point volunteers to resources that improve their understanding of the law and process.
  • Increases volunteers’ efficiency. Using an automated interview and document assembly package takes less time and requires less research than using a standard court form.
  • Reduces paper storage. Carrying sample pleadings requires volunteers to maintain binders of multiple documents. An automated interview and document assembly package reduces these sample pleadings to a single interview, which is shared online through a URL.
  • Assists volunteers in unfamiliar areas of law. Volunteer attorneys are often asked to take cases outside of their typical practice area, which means they are unfamiliar with the paperwork that is necessary to complete some tasks. Offering an automated interview and document assembly package means that volunteers will be able to practice competently in a wider variety of practice areas.
Case Study: Minnesota Expungement Tool

The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, Volunteer Lawyers Network, and Council on Crime and Justice collaborated to develop a HotDocs document assembly tool that completes a petition for expungement. 

The document assembly tool guides pro bono attorneys and their clients through a series of simple questions, and uses the answers to help determine the best legal avenue for expungement.  Once the interview is complete, the tool automatically transfers all of the information into pleadings that may immediately be printed, signed, and filed. 

The tool was launched in April of 2011 – by the end of that year, volunteers had used the tool to complete over 360 Expungement Pleadings.  The interview simplifies an otherwise complicated process, and provides the relevant legal basis for expungement to help distinguish the clients’ cases from the many others that judges see regularly.

Volunteers mostly use the tool in workshops and clinics. The tool is also available on ProJusticeMN, Minnesota’s statewide website for pro bono and legal aid attorneys, so pro bono attorneys can access it remotely. 

Planning an Automated Interview and Document Assembly Project
"How To" steps

Partner with the court system

Collaboration with the courts is essential to ensure that they will accept a standard form. Strong support from the courts helps encourage others to use the forms once they’re completed. 

Develop forms for a specific task

If an automated interview and document assembly tool is going to be useful, it need to have a narrow focus. Establish the goal early on, and stick with it. 

Train staff and volunteers

Once the tool is completed, staff and volunteers need to learn how to use it. Training takes additional time, but leads to a more efficient process in the long run. 

Evaluate and update

Regularly  collect data and qualitative feedback on the forms, and make sure it’s updated any time there is a change in relevant law or procedure. 

Tools for Automated Interview and Document Assembly Projects

The vast majority of automated document assembly project are completed using a combination of A2J Author and HotDocs.

A2J Author software creates customized interviews designed for low-income litigants. Once the necessary information is collected in the interview it is assembled using a customized HotDocs template, which is a digital representation of a blank court form that places the information in the proper position on the form. The complete document (court form, pleading, letter, etc.) is then presented to the interviewee over the web.

HotDocs templates are typically hosted on the LawHelp Interactive server. More information is available on the LawHelp Interactive support website