10 Questions: Crafting tech solutions for legal aid
What if you could walk into a legal aid office and, by simply tapping out some answers to an on-screen questionnaire, get immediate advice, connections to social services and more? This seemingly simple scenario drives Keith Porcaro. As general counsel and head of technology and development at Social Impact Lab, a small nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., this web developer-turned-lawyer is mapping out the myriad paths and problems involved in the delivery of government and social services, and he’s devising innovative, technology-driven processes to streamline it all. But before he could tackle that challenge, SIMLab sent him to rural India on a much different kind of project.
Q. You’ve been the tech arm of a project in India that started in 2014 and involves titling land in rural villages in the state of Odisha and delivering those titles to villagers. How challenging is that?
A. It’s been a challenge to navigate around really complex bureaucracy, a constantly changing process and a general lack of technology access. When we started the project, the chief digitization officer didn’t own a computer. We had to get creative—and keep being creative.
Q. Sounds like “challenging” has also been “frustrating.” Is that how you felt?
A. This is where having a technology background is helpful. It’s a little like when you’re trying to code something. You write it out, and you think it’s going to be great. But then it crashes, there’s smoke coming out of it, and it’s managed chaos. But that’s the challenge I like: trying to give structure and form to chaos.
Q. Have you done any projects yet for a legal aid organization?
A. The short answer is that we haven’t yet. But we had a project for the D.C. Public Library that could be adapted to legal aid. The mandate was to create a tool to help librarians assign social services—the library system has 26 branches but only one social worker. We spent a lot of time interviewing social service agencies and librarians, and we built a prototype of a software program that’s like a script, and it generates a printed-out packet with specific information and timelines. For example, if a person has received an eviction letter, they’ll get a big red note saying, “You need to contact a lawyer immediately,” and then a listing of what they can do in the next week or month, like getting rental payment assistance or contacting different types of services, along with current contact information. The tool was relatively simple from a technology perspective. The librarians could edit it themselves without knowing code.
Q. How would you adapt this tool to apply in the legal aid context?
A. We could help people get a more complete understanding of what assistance is available to them. If we can get research partners to look at public data sets, we could also get a sense of what outcomes are realistic or possible based on their particular story. If I have X, I am likely to need A, B and C. Also, legal services keep track of time and cases, so you can quantify how much time each story takes and how each story absorbs resources within the organization.
Q. Which is helpful with funding, right?
A. The biggest challenge in funding is that no one actually knows who needs legal aid. Law isn’t like a medical problem. If you break your leg, you’ll show up at a doctor somewhere, but if you’re abused or evicted, you may not know you have a legal problem or even that you have legal rights to assert. And if you have six problems, but only get four addressed, is that 60 percent access to justice? Everyone is oversubscribed, so it’s not a function of who’s wasting money; it’s where to allocate the money next.
Q. Do you think that your law degree gives you an advantage when it comes to understanding how best to help legal aid organizations?
A. I think it helps in getting grants just because not many people have that common understanding of law and technology. Also, lawyers are credential-driven, so people find it comforting that I am also a lawyer.
Q. You’re SIMLab’s general counsel. What do you do in this role?
A. SIMLab is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and we have offices in Nairobi and in London, so there’s legal work there. I’m the last pass for grant agreements and consulting agreements. A lot of that is building our principles and approaches into our contracts. This is a way to set expectations for the client and to define what the project is supposed to look like. It’s also a way for us to put into writing some of the principles we work with, like doing no harm, making sure we don’t contribute to projects that will be more harmful than helpful, and taking advantage of opportunities to redefine a project’s purpose.
Q. Are you thinking about your projects all the time?
A. I think about them a lot. I am lousy at parties.
Q. What technology do you use in your daily life? Is it like the Jetsons at your house?
A. Oddly enough, I’ve tried to be more diligent about not being all that gadget-crazed. I enjoy having an Amazon Echo, but my iPhone has most of the notifications disabled and is nearly always silenced.
Q. Do you ever think about joining the for-profit world?
A. I’ve thought about it. But I suspect I might be bored if I were at a law firm. The trade-off with a nonprofit is that you have that quiet anxiety: Are you achieving your mission? Are you actually doing good? At a for-profit, you’re just getting paid.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Tech Support: Keith Porcaro wants to use what he’s learned about crafting technology solutions to improve the legal aid experience.”