E-mail could be employed to harness “a whole volunteer army” of City law firm volunteers to the aid of Hackney Law Centre (HLC) and other advice centres beyond the capital, according to a report on digital solutions.
Using the technology, which has been mainstream for more than 20 years, to enable busy lawyers to answer legal advice queries from home on evenings and weekends was one of several ideas suggested by a report into advice services presented at a ‘digital advice summit’ held in the London borough this week.
The report, Finding better problems for better solutions: digital insights for Hackney advice sector, was written by social enterprise think tank Social Spider, based on research carried out last year among Hackney advice providers and advice seekers.
Among ideas proposed were the use of e-mail to receive and deliver advice questions and answers; an app helping to reinforce advice services already received, such as links to information sources and to-do lists for clients to follow; and an app that would help signpost advice services – described as “like a first aid kit: something you store away ready to help someone else when they are in need”.
Other ideas were an app or website to help people define the nature of their problem and the appropriate advice services to seek out, and an app or service that would assist with pre-appointment preparation, giving guidance such as which documents to bring to an appointment.
The report said the e-mail idea should involve a mechanism so that distributing the work of answering queries could be audited, adding: “Currently, while there may be people willing to volunteer their time to assist in delivering advice services in the borough, their ability to contribute their time is limited by a mismatch between the times they are available and the times that advice services providers are available to enable them.
“Typically, volunteers are available outside of tradition working hours and advice services are available within them.”
HLC’s development officer, barrister Miranda Grell, acknowledged that using e-mail to help deliver advice services was a “no-brainer” and said she agreed with Jimmy Vestbirk, founder of the lawtech community Legal Geek, who told the Hackney meeting that “the technology is already there [but] as a sector we just haven’t been using it”.
She said that receiving and imparting advice by e-mail could be a powerful way to engage the services of lawyers who were keen to volunteer their help but found it hard to spare the time to attend the centre in person. “We are approached by lots of lawyers, for instance from magic circle firms, people who are earning lots of money and are money-rich but time-poor.
“These people want to volunteer but we are not open on a Saturday. It would be more convenient for them; they wouldn’t have to come in and we wouldn’t have to open the office or worry about volunteer insurance…
“Although e-mail may be a burden for us because we only work five days-a-week, on weekdays, potentially if we structured it correctly [we could] harness a whole volunteer army that exists in the London legal sector.”
She said e-mail could also help deliver advice to rural areas outside London. “You could have magic circle firms in London also assisting colleagues in rural areas where people need to visit law centres but if they don’t have a car, or there are no buses, they cannot physically get there.”
Ms Grell confirmed that work was progressing on the “virtual receptionist” app created by legal technologists from Freshfields, which won the ‘coding for good’ hackathon held in March.
She said some 70 people had attended this week’s HLC meeting, including representatives from the Big Lottery Fund, barristers’ chambers, the housing charity Shelter, and top City law firms.