Filing Fairness Project Leads Court and Justice Tech Collaboration

State court leaders and administrators from Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia, along with technology providers from 18 organizations, ranging from large, for-profit companies to small, non-profits, came together at Stanford’s on October 14th to take the next steps in Stanford’s Filing Fairness Project. This all-day working session, led by Stanford Law School’s Deborah M. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession and Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, brought together technology providers and court leaders to discuss the future of easy-to-use, multi-jurisdictional efiling tools, particularly for self-represented litigants.

Filing Fairness Project Leads Court and Justice Tech Collaboration
State court leaders outline their efiling flow for technology providers
A Tech Summit to Build a Better Justice Tech Ecosystem

The Filing Fairness Project is a multi-jurisdictional effort to improve access to justice by simplifying court filing processes and enabling high-quality form tools for lawyers and litigants. Stanford hosted a kick-off summit in March, where justice leaders came together to plan how to collaborate across jurisdictions and how to scale promising technology initiatives. At the kick-off, court leaders demonstrated their commitment to improving court users’ experiences in finding and using technology tools that can make it easier for a person to file a name change request, respond to an eviction lawsuit, or ask the court to waive its fees.

The Stanford team has also been building a network of technology providers who build case management software, efiling systems, and document assembly tools. To get high-quality justice solutions at scale, there needs to be an improved ecosystem of technology solutions and court infrastructure. Our team has been identifying the stakeholders in the current ecosystem and what they need to improve the quality and reach of their user-facing technology. Starting with our class teams from Stanford’s Policy Lab courses and then continuing throughout the year, we have spoken with technology companies, non-profits, and university labs to identify who is building which technology tools and what they need to build more sustainable, high-performing solutions.

The Filing Fairness Project Tech Summit brought this range of court leaders, advocates, and technologists together to make a clearer plan of how to advance this ecosystem and better serve court users across the country. The Summit was structured around three pillars of possible collaboration: 1) coordinating form fields; 2) streamlining efiling access, burdens, and protocols; and 3) establishing court leader and technology provider partnerships. The Stanford team gave an overview about the national landscape of court technologies and the project’s mission, and Jim Cabral presented on the current efiling software providers across the country. Court leaders and technology providers then went through the three pillars, exploring the next steps for each of them.

For the form field coordination pillar, the Stanford team presented a prototype data dictionary containing multiple states’ form fields in one standardized database. The form field dictionary was designed with several complementary goals. First, technology providers might use the database to understand what fields are used in which forms, and by which jurisdictions. Second, court leaders might use it to examine over-complexity in their forms and compare their approach to other states’ approaches. We also hoped to spur conversation about how a comprehensive database could generally help facilitate cross-jurisdictional tools. Technology providers gave us feedback about how the data dictionary could be useful, potential pitfalls in designing a court-oriented data standard, and what scalability and maintainability might look like. Court leaders gave us feedback about what information—for example, whether a field is truly optional in a given jurisdiction—should be added to the prototype.

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Margaret Hagan, Executive Director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, discusses court expectations

For the streamlining efiling pillar, court leaders and technology providers discussed efiling access, burdens, and protocols across the states. Each state presented their existing efiling flow (and how it differed for self-represented litigants and lawyers) to rotating groups of technology providers. States discussed plans for reducing administrative burdens and how technology providers could plug into their efiling infrastructure. This helped technology providers understand the existing burdens to efiling, the similarities and differences from state to state, and the procedural improvements that court leaders are working with our team to make.

Finally, for the relationship building pillar, technology providers and court leaders met in small groups to explore future partnerships. After a lively series of breakout discussions, the broader group reconvened to discuss the top priorities that came up during these smaller conversations. Among other topics, we discussed the importance of finding values-aligned and maintainable business models and providing clarity for technology providers about when, if, and how courts would be willing to promote their tools. The attendees agreed that improving efiling–including for self-represented litigants–is not a problem of technology, but one of encouraging, facilitating, and managing change.

The Next Steps for the Filing Fairness Project

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Mark Chandler, CLP Fellow and former Chief Legal Officer of Cisco Systems, kicks off a state roundtable discussing current practices

We heard one major piece of feedback throughout the day: these kinds of cross-jurisdictional, multi-stakeholder working sessions rarely ever happen, and they need to happen more. All the different stakeholders were enthusiastic about the Filing Fairness Project’s work to create a more coherent national ecosystem around efiling, user-facing tools, and court infrastructure.

Court leaders and tech providers agreed that there is an access to justice problem for self-represented litigants, and there are clear opportunities to use improved technology to address it. They also agreed that unnecessary filing burdens–a major part of this problem–impact litigants, lawyers, and legal aid organizations alike. Many attendees emphasized the value in getting these stakeholders in the same room and organized around a common goal. One provider put it best: “I’m left with the memory of the amazing day spent with all of you looking at court efiling systems and meeting all sorts of mission-driven organizations and tech providers.”

One of the key goals of the Summit was to build working relationships between court leaders and technology providers in order to identify which kinds of technologies, policies, and other initiatives can help them build better solutions for court users. The Stanford team was delighted to see such active conversations throughout the Summit, and we are following up with individual stakeholders to learn more about where they saw fruitful tool development opportunities, what barriers they still face, and what Stanford can do to facilitate ongoing work.

Stakeholders from both the courts and the technology companies emphasized that the Filing Fairness Project can play an important role in change management. This may include driving discussions to help states standardize their form fields or efiling requirements, including through more research, user testing, and policy-mapping. It may involve working with courts to provide certification pathways for technology providers or to understand how and when the courts can neutrally promote efiling tools developed by the Project’s providers. It may also involve establishing guidance for technology providers around setting up court partnerships or integrations with court technology systems. Our follow-up conversations will help us understand where Stanford can be most useful, and we look forward to communicating progress on these initiatives.

Your Next Steps

If you did not attend the Tech Summit but are interested in participating in the Filing Fairness Project, please complete this Google Form and subscribe to the DLR CLP blog.

Notes from the Rhode Center/PLA Event: Debunking the Myth of the Ambulance Chaser

Nora Freeman Engstrom, Alexandra Walsh, and Kurt Arnold

Lena Nelson and Jessica Seigel, Co-Presidents of the Stanford’s Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Association (PLA), here. We are guest posting this week to discuss PLA’s recent event co-hosted with the Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession. The event, “Debunking the Myth of the Ambulance Chaser,” featured two plaintiff-side attorneys: Alexandra Walsh, JD ‘01 (Walsh Law) and Kurt Arnold (Arnold & Itkin). Professor Nora Freeman Engstrom, co-director of the Center on the Legal Profession, moderated the event.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have historically gotten a bad rap among lawyers and law students. Lawyers consistently rank the plaintiffs’ bar, and especially the personal injury bar, low in terms of professional prestige. On law school campuses, and especially those of the most elite law schools in the U.S., career services centers have typically ignored plaintiffs’ firms. Career offices often concentrate on corporate practice, funneling students to “big law,” while public interest centers concentrate on government and nonprofit career opportunities. Students seeking opportunities in plaintiff-side practice often find themselves in a career advising no-man’s land.

This is beginning to change. As students seek a more diverse range of career paths, they have begun to express interests in plaintiff-side practice as a “best-of-both-worlds” somewhere between the typical public interest/big law dichotomy. And, in recent years, plaintiff-side firms have started to interview students as part of On Campus Interview programs. But, despite these constructive changes, gaps in information, perception, and opportunities remain.

At the same time as student interest is growing, civil plaintiffs’ practice is itself underdoing several transformations. In 2019, multidistrict litigation (MDL) rose to dominate the federal civil docket, and MDLs continue to compose more than half of federal civil caseloads nationwide. This rise in MDLs presents new opportunities for plaintiffs’ lawyers to serve in leadership positions and to help achieve innovative and fair resolutions to major public health calamities and corporate misfeasance. Also notable is the rise in alternative methods of litigation finance. Although third-party financing is somewhat controversial, it also is possible that new financing options could lower the barrier to entry for new plaintiffs’ lawyers and/or mitigate the risk associated with the work. This could open the doors for interested parties typically nervous about taking on such risk to enter the practice. Diversity issues are endemic to the legal practice, and the plaintiffs’ bar is no exception. When capital and risk are prerequisites to practice, it is no surprise that these inequities have persisted in plaintiffs’ practice. But, plaintiffs’ firms are taking steps to improve the problem. And to some extent, these efforts are bearing out results: the number of women plaintiffs’ lawyers leading complex litigation is increasing.

PLA’s event fell at the center of these two trends: evolving aspects of plaintiff-side practice and growing student interest.

In response to these trends, we’ve focused on growing Stanford PLA this year and fostering discussions around the diverse opportunities, ongoing trends, and new frontiers in plaintiff side practice. PLA’s most recent event featured two plaintiffs’ attorneys, Kurt Arnold of Arnold & Itkin and Alex Walsh of Walsh Law. Kurt has had a long career representing plaintiffs as a personal injury trial lawyer, and Alex recently left a successful career as a corporate lawyer to represent plaintiffs in mass tort litigation.

The event focused on two key issues at the intersection of plaintiffs’ personal injury law and student interest in the practice—the roots of the bias against plaintiff side attorneys, including complaints about frivolous lawsuits, overly inclusive MDLs, and attorney advertising—and students’ growing interest in plaintiff side practice.

Addressing the “myth of the ambulance chaser,” Professor Engstrom asked the panelists where the root of the bias against plaintiff attorneys might come from. The answers among the panelists varied. Kurt focused on lawyers’ frequent discomfort with television advertising, which many view as sleazy and even predatory. But, as Professor Engstrom explained, scholarly research has actually shown that the public’s perception of these ads is quite positive. Indeed, those who file complaints regarding lawyer advertising are usually lawyers themselves. Our colleagues in the legal profession are the ones who view attorney advertising as distasteful. The broader public, including those who may have been harmed by a faulty medical device or a dangerous drug, typically appreciate these commercials. Without them, they may not know the root of their harm, or that they have avenues for redress. Attorney advertising might also expand access to the justice system—a necessary step in a system where most tort victims lack representation.

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The panelists agreed that some of the bias may also come from a mix of judgment in both the legal community and the general public that plaintiffs’ attorneys are “only in it for the money.” Both have faced this bias, and it seems baked into the career services chasm noted above. Everyone in the discussion admitted that certainly, in limited instances, these stereotypes are true. For instance, in MDLs, one plaintiffs’ lawyer may represent thousands of clients. As the attorney’s client “inventory” grows, the attorney becomes further and further removed from their injured clients. Sometimes, the incentive to settle for plaintiff’s’ counsel is massive, potentially creating a gap between the attorney’s interests and those of their client

Yet, plaintiffs’ lawyers regularly resist these temptations.  Many plaintiffs’ attorneys are often client-oriented. Many seek to serve the public, helping those in need who have been harmed by large corporations—ranging from big oil companies to toy manufacturers to consumer product corporations. While this can be profitable work, few plaintiffs’ attorneys are in it for the money alone, including because the work comes with enormous risk: Working on a contingency can be profitable, but if those attorneys lose, they’ll never see a cent. The panel left one wrinkle undiscussed on this issue—while contingency fee work does allow plaintiffs’ attorneys to take on clients regardless of ability to pay, many attorneys can only take on those clients whose cases can pay. So on one hand, plaintiffs’ lawyers are restricted to the contingency fee model because their clients would otherwise not have representation. While on the other, it limits the cases that they will choose to take. have little choice but to use this model because their clients could not otherwise afford their services. Working on contingency is a massive risk, and one that might be easier for well-established firms. But for an attorney starting out on their own or a new firm trying to build, they can only take those cases that seem likely to yield a high reward.

And finally, the panelists discussed the idea that plaintiffs’ attorneys file frivolous lawsuits. The McDonald’s hot coffee case has branded the profession for (maybe) eternity. Kurt and Alex explained that, though there are few concerns about unmeritorious cases in single-client representation, there are some valid criticisms, particularly in large cases and MDLs. As noted above, as MDLs grow larger, the connection to each client shrinks. In one case against a pharmaceutical company, for example, a few plaintiffs were found to have never even taken the drug. To preserve the integrity of the MDL, plaintiffs’ attorneys must work diligently to screen clients, and the panelists agreed that the requisite thoroughness is sometimes missing.

The event also explored the reasons the panelists ventured into plaintiff side litigation, and why students seeking public interest careers might find joy in the space. Both attorneys talked about the client-focused nature of their work. They each explained the incredible feeling of connecting with a client, and more importantly, fighting tirelessly for that client’s relief. This ranged from single injury cases to mass torts.

Students, in turn, left the conversation understanding both how challenging and gratifying thisNotes from the CLP/PLA Event: Debunking the Myth of the Ambulance Chaser 2 practice can be. They also left with a deeper understanding of what personal injury practice actually entails: personal injury firms take on clients regardless of their ability to pay, investing in their case in the hopes of compensating them for their losses and deterring corporate actors from injuring others in the future. For students interested in public interest work, but for whom a firm might be the right fit, plaintiff side personal injury practice became a new option and opportunity.

The choice presented to law students has long been “big law” or traditional public interest (government/nonprofit) work. But, for some law students, plaintiff side work presents an opportunity to work in the public interest, broadly defined, while also finding more financial security. Similarly, for those interested in big law but bothered by the clientele or dismayed at the idea of spending their first few years after law school just digging through documents, plaintiff side practice offers an attractive alternative. Not only does the work more closely align with public interest practice, it also provides young attorneys the chance to do more exciting work sooner. Due to the firms’ smaller size, new attorneys at a plaintiff side firm have the chance to write key briefs, argue motions in court, and even go to trial in their first few years at the bar. For those students unexcited by their options in “big law” or concerned about the financial downsides of traditional public interest, this may just be a happy medium. It seems that the evolution of plaintiffs’ practice may coincide with a growing student interest in the “best-of-both-worlds” aspect of the practice.