Monday, September 26, 2011

Skype: the future of rural lawyering?

I first used Skype, a free Internet videoconferencing service, when I was studying abroad in college to talk with my family and friends back home. In law school, I have come to believe that legal service providers might productively use Skype to connect with rural communities.

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to telemedicine and its benefits to rural communities. Legal Ruralism has previously discussed the topic of telemedicine and rural communities here and here. Recently, I thought if the medical community could use new technology to assist rural communities by evaluating strokes and other medical conditions remotely, the legal community could also use new technology for outreach. From that thought my project for this past summer was born: I was going to use Skype to connect rural residents with legal aid attorneys.

This summer I worked with a legal aid organization in Woodland, California, Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), which serves Yolo County and its many rural areas. My project was to connect LSNC attorneys with low-income rural populations in Yolo County through Skype. For those rural clients who wanted face-to-face contact with an attorney, Skype would grant the client an opportunity to see the attorney he or she was consulting without requiring the client or the attorney to spend time and money to meet in person.

My plan was to coordinate with rural community organizations to find locations where rural residents could access the Internet and use Skype. Having the Skype videoconferences at a community center would allow those without computers in their homes to use the service. The main problem I encountered with implementing my project was finding community organizations that were able to participate.

I targeted local community organizations in rural communities such as Esparto, Winters, and Knights Landing. Some organizations did not have the physical space or broadband capacity for such a service, while others did not have computers to spare. While many organizations were willing to participate, by the end of my 10-week summer, only one organization had proved able to participate in the project.

The organization I worked with was the Knights Landing Family Resource Center, a subsidiary of the Yolo Family Resource Center. The Center had a computer in a private room with sufficient broadband for Skype. I purchased a webcam and speakers for the Center, downloaded Skype on computers at both the Center and LSNC, and set up a time where potential clients could come to ask an attorney questions. The format was supposed to be like a legal clinic except that, unlike a typical legal clinic, the potential client would talk to the attorney via Skype instead of in person. Despite advertising the Knights Landing program in both English and Spanish, no potential clients showed up for the first clinic.

The limited success of my project prompted me to reconsider how effective Skype could be in providing rural communities with greater access to legal services. Using low-cost videoconferencing is not a new idea when it comes to the legal profession. Many for-profit attorneys have realized the benefits of Skype, as described in advertisements and articles like those here and here. If it works for for-profit attorneys, why was I having difficulty making it work for legal aid?

One problem was likely the fact that I was not at LSNC long enough to expand and advertise the service; another problem was that few community organizations had the proper equipment. As discussed in earlier posts in Legal Ruralsim, such as here, here, and here, access to broadband is an issue in many rural areas. If rural communities do not have access to the Internet or if the connection is too slow, it would be impossible to receive legal services over Skype. Increased broadband service is necessary to give rural communities the chance to have greater access to affordable legal services.

Despite my project not being as successful as I had hoped, other legal organizations have been more successful. They prove that Skype is a viable option for serving the legal needs of rural communities. In an article, found here, the author describes a similar situation discussed in Legal Ruralism here of many lawyers, in this instance in Canada, not being willing to practice in rural areas. As a solution, many urban practitioners are using Skype in Canada to connect with low-income rural clients.

In addition, Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine has used videoconferencing to reach rural areas that already have telemedicine equipment in place. If broadband increases in rural areas and more community organizations are willing and able to lend their computer resources, Skype could help bring greater justice to rural communities through increased access to legal services.

8 comments:

oceguera said...

I think it is difficult enough to establish a legal clinic in a rural area where it will be consistently utilized, so definitely a web-clinic would probably be less enticing to attend. However, there is an obvious need for legal advice so it's not necessarily about not wanting those services. I think it also has to do with unfamiliarity with and the inconsistency of the internet (and all the gadgets associated with the world wide web) in rural areas. I know I don't have reliable internet services and i live in city!

KevinN said...

Aside from the technical issues associated with setting up video-conferencing for legal services in rural areas, I wonder how the physical remoteness impacts how willing people are to utilize these types of services. I think law is a very personal service where people feel more comfortable being able to meet their attorney in person rather than through a computer screen or over the phone. For example, in the firm I worked in over the summer, every single client wanted to come in for a meeting with the attorneys to discuss their legal matters before hiring the firm. They could have discussed their case over the phone and made the decision to hire the firm that way, but they all seemed to actually want to see the attorney in the flesh. The tele-medicine examples bring up an interesting counterpoint however, because I would imagine that most people would consider their health to be an even more personal matter than their legal concerns. But the success of tele-medicine programs undermines that argument. Perhaps tele-legal services just need to be around a little while longer to prove to rural people that it is a viable alternative and can be just as effective as tele-medicine.

JWHS said...

What do you think about the articles from last week talking about poor internet in rural areas? Skype and other communications technology is always growing at a rate significantly quicker than the bandwidth-growth of rural areas. What good is it if we can't even talk to clients?

Courtney Taylor said...

I was so disappointed when I got to the part of this blog post that said no one attended the first clinic. Perhaps people felt they would be broadcasting their legal woes in an open room. I would be hesitant to share my legal problems with an attorney over the internet in a room where others could hear me (I'm assuming the room was setup like a computer lab?). Even if the setup provided potential clients with privacy, I would imagine those in rural areas have limited exposure to a technology like Skype. These people might feel uncomfortable and apprehensive about the technology. and be more likely to try it out if it was setup in their home. Once something like this caught on in a community (perhaps by the typically younger early adopters), I could see more people choosing to use the technology.

Scarecrow said...

Dovetailing off of Kevin's comment, another challenge with Skyping legal services is serving the elderly. Rural communities are generally grayer than cities, and I think there may be a greater fear of computers among rural people,too.
Tele-medicine seems to be more about connecting rural doctors with experts in cities, who can benefit from visual information. A legal expert doesn't necessarily need to see visual evidence to provide an opinion, but perhaps deposition costs could be cut by using Skype.

Patricija said...

Going off several of Kevin's points more in detail:

I know that in rural India, organizations such as World Health Partners use telepresence (ie telecommunications that are similar to Skype) to try to provide medical service throughout the geographically expansive country. There role is not to have individuals Skype one on one but to run it through some sort of health center with the aid of a physician, nurse, etc. This allows for things such as expert opinions and allows the small staff that is present to have the expertise and manpower as if they were a larger staff. I wonder if you could utilize this structure for lawyers.

I also agree that people are reluctant to share in the same capacity over Skype as they would in real life. You want to talk with your lawyers and have some sort of trust (especially if the issue is very sensitive such as rape or domestic violence). If anything, Skype could be used after the relationship has been maintained. This could promote urban lawyers to be more willing to take on rural cases (both payed and probono).

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

I agree with JWHS. In the article are some links demonstrating the difficulty small communities face in obtaining broadband and reliable Internet. For this sort of project to work, Internet reliability and availability would need to expand. My hope is that the expansion of the Internet will bring with it an increased use of the Internet to provide services.

In response to one of Scarecrow’s comments, I agree that serving the elderly population with this kind of technology is very difficult. My grandma, for example, who lives by herself in a rural area, has no intent to learn to use a computer or the Internet. She would rather pick up the phone or drive into town. Even if someone were on hand to assist with beginning the Skype session, as was my plan, the fear of using the technology might deter people from using it in the first place. Maybe as more tech-savvy generations age, videoconferencing will be a more feasible way to serve the elderly’s needs.

In addition, maybe our generation will feel more comfortable sharing their legal issues over Skype (but of course, it could never replace the advantages of meeting with an attorney in person). I believe the conferences still need to take place in a private location, as Courtney mentioned. For my project, the computer at the community center was secluded in a small office with one computer and a closing door. Without this kind of setup, I think people would feel even less comfortable using Skype for their legal services. Finding a secluded room in a community center with a computer, however, is not easy.