Brian Libgober

About Brian

Brian Libgober is a JD student at University of Michigan and, concurrently, a PhD student in Government at Harvard. A Chicago-native, he worked as a polling analyst for the Obama Campaign in 2012. Since coming to law school, he has served as a summer law clerk for Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. and the University of North Carolina School of Government, as well as a summer associate at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP in New York. Brian’s substantive research interests are bureaucratic politics, political economy, and statistical methodology in political science.

Brian’s Essay

Filling out a form is one of the most common tasks lawyers perform for low-income
clients. In fact, a form is the primary legal product created by attorneys who assist
veterans to receive benefits, who help immigrants normalize their status, or who
assist renters maintain housing subsides. Even where form-creation is not the
primary legal-service provided, filling a form is often incidentally necessary to more
complicated matters that require greater expertise, for example bankruptcy,
guardianship, or appealing adverse judgments.

In a different time such a zero-sum conflict might have simply been a fact of life. In
the digital era, there is no excuse for its persistence. Information technology excels
most of all at transforming data from one format into another. Everyone is familiar
with tax-preparation software, which has replaced a once bewildering task with a
series of straightforward questions presented one-at-a-time. After using such an
application, once gets the very same document, a 1040EZ, that one might pick up at
a library. There are other examples of people using software to produce old outputs
using a more intuitive input technology. For example, the University of North
Carolina recently released an iPhone application to help lawyers and clients
navigate their state’s byzantine sentencing guidelines. Following a series of
questions about the what and the when of a crime, the application produces a
sentencing report that lawyers and judges can use in crafting proposed or final
orders. Essentially any task that involves answering a series of questions can be
transformed into a web or phone-interface that is easier for people to use than a
typical paper form, and can nonetheless produce the very same paper document
used in common currency.

The replacement of paper forms by web or phone-based interfaces improves client-
service, especially for low-income individuals. It enables clients to fill out more of
forms themselves, and allows them to identify at home which supporting documents
they have or lack. What software does not do, however, is make lawyers
superfluous. Many forms require drafted statements presenting facts, which is
difficult for individuals without legal training. In some cases, it is genuinely
challenging to figure out which box to check, either because of ambiguous facts or
the impossibility of finding requested information. An experienced attorney is
required to addresses such problems. All too often, however, face-to-face client
interaction time is spent on issues that better client-preparation could have
addressed. Software-based forms help to make pro-bono lawyers more productive
by helping clients prepare better, narrowing the range of issues left on the table, and
shifting the focus from discovering facts about the client to thinking about the real
issues involved in their case.

At present, most efforts to increase the electronic accessibility of forms have
involved uploading samples to the web. Individuals without legal training do not
necessarily have any idea how to use sample forms to solve their legal issue,
however. Merely disseminating a form does not change how it is used. What one
needs, rather, is an interactive application. Creating these requires much more
work. In particular, it requires the collaboration of computer programmers who
understand how to deliver an attractive piece of technology and experienced
attorneys who understand the content that technology should deliver. For this
reason, it is understandable why forms have been so infrequently transposed to the
web. Yet the costs involved are not all that great: a few hundred hours of lawyer and
programmer time would suffice. There are enough talented programmers and
lawyers who would be willing to help each other to help make a difference. What is
needed is the willingness to seek out and forge the connections that can turn such
collaborative possibilities into a reality.