Washington Lawyer - January 2018 - 45
THE PRO BONO EFFECT
The author (right) and Pro Bono Center managing
attorney Adrian Gottshall participated in the legal
hackathon "Coding Justice."
Google Analytics is one key resource we use to overcome the problem of too
much content. This suite of tools allows us to dig deeply into the site's audience
and their browsing habits. Analyzing this data helps us identify ways to
improve the site's usefulness and usability.
For instance, one of the worst things for users is hitting a dead-end. Once they
hit a page without any further links and they still have not located the desired
information, they will likely navigate back to the initial search engine screen.
This is especially problematic for legal issues, since the user typically does not
know exactly what to look for.
By analyzing the paths users take through our website, we can identify and
eliminate these dead-ends. For example, if users read about divorce in D.C.,
they may learn the differences between contested and uncontested divorces,
but not how to file for either one. By directly linking that page to others,
explaining each type of divorce in more detail, we can more efficiently guide
users to the information they need.
Data security issues are becoming a larger aspect of everyone's lives. Because
of the Pro Bono Center's unique role in the legal services community, it faces
some special challenges.
As D.C.'s largest provider of pro bono legal services, we constantly need to
transmit large amounts of sensitive client data to pro bono attorneys. Our volunteer attorneys have diverse requirements both in terms of the technology
they or their employers use, and their own comfort with technology. In
addition, most standard forms of communication are not secure enough to
protect our clients' personal information. Consequently, we have set up a password-protected system in which we individually encrypt clients' files before
transfer to our volunteer attorneys. These increased security efforts ensure a
higher level of protection for our clients' personal information.
The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center understands that technological advances can
help bridge the access to justice gap. At the same time, we are conscious of
the risks that accompany new ways of communicating with our clients and
are working diligently to ensure that our clients' sensitive information is never
Last October, for D.C. Pro Bono Week, the Washington Council of Lawyers
organized "Coding Justice," an event to engage tech-minded lawyers and lawminded technologists with legal problems that are seemingly intractable in the
analog world. Adrian Gottshall, a managing attorney with the Pro Bono Center,
submitted such a problem for consideration: "sewer service."
Sewer service is when a process server fails to serve process on a defendant
and falsifies the affidavit of service. The term originated from the practice of
throwing court documents into the sewer instead of properly serving them.
Fraudulently obtained default judgments wreak havoc on unsuspecting defendants. These defendants lack notice of their cases, fail to appear, and first learn
of their default judgments during collection attempts - when bank accounts
are frozen, wages garnished, assets seized, or when their poor credit precludes
them from obtaining housing or employment.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine an instance of sewer service simply by
looking at a single case. An affidavit of service filed with the court might represent that a process server went to a defendant's address on two different days
attempting to serve process. However, when looking at data in the aggregate,
it is not uncommon to find suspicious feats of superhuman speed, with process
servers claiming to be in far-flung areas of a city in mere minutes, or serving two
defendants at exactly the same time.
While many jurisdictions turn a blind eye on sewer service, a few cities are
combatting such fraud. New York now has licensing requirements for its
process servers and mandatory GPS tracking to verify a server's whereabouts.
In 2009 the results of an investigation by the New York Attorney General's
Office estimated that over 100,000 default judgments were entered during
a 22-month period due to fraudulent service by one process serving company.
In the same year, New York plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit, Sykes v. Mel
Harris, which attacked the entire infrastructure - debt collectors, collection
law firms, and process servers. The case settled for $59 million.
The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center has been invited by the Washington Council
of Lawyers to investigate fraudulent service practice in the District of Columbia
at a future Coding Justice "hackathon," where technologists and lawyers will
attempt to figure out how to use technology to collate and analyze process
service information to identify bad actors and protect potential litigants from
abusive service practices.
Advances in technology offer powerful tools for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center
to more efficiently and carefully assist our clients who need legal help. We are
confident that our integration of text messaging, use of Google Analytics and
data encryption, and participation in technology-focused community initiatives
will allow us to better serve our D.C. neighbors in the modern era.
Reece Flexner is a staff attorney for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.
Explore ways to volunteer with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono
Center at dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer.
JANUARY 2018 45