Not everyone can afford a lawyer, and not everyone needs one. But, when a regular person has a pressing legal question, where can they find answers? Promoting access to justice should include helping those with legal problems obtain the information they need to successfully navigate their matter, even if they don’t need representation. ABA Law Student Podcast host Meg Steenburgh talks with Angela Tripp, the director of the Michigan Legal Help Program, about how legal help works, the types of information they can provide for self-represented litigants, and how this type of service is helping to close the justice gap.
Angela Tripp is the director of the Michigan Legal Help Program, which is responsible for the statewide website for self-represented litigants and twenty-one affiliated Self-Help Centers around the state.
Thank you to our sponsor NBI.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Helping Litigants Help Themselves: The Ins and Outs of a Legal Help Program
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meg Steenburgh, a 2L at the Syracuse University College of Law, JDi program. This episode is sponsored by NBI. Taught by experienced practitioners. NBI provides practical skill-based CLE courses attorneys have trusted more than 35 years. Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com.
Today, we are honored to speak with Angela Tripp. Ms. Tripp is the director of the Michigan Legal Help Program which is responsible for the statewide website for self-represented litigants and 21 one affiliated Self-Help Centers around the state. In 2020, MLH saw nearly 3.5 million visits, and nearly 153,000 people used its resources to complete legal forms. Ms. Tripp has led the development and growth of MLH from its inception in 2011.
Prior to that, she was a staff and managing attorney in the Lansing office of Legal Services of South Central Michigan. Ms. Tripp is also the co-managing attorney of the Michigan Poverty Law Program, the state support program in Michigan, and co-director of Michigan Statewide Advocacy Services, which manages five statewide programs (including MLH and MPLP).
Angela Tripp holds a J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati. Thank you for joining us today.
Angela Tripp: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk with you.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, this is a new area for me, and you and your team devote so much of your time and energy to helping Michigan residents help themselves through self-representation. Tell us about your program.
Angela Tripp: Sure. We began in 2010 and we launched the Michigan Legal Help website in 2012 because it took us that long to really ramp up and have enough information to launch the website. Legal information can really be so helpful to people. I know that everyone wants legal advice and we can’t give legal advice but legal information can really move people a lot down the road in terms of handling their own legal issues, and so we have articles and toolkits and step-by-step instructions. We also have what we call do-it-yourself tools that help people prepare their own legal documents. So many legal processes are really reliant on having the right documentation filed in the proper order, in the proper place, and so we do everything that we can to make sure people know what they need to do and have the tools to have their paperwork completed in the file.
Meghan Steenburgh: So how has COVID changed that? Prior to COVID, did you have a certain number of subject areas or certain areas of expertise and emphasis for residents and has that changed?
Angela Tripp: Yes, it’s been very interesting to watch our analytics throughout the pandemic. The family law issues have always been the most popular with more than 50 percent of people accessing those resources but when the pandemic hit our traffic more than doubled for the months of April and May, and it was really people accessing our unemployment materials. At this point, we cover a wide range of topics. We have 50 different topical toolkits covering immigration to unemployment, to public benefits, to name change, to family law, and it was interesting to watch the unemployment materials because so many people were filing for unemployment for the first time and really didn’t know much about it and so we’re coming to Michigan Legal Help just to learn basic information about what their rights were. As well as, there were so many changes to the unemployment laws and benefits at the start of COVID. People were coming to learn those as well.
Meghan Steenburgh: States have these websites, yours is michiganlegalhelp.org. I’ve been on there. The toolkits are amazing. It’s almost like choosing among law school classes. It seems as though there are so many topics that you do cover everything. How do you keep up with navigating the laws, the policy changes – I mean at this point, daily, hourly, and ensure that the clients have that best legal advice.
Angela Tripp: It is a challenge. We have a fantastic team. We have a four staff attorneys whose job it is to keep up with all those policy and law and form changes. We are plugged into a number of resources. We work closely with our State Court Administrative Office and they let us know about new court rules and new court forms.
And my staff are part of Listserv, talking about the newest policy changes in the different areas. We spend a lot of time lately digesting executive orders, administrative orders and we just hustle. I mean, normally we have a system — we have a tickler system where every piece of content is reviewed at least once a year. So those things that we don’t always know about we will make sure to research regularly. But for the last year, we haven’t needed that tickler system because as you said everything has been changing so quickly.
We did create a whole bunch of materials just related to COVID. I think 15 new toolkits just about how COVID impacts family cases, utilities, public benefits, unemployment and of course, housing but even how COVID impacts your family law case. There’s a toolkit all about attending remote court and how to prepare for, and attend a hearing by Zoom which is what all Michigan courts are doing right now. So we do have a bunch of materials just specifically related to COVID that make up about 10 percent of our traffic right now.
Meghan Steenburgh: And at that point, do you guide some of them to say, you know what this is more advanced than perhaps a website can help and you need to had to legal aid or to an attorney elsewhere. Did you intervene anywhere in there?
Angela Tripp: We have a triaging tool called, “The Guide to Legal Help” that does have that purpose. The guide helps direct people to the resources that they need and gives them links to both self-help materials but also referrals to legal aid or lawyer referral services. We try to give people all options because it is really hard to know in their specific situation, whether they might be able to handle this on their own or not. The other thing that we do throughout the website is that there are certain areas that we don’t cover. And we don’t cover it because we do think it is too complicated for self-help. So in those instances, we really do refer people on to try to get them help through from attorneys, either through legal aid or the private bar.
Meghan Steenburgh: And you have sort of a live interactive component also built into the system?
Angela Tripp: Yes, we have live help which is a chat feature. Just like every chat feature on every website these days, and we talk with our visitors from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm and after those hours they can leave emails that we respond to, and so those are great opportunities to provide more of that personal direction and assistance to guide people to what they need and if what they really need is an attorney to guide them to those resources as well.
Meghan Steenburgh: And so when I think about all that you’ve got the live interactive, you’ve got all these policies. You’re keeping up whether you’re getting them on the website, do you allow people to help you and to volunteer whether it’s a young lawyer or someone who’s been an attorney for decades or a law school student? Can you volunteer your services?
Angela Tripp: Yeah, absolutely. That live help piece that I was just talking about, is primarily staffed by law student volunteers. So we recruit and train and supervise live help agents from primarily from our Michigan law schools but we’ve had them from other places as well, and we have had some attorneys volunteer as well. So it’s a great opportunity for students because it’s — you’re on the line chatting with people, real people with real legal problems and it’s such a great way to learn how people talk about their legal problems and how they think about their legal problems. It’s a real adventure and educational experience in issue spotting because people don’t come to you and lay out their legal problem like a law school exam. It’s much messier and so to get experience with that early is fantastic.
Meghan Steenburgh: As a student that seems a bit daunting that you may give the wrong piece of advice, how do you ensure that that doesn’t happen?
Angela Tripp: Well, none of its legal advice. It’s all legal information and there’s lots of supervision. So we do lots of training and you have to do practice chats before we kind of put you out there, and our staff is always just one Gchat away. We share a Gmail chat channel that any student who’s on live help can ask the question and we’re always right here. And we also do transcript reviews and give feedback to individual students too. So we have a lot of different ways to supervise.
Meghan Steenburgh: So as you pull in all of this information and as you see policies come in and the practical realities of them, do you then feed back to the governor, to the legislature and say, “Hey, here are areas that you’re not covering or that need more assistance?”
Angela Tripp: We primarily share that information with the legal services community. But also, I do have a strong relationship with our State Court Administrative Office.
And so, particularly during COVID we’ve been tracking our statistics weekly. What are people looking for. What are people searching for. What document assembly tools are people using, so that we can sort of keep a finger on the pulse of where the trends are and where the needs are, and that’s been really helpful information for the legal aid community for the Michigan State Bar, for the bar foundation which does a lot of funding of legal services and also for the courts. So one of the great things that about recent times has been the increased collaboration between all of those partners and this kind of information sharing has been really helpful.
Meghan Steenburgh: And then who funds you?
Angela Tripp: We are funded primarily by the Michigan State Bar Foundation, but the grant funding comes from the Supreme Court. So the court goes to the legislature every year for a budget, and we are a piece of that budget. So they’re our primary funder and we’re very excited about that partnership and grateful for that funding. We do have other sources of funding from the state bar and other bar foundation grant opportunities as well as some projects funded by the legal services corporation.
Meghan Steenburgh: We are speaking with Angela Tripp. Director of the Michigan Legal Help Program. We’ll be right back.
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And we’re back now with Angela Tripp, director of the Michigan Legal Help Program. So tell us how did you get here? Where did you begin your career after law school?
Angela Tripp: I love this question. It was an interesting pass. So, I went to law school because I wanted to do legal services. I wanted to do direct services for people who couldn’t afford lawyers and so, I began my career at prison legal services and then moved to legal services in Michigan and I was a case handler and I loved it. And then, I became a managing attorney and I loved it. I loved — and it so happened that the office that I managed had both a hotline and a self-help center and so part of my management duties was a lot more than just full representation and direct services to clients. But these other ways of helping people because through those methods you can help a lot more people than you can by direct representation.
And so then, I transitioned to the Michigan Poverty Law Program and the opportunity to kind of launch Michigan Legal Help was there. It was really fantastic. It kind of having the background as a litigator. It was really helpful because I had been in court and – there’s the Black Letter Law that you read and the court rules that you read, and then there’s what really happens in a courtroom, and they’re not always connected. And so, the litigation background helped me understand what it might be like for a self-represented litigant.
In addition to the Black Letter Law and I had those experiences — managing the hotline and knowing that there are so many people that legally they can’t help that really just have nothing. And so knowing that we could create something that could help all of those people who legal aid has to turn down or who never even get in through the hotline or who are just a little bit, who don’t qualify at all. Knowing that there would be a way to help all of those folks was just really exciting and I’ve come to just really love it. I didn’t – it’s kind of a technology focused position but I did not start out that way.
Meghan Steenburgh: I would imagine access, especially in a state – I mean, every state has its rural and urban areas but Michigan is such a huge state with less access. I would imagine that a lot of other areas. Do you see that as your number one goal to provide access or do many of your clients come from or many of the users come from urban areas?
Angela Tripp: Mix. I’m really proud of our statistics. When we look at the geography that there are people in every single county in Michigan who use Michigan Legal Help. Like every all of the little UP counties without a lot of folks in them. We still get dots on our Google Analytics Map. So access is really the reason for Michigan Legal Help and we get plenty of people from the urban areas, but the idea that anyone who has a smartphone with a data plan or access to Wi-Fi can use our resources is really key.
Meghan Steenburgh: And are you — do you use social media as well to draw in users?
Angela Tripp: We do. We do. We have Facebook and Twitter accounts that we try to use to really share information. Both from our website, but also tangential information that we think low income and moderate income folks with legal issues might need to know. So we do use those to really try to boost other signals as well.
Meghan Steenburgh: And so as you anticipate, where this is going in the next 5, 10 years? Where do you look? What type of technology are you looking at or how do you begin to anticipate those needs?
Angela Tripp: Yeah, it’s exciting to think about. We just came — every year the legal services corporation has a Legal Services Technology Conference and it was last week, so I’m filled with lots of plans and ideas. But some of them, a project that we’re working on right now is a way to engage in automated texting conversations with people who visit the website to kind of follow them along as they handle their legal problems. So instead of just the one-time contact we can say, you came here because you were being evicted and you filed an — did you prepare an answer? Did you file an answer? Did you go to court? Were you evicted? And so the idea is that we can both learn more about their outcomes like are we actually helping people but we can also provide that just-in-time assistance. Now, you’re at this stage of the process. Here’s instructions on how to do that next piece. It’s a little bit tricky. Here’s a little bit more information.
So that’s exciting. There’s also been a lot of advancement in The Guide to Legal Help, we help people identify their legal problems through a large logic tree and there’s been a lot of advancement in using word recognition AI. So people can just start to type what their legal problem is or even say their legal problem into their phones mic and our system can figure out like, we think you’re talking about bringing your child support order from another state, so here’s the information about that. So they don’t have to go through that logic tree and maybe get it wrong so those are two things.
There’s also kind of a national movement among legal aid websites to use tagging of content to get search engines specifically Google to elevate legal aid website content to you know that coveted spot where they pull out your content into a box when someone does a search and really highlight that content as the trusted content for legal questions for your state. So those are a couple initiatives that we’re working on.
Meghan Steenburgh: I was wondering about that because you clearly have a number of hits. You know that you’re reaching people but it must be frustrating if you need help and you’re typing in search words but you’re just missing the perfect words to draw, you to pull you up on a search engine. So I can’t even imagine where all this is going and it’s amazing to hear about. It seems as though when you’re in school, the one thing you often hear about is flexibility and making sure that as an attorney you can always pivot and adjust and keep up with technology but also keep up with the law. How have you been able to do that? How did law school prepare you for that constant pivot and to change with the needs?
Angela Tripp: It’s a lifelong learning process, I will say. I mean, I think the key is having good systems in place so that you can fall back on a system and make sure nothing falls between the cracks. So I think that that process can begin in law school for sure in terms of setting up the systems for yourself for how you study or how you prepare for exams. But in our world, we have written down documented systems with checklists in place to make sure that every person involved knows their role and so when we get a new executive order we know whose job it is to analyze it and write the content, and whose job it is to post it on Facebook and Twitter, and whose job it is to get that information to our live help agents so that they can start answering questions about it and that has really been what has saved us in this pandemic.
Because we have assigned roles and we know how everything fits together that we can each jump in and do our part and you know if someone’s off because oh, say a giant funding package comes through on December 30th. You know if someone else can step in and say, “Okay, Mike’s on vacation. I’ll make sure to update these pieces and do this Facebook announcement so that everyone knows that the CDC moratorium has been extended. So it’s really having those systems in place and documented so that everyone plays a very distinct role so that nothing falls between the cracks.
Meghan Steenburgh: What advice do you have for those in law school right now, in addition to having those systems in place. Is it to take certain courses? Is it to just understand how to work through school itself?
Angela Tripp: I think it’s – honestly, I would say take the courses that interest you because you learn everything on the job, really. So take the courses that really capture your interest and your passion so that you learn to follow those things that you really love and connect with, and then just keep an open mind about where your career might take you because like I said, I never knew that a job like mine existed. When I graduated from law school and I just kept my eyes open and my mind open and my options opened, and ended up at this job that I absolutely love.
Meghan Steenburgh: If you could change anything about your law school experience, what would you change?
Angela Tripp: Oh man, I loved law school. I went to a very non-traditional law school. I don’t know what I would change. I probably would have paid a little bit more attention to procedural classes because it seems so abstract but really, it’s so important. Everything in just on procedure as much as you like it or dislike it, it has a lot of power. So I would have paid a little bit more attention to my procedural classes.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, thank you so much. Angela Tripp, director of the Michigan Legal Help Program. Thank you for joining us and thanks for your tireless efforts in providing access to those who wish to self-represent. It’s an amazing effort and I invite you all to visit michiganlegalhelp.org to look at these toolkits and to witness what Ms. Tripp has put together for everybody.
Angela Tripp: Thank you so much. It’s been fantastic to be here with you.
Meghan Steenburgh: And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student podcast on apple podcasts. You can also reach us on Facebook at ABA for law students and on Twitter at ABA LSD.
That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenburgh. Thank you for listening.
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