Building a New Courthouse Help Center

By Chris Lund

As public access law librarians know, the number of self-represented litigants (“SRLs”) turning to libraries for help is ever-increasing. To better address the needs of SRLs, more and more law libraries and courthouses are creating help centers to provide more in-depth assistance than traditional library services. The New York State Unified Court System has had several help centers across the State, but, until recently, there were none operating within the 6th Judicial District.  This area covers 10 counties and over 700,000 people, so in early 2020, we decided we needed to create our own help center.

Initial Action Plan

              Our planning team consisted of court administration staff, one of our court attorney referees[1] (“CARs”), and myself. We decided to run the help centers out of libraries, with library staff serving as the first point of contact.  The staff would assess a users’ needs, provide basic assistance for simple requests, and refer more complex issues to a CAR for a one-on-one consultation. Since CARs must often travel to different counties throughout the district, we decided to reserve appointments for days when a CAR would be available.  The CARs could then use their travel days to meet with users needing in-depth assistance. We were confident in this plan and ready to take the next steps. That was March 9, 2020.

              Of course, you all know what happened next. By the end of that week, all our plans were in disarray, especially our idea of staff traveling to different locations. In the chaos of Covid, all planning was put on pause, but by early 2021 we were ready to try again. The biggest change necessitated by Covid was to switch from our in-person model to a virtual/remote model. We surveyed the state’s existing help centers and learned that while different, each help center was tailored around two key factors: 1) the specific needs of the local service area, and 2) the availability of staffing. With that in mind, we first assessed our staffing resources to determine what would be possible. Our library staff totals four people, with only two of our ten county law libraries staffed full time. Of the other eight county law libraries, two are staffed four days per week, one is staffed once per week, two are staffed once every other week, and the remaining three are housed within public library collections.  This means that there is often no law library staff on site at all. Combined with the fact that all five of the participating CARs were under heavy Covid-related travel restrictions, the case for a virtual help center model was strong.

Pivoting to Provide Assistance Amidst Information Barriers

              We then reached out to the courthouses to learn what sorts of issues the SRLs encountered most frequently. Topping the list were evictions (both for landlords and for tenants), divorce, child custody/visitation, child support, small claims, probate, and general requests for (and questions about) court forms, particularly forms for commencing a civil action. Armed with this information, we next needed to plan how we would operate a 10-county help center using four user-facing library staff members, who would in turn need to coordinate with five CARs in their administrative offices. We decided on a multi-faceted approach, using phones, online surveys, and walk-in services for initial contacts. We would then use Microsoft Teams for virtual appointments, and Microsoft Outlook and OneNote for internal coordination and communication.

              To maximize our reachability, we developed a basic website and integrated a standard form survey using QuestionPro. Any user seeking help center assistance could log onto our website and complete the survey, then QuestionPro would automatically forward the responses to an internal email address. All help center staff would have access to this email account through Outlook, which would be the primary communications account between court staff and help center users. We would also create a dedicated help line phone number, which would ring to the phones of all members of the library staff. If no staff members are available, callers could leave a voicemail message, which would be instantly forwarded to the shared Outlook account as a .wav file attachment. And of course, any user physically entering a staffed library could submit their request directly to a staff member. Once we had settled on a final structure, we submitted our proposal to court administration.  With their approval in hand, we launched our help center.

              Now, when a user submits an assistance request through the website, a library staff member reviews their inquiry and determines the next course of action. If the request comes in by phone, the staff member asks the user the same intake questions the user would otherwise answer using the website and enters their answers into an internal QuestionPro form, which then generates a new email to our shared Outlook account. By using this method, every initial contact to the help center generates a new email. We then use these emails to track the status of interactions through Outlook, assigning color-coded category flags while the matter progresses, and then filing the emails of completed matters into county-specific subfolders.

Leveraging Tech Tools To Provide Open Access

Many users’ questions can be answered quickly by library staff. They might involve explaining court information and procedures, sending the user a blank form, or linking the user to one of our online Do-It-Yourself programs. If, however, the library staff member determines the question’s complexity calls for a CAR’s assistance, they will check the appointments schedule and coordinate a 30-minute, one-on-one virtual appointment for the user with an available CAR.  We then add this appointment to our shared Outlook calendar (more on the appointments process below).

              In addition to using Microsoft Outlook, we also created a shared notebook in Microsoft OneNote to manage our internal process. The notebook serves three primary purposes: 1) tracking the appointment availability of CARs; 2) storing all training documents and information (e.g., tutorials on database access, procedural requirements for the user intake process, storage of application passwords and access instructions, etc.); and 3) maintaining a running collection of useful help center resources (e.g., sample forms, subject guides, helpful links, and procedural instructions). OneNote proves to be an excellent platform for this because it is flexible, easy to use, and updates in real-time. It is also the central hub for capturing and retaining all “institutional memory” for our help center.

              As noted earlier, the travel restrictions of Covid necessitated this switch to a virtual appointment model for CARs. We currently have five participating CARs who periodically provide us with their availability, usually one 3-hour window per month. (This results in a total of 15 hours’ worth of appointment time per month, or 30 individual appointment slots, which has been sufficient for us to date.) To connect our help center users, we create a single, standing Teams meeting. Each user is then sent the meeting link, plus access instructions for the date and time of their appointment. We have learned that most help center users are comfortable accessing their appointments from home, using their own personal technology.  In cases where a user either does not have access to the necessary technology, or is not comfortable navigating the technology, we offer individual laptops in the law libraries of our three most populous counties.  Help center users have the option of visiting any one of these three locations and using the laptops to attend their virtual meetings. In these cases, our library staff set up the meetings and prepares needed supplies, so the help center user can just sit down at the laptop and speak with the appointed CAR at their appointment time.

Continuing to Refine a Successful Structure

              We launched our help center on August 5, 2021, so we are now approaching our two-year mark. We’ve learned some important lessons in this process. We were surprised by the method of contact used by most of our users, anticipating that web submissions and/or in-person requests would generate the most contact, but quickly finding that telephone calls were by far the most common way to get in touch. We were also surprised by the large percentage of users who preferred using their own personal devices to attend virtual meetings. We’ve had to make a few minor tweaks and adjustments, but for the most part our initial plan has proven to be successful. The biggest challenge to date may simply be promoting our help center and spreading awareness of it. We have 25 county and/or city level courthouses within our district, plus over 100 local town/village level courthouses, and while we’ve made efforts to reach out to them all, it can be difficult to ensure that the message resonates. We have also worked to inform local community organizations and public libraries about our services, creating and distributing posters, business cards, and brochures. On average we help approximately 40-50 users per month, but there is certainly room to grow, so we are seeking more ways to deliver our message. Our efforts show that a small staff using the right technology can go far towards providing vital assistance to SRLs in need.

[1] A “court attorney referee” is an attorney who works directly for the district administrative office, rather than for any particular judge, and who is responsible for performing a wide range of various legal tasks.

LISP Memories

By Karen Westwood

I’m a relative newcomer to LISP – joining when I accepted my current position 7 years ago. The thing that characterizes current LISP energy most to me is the annual research into and outing to a local ice cream shop as part of the AALL Annual Meeting experience.  Fun, accessible, affordable – all things that LISP excels at!

It’s been so enjoyable to read about some of the early days of LISP, so I too reached out to some colleagues.  Here’s what Ted Potter, Reference Librarian and Adjunct Professor of Law at University of Iowa had to say:

“As a practitioner of legal reference for decades, I’ve appreciated LISP for the community that tirelessly works to connect those who desperately need legal information with the means of accessing that information. Along the way, I’ve learned about new resources and programs that make accessing information easier and more transparent. The public doesn’t often understand the workings of the law, so LISP has stepped in to encourage us all to meet the public where they live and support their quest to make the system work for them. Kudos to the founders whose hearts for fairness and smarts for creating solutions created a means for all of us to share that mission.  I may not have participated in many of LISP’s endeavors, but I’ve definitely reaped the benefits of this fine group’s work!”

In contrast, Sara Galligan (Director, Ramsey County Law Library, retired) was deeply involved and chaired LISP from 2007-2008.  In a phone interview she remembered LISP as a great place to meet librarians from other types of law libraries.  It also struck her as a wonderful opportunity for newer AALL members to get experience with SIS involvement – her exact words were “It’s a good learning SIS.”  Sara thinks of LISP as the only part of AALL that has a mission to really connect to the public.  The association is of course focused on its members, but LISP goes beyond supporting its members to reaching out to meet the needs of all people trying to find and use legal information.  The Public Library Toolkits are a great example of this, and LISP promotes pro bono partnerships and has long been concerned with access to justice as well.  Many great AALL leaders have come out of LISP membership and many more are certain to in the future.  Sara wishes a happy anniversary to LISP and many more strong years in the future.

And finally, Barb Golden (Director, Minnesota State Law Library, retired) has an inimitable way of cutting to the chase and simply stated:

“I wish LISP well and continued success.  This is an SIS that is absolutely important to AALL as a whole and should be celebrated.”

Online Primary Law for all U.S. States and U.S. Federal Government on one site for Free thanks to AALL

By Brian Huffman

Where can you go to locate reliable online federal and state legal primary law all on one website? Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg Law maybe if you have access to those paid services. Another alternative is the Online Legal Information Resources (OLIR) curated by law librarians at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL).

OLIR was researched and created by a special committee called the Advancing Access to Justice Special Committee and made available online less than a year ago. Information is included for U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, U.S. Federal Government, and Canada.

Here is an example for the state of Hawaii:

As you can see, links have been provided when there are free online sites available. Rows on the chart indicate if the primary law is official, authentic, preserved online, provided permanent public access, is under copyright, and if that state has adopted UELMA (Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act).

As a further convenience to legal researchers, the chart also lists locations and contact information for public law libraries that provide access to primary legal sources.

The committee included the following law librarians: Pauline Afuso, Shamika Dalton, Tina Dumas, Brian Huffman, Catherine McGuire, Kevin Miles, Anna Russell, Michelle Tolley, and R. Martin Witt. The author was a member of this committee and hopes this resource is found and used by public libraries as well as public law libraries. Get the word out!

LISP – An Historical Reminiscence

By Heather Simmons

Four houses and five jobs ago, and before my hair turned grey, I chaired LISP-SIS (for the first time) from 1993 to 1994.  The world was a very different place then. AALL did not have a website as the World-Wide Web was a brand-new idea. I didn’t know what Portable Document Format was. I had a rotary-dial phone on my desk.  Laptop computers existed, but they were heavy and expensive.  Law students had to take notes by hand, but they could get special permission to type their exams. The hot new technology was the CD-ROM.  The Law-Lib Listserv (not affiliated with AALL) was our main method of electronic communication.  

In those days, the AALL Annual Meeting Program arrived in the mail in print.  I fondly remember spending a snowy evening reference shift in February poring over the program descriptions and planning my trip to wherever it was that year.  Most of the work of the SISs and Committees was done in person at the annual meeting.

Back then LISP issued a print newsletter that was snail-mailed to our members.  As stated in the Fall 1992 newsletter: “Articles written by E-Mail or WP5.1 on 5.25” disks are gratefully received.”  I still miss WordPerfect to this day.

My main memory of this LISP Presidency is based entirely on guilt, as I got credit for something I had nothing to do with.  LISP had spent a couple of years creating a tri-fold, double-sided brochure called How to Research a Legal Problem. The print run was funded by an AALL grant.  Lee Warthen chaired the LISP Brochure Committee, and many people contributed to it, but because it was published during my time as Chair, I was the one to benefit from all the publicity.  I wish I had kept a copy, but I fear it was lost when my Michigan house basement flooded some years ago.  It eventually morphed into our current publication, How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers, which is now six pages long. 

LISP also maintained a Clearing House of print materials to help pro se and self-represented litigants.  This work eventually morphed into the 50-State Toolkit collection.

I don’t know who came up with the name Legal Information Services to the Public, as it was well established by the time I joined AALL in 1986. The term Access to Justice had not come into common use yet.  I’m still convinced that if we had known that phrase, it would have been part of our title.  

I’ve been thinking about what advice I would give to newer members of the profession, and this SIS.  Here is a list of the things that worked for me.  It boils down to a pretty simple idea: get involved.  

  1. Show up to things, whether live or virtual.
  2. Speak up. Whether in MyCommunities or at meetings.  This leads to name recognition within the profession. You don’t have to be an expert; every voice and perspective has value. 
  3. Write a blog post or newsletter article. AALL is always looking for New Voices essays. 
  4. Get over your fear of public speaking. Or coordinate a program behind the scenes.
  5. Volunteer. Start small, at the local or regional level.  Every SIS/Committee/Chapter needs help.  Contact the chair and ask if there is something you can do to contribute—they will be thrilled to hear from you.
  6. Run for office. Nominating committees are always looking for candidates.

LISP 35 Year Celebration: A View from the Reference Desk

By Havilah Steinman Bakken

When I think about the importance of the mission of Legal Information Services to the Public Special Interest Section and the stories we are able to share here on the blog, I am so encouraged by the information professionals that came before me. My first three years in the profession was at a public law library reference desk, in the midst of a global crisis. That was incredibly challenging, and I am grateful for how my work with the public shifted my worldview. My time at the desk taught me that even when someone stands directly in front of you for any length of time, it’s nearly impossible to truly know what they are facing in that moment.

One particular interaction stands out, where the patron was working through a complicated legal research question right before we closed. We had the book they were using available for sale used, and I went through my little sales pitch with them. They patiently listened, and said they would think about it. A few minutes later, I watched through our large front windows as the patron unhooked their bicycle and mini trailer loaded down with all their possessions and cycled off.

Standing there at the desk alone, I was floored. Throughout our lengthy conversations of recommending the particular book, working through follow up questions, and discussing the purchase of the used volume, it never occurred to me that the patron would not be in a financial position to purchase or check the book. I don’t say this to mean if I had know the patron was homeless that it would have changed our interaction. I mean I recognized my own assumptions about the individual and the access I believed they had to information they needed.

My colleague shared in a recent post that perhaps all people want the same thing out of life: to be heard. I agree, and I also think that people want to be treated with kindness and openness regardless of their circumstances.

That particular patron came to the library to use the book recommended to them during operating hours because it was the only one financially feasible to them at the time. They packed up all their belongings, locked it up in front of the library, and spent a few hours in our library doing their best to work through a legal research question. The institution and the librarians who staff it stand in the gap between zero access to legal information, and tangible details which allow patrons to at least get their heads above water when facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Our work as law librarians serving the public matters, and it is important we keep working to provide legal information services to our communities, one patron at a time. Here’s to many more years of bringing about positive change, and subscribe to our blog for more birthday updates!

Happy Birthday LISP!

By Leslie Greenwood

“Some thoughts on working with prisoners for 20 plus years. While I was getting gray I was also watching some of them getting gray. No one is born to be in prison. Something may have happened in their childhood years to put them on that path. All people want the same out of life and that is to be heard. I realize that these are my thoughts and not the same for everyone else. I have learned many things from this job and I have grown.  Hopefully, I have not stepped on too many toes…

So writes a modest colleague of mine who came to the end her library career last week and began her well-deserved retirement.  This remarkable person was my mentor-liaison when I was a library intern back in school.  She continued to be a fountain of wisdom and knowledge to me as I later became her co-worker and gained my own librarian experiences.    Her patience and humanity in working with prisoner patrons was, and remains, an inspiration to me.

The occasion of her retirement makes the perfect kick-off event for this year’s 35th birthday of LISP.  I believe her statement perfectly represents the soul and purpose of what we aim to represent and achieve in our Special Interest Section.  It is not the glitter of showy achievements, but the boldly quiet act of bringing legal information to its least popular and most constrained users.  Because in LISP we all know that information is the most basic ingredient in both justice and democracy.

Between now and this summer’s AALL Conference, we look forward to posting some reflections of both past and current LISP members, both of their memories and their future hopes for LISP.  Stay tuned!

The January Chill-Out

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By Leslie Greenwood

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…  But maybe you have come to see winter with its snow and cold as only a sad season that must be endured as pre-payment for spring.  I’m here to say that it is also an excellent time for those in access to justice roles to step back and recharge. 

And yet the work of access to justice and all its support systems is ever ongoing.  At the time of this writing, I am especially mindful of the holiday storm that impacted so many, especially in the Lake Erie region.  And while we are still learning all the details, those most impacted by this disaster will likely have new and unique legal needs. 

If you are someone who regularly assists in meeting in the legal needs of others, now is the season for necessary self-care to protect yourself from exhaustion and burnout.  Here are my favorite suggestions for confronting immediate stressors:

  • Are you surrounded by four walls?  Then take your shoes off.  Wiggle your toes…Stretch your arches.  Give yourself a 5-minute foot massage by gently pulling in each toe for a moment, and then also pressing your thumbs into your arches.  Even if your shoes don’t hurt, this relaxation tool can help calm both your feet and your mind.
  • If you don’t have four walls, then go to a quiet corner with your phone and play your favorite soothing or inspiring song. 
  • Reach for the power of instant aromatherapy.  Keep a tube of moisturizer or hand lotion nearby that delivers a therapeutic fragrance.  Lavender and chamomile are good choices, as is any aroma that carries a happy association for you.  (Your skin won’t mind this treatment, either.)
  • Reaching out and talking to someone can be very healing, but don’t confront friends or colleagues with demanding phrases like “I’m sorry, but…” or “[c]ould you please”.  Start your discussion by saying “thank you” for what you appreciate about them, and by asking if they have a few minutes.  If they do, then share your current problem. 
  • Similarly, return a phone call to someone who needs your assistance.  Close the door (if possible), set your electronic message system to “unavailable”, and block out all other distractions.  Now enjoy the calming effect of simply hearing someone else talk, of sharing information with them, and of just mutually exchanging human empathy.  Don’t try to hurry or multitask, but just be present in this discussion.  (Set a timer if there is risk of you or the recipient talking excessively, and excuse yourself when it rings.)
  • When facing a major problem or something deeply troubling, take a moment to put it in writing.  Sometimes the problem becomes clear when spelled out into words.  Now go wild for a moment and write down all observations and possible solutions that come to mind, no matter how seemingly silly or impractical.  Going back over this list, you may just find the right answer slipped in there somehow. 
  • Is it too easy to run for candy and other goodie treats when you are stressed?  Before you do that, start by drinking a glass of cold water.  Then counter cravings with an orange or apple.  Now wait 15 minutes and reassess whether you still need that sugary whatever.  You do?  Then enjoy a modest portion of it. 
  • Finally, don’t let yourself be hostage to stressful people.  With rare exceptions, you can always say “[T]his is an interesting problem…give me 15 minutes (or a day, etc.) and I will get back to you.”

Here are some additional suggestions for enjoying your winter downtime and restocking your calm reserves:

  • Take a walk. This beautiful time of year can often be appreciated outdoors, provided that you dress warmly enough.  (NOTE: I do not recommend this during dangerous precipitation, subzero wind chills, or inadequate light!)
  • Don’t cast aside that kitschy candle you received as a holiday gift.  Turn off all your screens and overhead lights.  These days of limited sunlight are perfect for enjoying soft candlelight and seasonal quietude. 
  • Grab an empty box, walk around your space, and fill it with the clutter-y objects that no longer serve you.  Donate the contents to your local charity.  Savor the calming effect of fewer visual distractions when you walk in your door. 
  • If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to eat better, now is the perfect time to get rid of the holiday candy and sugary treats and rotate winter’s seasonal fruits into your diet.  Treat yourself to a persimmon, a pomegranate, or a ruby red grapefruit at the end of the day and savor it slowly. 

Anyway, these are just my favorite ideas.  Feel free to comment with yours. 

…And a very Happy New Year to you!

LISP Favorite Reads of 2022

By Jennifer Pedersen

‘Tis the season of year-end lists and we wanted to join in the fun. We’ve rounded up some favorite reads from LISP members to share, inspire and round out any last-minute gift-giving needs. If you have a favorite read from 2022, please share in the comments. 

The Sun

The Sun describes itself as “an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” Each issue offers a generous assortment of  personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs. (See their subscription information at

-Leslie Greenwood, Minnesota State Law Library

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Book Lovers absolutely delighted me from the very first, where readers are introduced to Nora Stephens, literary agent and foil to every small-town girl who wins the big city guy reluctantly home for a holiday-adjacent family emergency. The contrast between Nora’s unapologetic professional drive and her generosity with those she loves made her an appealing, intriguing character, who’s easy to root for as she navigates an unexpected romance and turbulent family issues.

-Bethany Geleskie, State Law Library of Kent County, Delaware

What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo

Not since reading Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg have I felt so seen. This book is a detailed account of the author’s journey through trauma to living with PTSD today. It is heart-wrenching and may trigger some. Worth it to feel seen. – BIPOC author

-Brittany Young, Lane County Law Library, Oregon

Inheritance:  a Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro 

The author looks at “self” through the lens of family. Engaging…Looking forward to reading more by Shapiro.

-Colleen L. McCarroll, Cook County Law Library, Illinois

Corrections in Ink by Keri Blakinger

Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, Corrections in Ink provides an insightful first-hand look into the chronic shortcomings of the modern prison, as told through the eyes of a star child athlete turned runaway teenage drug dealer turned prison inmate turned award-winning investigative journalist.

-Christopher Lund, New York State Unified Court System

Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune.

Under the Whispering Door follows Wallace after his death as he confronts his loneliness in life and makes friends as a ghost. It’s a fun queer fantasy with some poignant and teary moments.

-Lee Van Duzer, Washington County Law Library, Oregon

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

A work of fiction about the librarian who built the collection at The Morgan Library in New York.

-Havilah Steinman Bakken, Research and Knowledge Analyst at Ogletree Deakins, California

Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent by Ruth Stout

This book is a timeless, common-sense, sassy, and hilarious guide to gardening (trust me, you will chortle) that’s great for beginner and experienced hobbyist gardeners alike. Just be prepared with your answer if your friend or family member asks with some suspicion if you think they are aging, busy, or indolent.

-Julia Viets, Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland

Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

I have a lot of favorite reads from 2022, but this is the one I truly can’t stop thinking about. Cooper Jones is a philosopher and contemplates her lived experiences as a woman with a disability with jaw-dropping honesty, wit and humor. Five stars.  

-Jenny Pedersen, Deschutes Public Library, Oregon

The Summer 2022 NCSC Forms Camp

By Chris Lund

As anybody working in a public access courthouse law library surely knows, one of the most common questions we get is some variation of “I don’t understand this form – can you help me figure it out?” And considering some of the court forms out there, it’s really no wonder that so many people have trouble understanding them. Which is why I was thrilled when I learned about Forms Camp. From June 29th to August 24th, 2022, the National Center for State Courts (“NCSC”) hosted a series of webinars covering various strategies for improving court forms, with the ultimate goal of making these forms more user-friendly across several key dimensions.

Most of the sessions alternated between a “lecture” format held one week, followed by an interactive “cabin time” session the following week. The lectures consisted of topical experts spending about one hour reviewing common problems and potential solutions, often using real world forms as an example. They compared older, more problematic forms with newer versions of those same forms, and detailed the steps taken to make improvements. The “cabin time” sessions would then pick up where the lecture session had left off, and attendees would break into smaller subgroups to collectively apply the lessons learned. Each subgroup would then take with an existing, problematic form, and would brainstorm ways to improve that form, discussing the biggest issues and trading proposed solutions. For the last few minutes of each cabin time session, all users would reconvene in the main meeting room, and representatives from each breakout group would report back on how they had improved their forms, what issues they encountered, and what they had learned from the process.

The first pair of sessions covered general form design, featuring a lecture presented by Margaret Hagan of the Stanford Legal Design Lab. The major takeaway from this session was to view forms from the user’s perspective, with a particular focus on general design principles, such as visual layout, information flow, use of white space, emphasis on key fields and important information, gridding, and general legibility and usability.

The next set of sessions targeted the incorporation of plain language into court forms, as presented by Rochelle Klempner of the New York State Court System’s Office of Court Administration. This lecture highlighted the common problem of overusing “legalese” and other complex language in many court forms. One essential point made here was that plain language is not about “dumbing down” the forms or removing important details but is instead more about making the forms easier to understand. Some simple tips discussed included keeping the tone conversational by using the “you” pronoun, writing in the active voice, and using present-tense verbs. When it is necessary to use legal terminology, it is helpful to also include definitions, but avoid using acronyms and Latin phrases or terms. Finally, we discussed some good methods for evaluating existing forms for plain language, including tools for analyzing readability scores.  There were also more informal suggestions, such as running forms by non-lawyer colleagues, staff, and friends for their feedback.

The third pair of sessions was centered on accessibility and was presented by Paula Couselo-Findikoglu and Peggy Cadwell of the Diversity and Inclusion office of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts. The primary populations that were the subject of this presentation were litigants with either limited English proficiency or low literacy, and people with disabilities. While court systems should be accessible to all potential users, many court forms and procedures fall far short of meeting that ideal. The first method discussed for remedying this shortcoming was the process for creating multilingual forms, along with its related concerns, such as translation of documents filled out in a language other than English, and methods for facilitating communication with court staff during the filing process. Some quick tips for improving accessibility of court forms included offering alternative formats (e.g., Braille, audio, electronic, large print, etc.), using large legible fonts, including alt text, making sure forms are compatible with screen readers, and using high contrast colors. Another simple, highly beneficial service that courts can order is scribing, which essentially just consists of court staff or volunteers writing answers in forms to help court users who cannot physically complete the forms themselves. New Mexico’s courts provide a great explainer video for their version of this service, available to view at

The last three sessions consisted of the lecture portion only, with no corresponding cabin time. Session #7 focused on user testing, with a presentation by Alison D. Spanner, Kathryn Hensley, and Lillie Schneyer from the Access to Justice division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. They emphasized the importance of testing out new forms using testers who are representative of typical court users. This sort of user testing can help identify issues that may have been overlooked in the drafting process. The aspect of this presentation that I found to be most beneficial was the detailed, step-by-step guide to the methodology of setting up user tests. It was an excellent roadmap for a program that can be implemented easily in any context.

Session #8 featured Amber L. Herrmann, Director of Administrative Services for the District Court of Maryland, and Virginia Kuberski, Forms Manager of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, discussing the procedural side of reviewing and revising existing forms. Maryland utilizes the Forms Subcommittee comprised of judges, clerks, commissioners, IT experts, business analysts, and administrative office staff., These committee members are subdivided into more targeted workgroups, some of which focus on subject areas (such as the criminal/traffic workgroup) and others on more procedural aspects (such as the workgroups on consistency of forms and on form testing and review). In Minnesota, this process is overseen by the Forms Manager, with the help of the Court Operations Advisory Workgroup consisting of judges and court administrators, and separate ad hoc groups made up of representatives from the Legal Counsel Division, the Business Process and Education Unit, and other subject matter experts. These groups all meet on a regular basis to perform continual reviews and to propose and approve necessary form changes. If you’re looking to set up something similar in your own organization, the second half of this session detailed the most important steps and best practices in implementing and maintaining a successful forms review process.

Closing out camp in Session #9 was Quinten Steenhuis of the Suffolk University Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab, providing a glimpse into the future of document assembly and form automation. This session reviewed some existing examples of automated forms, analyzed some of the substantive considerations applicable to automation programs, and provided practical advice on how to get started with form automation.

If you missed out on Forms Camp, don’t fret! All six of the lecture format webinars were recorded and are available for viewing on the NCSC website at The three cabin time sessions were not recorded, but the notes and materials that went along with them can still be accessed on the site. And if you review these materials and still feel like you want more, NCSC is offering another, more in-depth Forms Camp this winter. Space is limited for this one, and applications are open until December 13th, so if you’re interested, you can find more information at