When Scheree Gilchrist was hired as chief innovation officer for the new Legal Aid of North Carolina Innovation Lab in 2023, she was given a mission. “The goal is to engage in transformative innovation that improves the delivery of legal services, expands access to justice, and addresses inequity in the delivery of legal services in rural areas,” explained Gilchrist.
“In North Carolina, we have about 2 million people eligible for legal aid services. There are 8,000 eligible North Carolinians for every one legal aid attorney. We also have about 400,000 people in need contacting our helpline annually. We know that we don’t have the staff and funding resources to meet the demand under the one-to-one direct representation model,” said Gilchrist. “But even if we can’t assign an attorney, we want to ensure that if people in need contact Legal Aid of North Carolina, they will quickly and easily receive some form of help which could range from simply resources and referrals to brief advice or representation in court.
“So, we have to think about how we can improve the way in which we provide services so that as many as possible are able to get the help they need,” Gilchrist added. “This also means scaling the traditional one-to-one attorney-client relationship to one to 10 or one to 100. And we believe that by investing in technology and creative solutions we can do that. The Innovation Lab is simply the vehicle by which we will harness technology and other innovative solutions to really revamp the way that we deliver services and increase access to justice to as many people as possible.”
First in the Nation
The Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Innovation Lab was launched September 26 at an event held at the Raleigh offices of Nelson Mullins. The Innovation Lab is the first of its kind embedded in a legal aid program. It will move to a permanent 1,200 square building at Beacon Point in Southeast Raleigh next year. Funding will come through combined financial support from LANC, grants and private donations.
Gilchrist and the lab’s advisory board “[are] looking to create strategic partnerships with tech companies, law firms, academia, and others that will allow us to leverage expertise to reach our goals. We are also soliciting feedback and suggestions on how to increase efficiency and improve the delivery of service from our staff and clients respectively.”
Law Droid and More
Later this year, the lab will roll out Law Droid, an AI-based virtual librarian. “It’s like ChatGPT for our website. It will allow anyone who goes to our website to seek and find, using plain language, legal information, and the self-help resources – videos, self-help forms, clinics, etc. – that we have prepared for visitors to our website. It will gather and organize the information in an easy-to-read way and will even provide other non-legal resources based on the submitted request or connect applicants to a live person if necessary.”
In the pipeline is an improved expunction petition generator tool that will allow Legal Aid attorneys to easily prepare forms to secure a clean record for clients with not guilty or dismissed charges and get them back to work. It is being developed with coders from Code for Durham. And an AI document automation tool that simplifies and speeds up document processing.
“We decided that we’re not going to accept the status quo,” said Gilchrist. “We’re going to look at the access to justice issue from a different set of lenses and try to do things differently. We think there’s an untapped opportunity to advance access to justice by investing in a modern, innovative approach to legal service delivery. This isn’t about incremental change; it’s a profound transformation with the potential to significantly improve the lives of those most in need.”