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At the Intersection of Public Service, Law & Technology: A Conversation with Christopher Schwartz, Esq.

by Cheryl Lopez February 19, 2020

As technology evolves, it creates new opportunities for public interest organizations to better serve their communities. That is why, Christopher Schwartz, Esq., the Deputy Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Hotline, has worked diligently to leverage technology to improve pro bono legal services for underserved New Yorkers. As a public service attorney and technology expert, Chris has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to advancing social justice for underrepresented communities by exploring ways we can use technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery. In the following interview, we talk with Chris about his impressive work trajectory, looking back at the launch of his career as an attorney and how he became an innovative force in the legal technology sector.

Q: What inspired you to become a public interest attorney and what was the launch of your legal career like?

CS: I was raised in Jamaica, Queens by a single working mother. We struggled to get by, and we relied on social programs like welfare, Medicare and free school lunch and afterschool programs. We lived in a low income community, and I became keenly aware of the abuses of the powerful and hopeful towards the law being an equalizing force. My mother always stressed the importance of doing well in school and working to better yourself. I eventually grew interested in community activism and then later in becoming a lawyer. I attended New York University School of Law. After graduating from law school, I worked for a commercial firm for a bit; I thought I could pursue financial security and then move into legal services. But the work wasn’t engaging for me, I wanted to serve the community. So I left for legal services as soon as I could.

I became the staff attorney for the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Project at MFY Legal Services, now Mobilization for Justice. I was immediately doing work I cared about, and I loved being a tenant advocate across communities like the one I grew up in and fighting to preserve and improve New York City’s dwindling affordable housing.

Q: What prompted you to becoming an attorney on our Legal Hotline? What was this professional transition like?

CS: CBJC’s Executive Director Lynn Kelly was also the Director at MFY Legal Services. She had hired me there, and so she knew me from my many years spent as a tenant advocate and later, as manager of the housing practice. I was looking to broaden my knowledge of different areas of the law, and Lynn introduced me to Libby Vazquez, the Director of the Legal Hotline. CBJC was also looking for someone to be an administrator for their new case management system, and I had been doing that work at MFY with the same program.

Q: How did public interest technology first show up in your work? How did this shape your work moving forward?

CS: Public interest organizations generally have very little resources to spare. Less than 10 years ago, no one was hiring systems administrators or data scientists, and relied on pre-existing staff members to pick up skills to fill in for those specialist roles. I had come up just as the internet was exploding in use and was therefore slightly more comfortable with using computers than my peers, so I was drafted to be the staff tech person. One of the first things I was responsible for was improving our case management infrastructure.

Lynn and Libby gave me an opportunity to join several groups focusing on technology in legal services beyond case management, such as how to share and preserve knowledge, how to make it easier and safer for clients to send us information. I eventually became one of the organizers for the Annual Statewide Civil Legal Aid Technology Conference, which is sponsored by the Chief Judge’s Commission on Access to Justice. The conference is a full day of panels on all sorts of emerging tech resources and issues, but is most importantly a way to get the community of legal service providers to come together and share their ideas, struggles, and projects.

Q: What do you see in store for public interest technology?

CS: Technology is changing our world in subtle ways people don’t even realize. When I first became a lawyer, a website was an interesting side project that some organizations were throwing together as an afterthought, and no one had any use for social media. Now websites are an indispensable resource for our client populations, and every organization has multiple social media accounts that they use for ways to share the importance of the work we do, as well as being more visible to those that need our help. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated that CBJC would absolutely need to have a Twitter account when that platform was released.

Now we are seeing more practical uses of artificial intelligence and machine learning to make things like plain language searching available. The near future is very likely going to need the input of the public interest community to make sure that saying “Siri, get me a lawyer!” or “Hey Google, I’m in court and can’t afford an attorney!” gets someone in dire need of help to our doors and doesn’t lead them into dangerous waters, since scammers and the unscrupulous are very good at exploiting new technology.

There are less flashy and more practical changes that we will need to address as well.  The slow march towards paperless offices has been going on for decades, but our client populations are getting to the point where they don’t see a need to keep paper documents or even check their physical mailboxes. Legal service providers do well with offering accommodations for clients that need advice or representation, but provider websites need to be available and correct in different languages, and prioritize accessibility.

Tech will continue to change the way we interact with each other, with industry and with the legal system. It can no longer be an afterthought for providers. I’m very happy that our leadership at CBJC identified that early on, and not just because it gave me a job.

Q: Do you have any advice for attorneys or aspiring lawyers looking to develop careers that lie at the intersection of public service work and technology?

CS: I think aspiring lawyers have deep advantages when it comes to looking for interdisciplinary work simply because technology is such an integral part of our lives now. People make jokes about not knowing what a rotary phone or a floppy disk is anymore, but the more important truth to me is that we live in a society where on the whole, computer use is ubiquitous. Familiarity and comfort with technology is so important, and that can really give newer attorneys a leg up in pursuing such a career.

Make your interests and abilities known, from your job application to your initial interview. Try to avoid relegating your tech skills to the ‘other interests’ section on your resume- put them front and center with your legal work. Participate- form a tech committee at your organization, pitch new ideas or implementations that will help you better reach your clients. Keep abreast of tech developments in the legal services field.  Go to tech conferences, join legal technology email lists.

Always start conversations about the ways tech can improve the access to justice we aspire to give to our clients.

Cheryl Lopez is the Communications & Development Manager for the City Bar Justice Center.

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