Design study: Language access for legal aid

Belinda Mo
May 6, 2021

Low income, limited English-speaking immigrants are at the unfortunate crux of today’s socioeconomic and health landscape. The odds are stacked against low income American immigrants, whose lives are significantly affected by a health pandemic, fear mongering anti-immigrant policies, and the outcome of nation-wide civil protests. On the health front, racial and ethnic minority communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. As of June 12, 2020, the hospitalization rate for Hispanic or Latino people is approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white people. This alarming inequity is brought to light even further, given Black Lives Matter protests advocating for racial justice. Alongside the wave of black advocacy rides ethnic immigrant communities who have also been historically underserved by the justice system.

On top of it all is a raging anti-immigrant fervor which has become increasingly mainstream over the last ten years. The current administration has focused on stricter immigration policies and executive orders, which has made life substantially more difficult for all immigrants. It is common for immigrants to feel a constant, overwhelming sense of fear and hostility, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hovers over the doorsteps of them and their loved ones. For most low income immigrants, legal aid organizations are a primary source of protection from injustices in the legal system.

At the Stanford Legal Design Lab, we wanted to help address the needs of low income immigrant clients at legal aid organizations that are working in a remote capacity. We ask,

How might we help low-income, limited English-speaking immigrants receive access to remote interpretation when they communicate with their legal aid attorney?

Do limited English-speaking clients feel empowered to ask questions and share sensitive information with their attorneys? Are they receiving the same access to justice as their English-speaking counterparts? How can organizations adapt their interpretation services, given the current limitations of remote work?

The Viva Translate project facilitates remote conversations between low-income immigrants and legal aid staff by automatically translating their text messages in a low-tech and convenient way. The legal aid staff member simply visits the online Viva Translate portal and starts messaging by entering their client’s phone number and language. Clients send and receive text messages in their native language, with no additional setup needed.

Finding the Need: Language Access at Legal Aid Organizations

We interviewed 40+ legal aid staff and clients at a partner organization and quickly found that interpretation capacity was a huge bottleneck. The bottleneck was particularly apparent when attorneys tried to contact their clients for basic conversations such as filling out a form, scheduling an appointment, or sending case resources.

Attorneys at our partner legal aid organization estimated that 80% of their clients had limited English proficiency (LEP). When they tried to remotely contact their LEP clients for simple tasks, they had a few choices:

  1. Ask a staff interpreter to help interpret through voice call (time-consuming)
  2. Call a phone interpreter service such as Language Line (expensive)
  3. Use Google Translate to text the client

For simple conversations, we found that many lawyers resorted to the third option: using Google Translate to text their client. This was cheaper than using Language Line and was also faster since it did not require a third party interpreter. Furthermore, clients are more responsive through text message, which makes SMS an even more convenient choice than voice call.

Increased Client Trust and Responsiveness through SMS and Automated Translation

A conversation between a lawyer and a Spanish-speaking client. Through Viva Translate, text messages are sent to the client in both the original and translated languages.

The combination of SMS text messaging and machine translation creates an incredibly effective tool for communicating with limited English speakers. As of 2019, 96% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind. Additionally, messaging through SMS elicits an incredibly high amount of trust and responsiveness. When the Hennepin County District Court in Minnesota implemented a text message reminder system, bench warrants for failures to appear rate (FTA) was reduced by 24%. The court’s success in reaching defendants is higher for texts than emails.

If we add machine translation into the mix, then we significantly increase responsiveness and trust for limited English-speaking clients. Viva Translate currently uses Google Translate (with a plan to augment it with our own legal and SMS specific improvements). Machine translation such as Google Translate allows for near-instant translation in over 100 languages, which increases access to legal aid for clients that speak lesser known languages. Staff interpreters are no longer overworked with logistical conversation and can focus their efforts on high-stakes legal conversations. By increasing the number of touch points between a low income client and a lawyer, even for a simple task of filling out forms, we foster improved trust, stability, and client outcomes.

A Convenient Interface for Legal Aid Organizations

So far, we have demonstrated that the SMS channel is the most effective channel to reach clients, but what does the interface look like for legal aid staff?

Web interface for lawyers to easily add start and maintain a conversation with non-English speaking clients.

Legal aid attorneys have additional needs such as managing multiple client connections and exporting messages to a case management system. Viva Translate has a web and mobile browser interface where lawyers can easily create, manage, and use multiple client connections at once.

It is easy for a lawyer to onboard a new contact by specifying the client’s name, phone number, and language.

In the spirit of human-centered design, we also regularly co-design with legal aid organization staff to learn their interpretation needs. This has led us to the following features on our roadmap:

  • Intake clients through a text message hotline
  • Send and receive voice messages. Messages can be translated into either a voice or text message.
  • Send the same message to multiple clients
  • Ability to send messages to a client’s WhatsApp account

A Path Forward: Improving Translation Past Google Translate

Machine translation accuracy has made dramatic leaps and bounds in recent years, due to a new translation model that reduces translation errors by an average of 60% compared to older models. However, there is always room for improvement, especially for high-context situations such as legal translation.

Our long-term goal is to improve translation quality for legal conversations.

Many legal aid lawyers, paralegals, and interpreters have their own personal list of legal terms, translated into other languages. Organizations also have many documents translated into multiple languages, which we can use to train our translation model. By partnering with legal aid organizations, we push the envelope on automated legal translation, improving it over time so that we can lead to a more equitable justice system.

The Viva Translate project works alongside the Stanford Legal Design Lab. We have also recently partnered with the Robin Hood Foundation to improve language access in the New York City region. We are working with a number of legal aid organizations to beta test our translation system.

Please contact Belinda Mo at if you are interested in a pilot , or simply want to say hello 👋🏼