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High Tech Tools for the Human Rights Lawyer

Ask a human rights lawyer about the toughest parts of the job and you’ll often hear similar answers. They’re overwhelmed with cases that can last for years. They’re working in multiple languages across different jurisdictions with different processes. And they’re contending with pressure and surveillance from the states and corporations they are litigating against.

The consistent experiences prompted questions for us: How can technology help? And which tools? And in what contexts?

Human rights law would seem a low-tech undertaking. Paper, pens and manila folders. A phone. Microsoft Word and email. Maybe shared folders on a server to store documents—these are the basic tools of the trade.

But what we know from working with human rights lawyers directly is that sometimes a tool that helps manage elements of workflow can have a powerful impact on outcomes.

A new research paper, commissioned by the Open Society Foundations’ Human Rights Data Initiative, explores how specifically focused technology can help litigators and human rights lawyers in their work.

To break the issue down, the paper divides the available technology into three types of tools, each targeting different potential needs—case and practice management; “e-discovery”; and investigation and case building.

These categories can help guide thinking about what tool might suit what situation. So for example, one organization might need help managing the day-to-day flow of information—a tool from the first category. Another might need a solution from the second category to aid with storing and analyzing a giant repository of digitized information. And another still might benefit from a tool from the third category to help organize a smaller data set, drawing out the substance of a case and presenting it to best effect.

For each category, the paper breaks down what the tools do, offers a market “snapshot” of the products out there, and gives a rundown on costs.

Wisely, the paper also returns to a really important underlying question: When does a paper, pen, and folder approach still fit your work, and when is it time to move beyond?

It’s a useful document. It’s helped us with our own thinking and we hope it can help you, too. Let us know what you think.

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