How to Build a Virtual Court - a Guide for Project Managers
April 14, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, courts around the world have recognized that they have the responsibility to ensure access to justice. To promote access to justice, minimize growing caseloads, and preserve a democracy, the implementation of virtual courts is crucial.
Every digital project is different. A project manager is essential to manage all the moving parts, including:
To implement a technology project like a virtual court, a project manager must be flexible and creative. A great project manager can navigate strict procedural rules while responding to the COVID-19 emergency.
Our team of A2J project managers and legal innovators came together to share our best tips. If you're leading the project to implement a virtual court, here's how you should do it.
1: Build a Team
Having knowledgeable people on your team will be key to your success. You'll need the right people in the right places.
For example, does your project involve cybersecurity protocols? Then you should have someone familiar with data structures, cybersecurity and digital signatures.
Does your solution require a user interface? Then you should have someone with UX/UI experience on your graphic design and web development team.
Finally, do you need a deeper understanding of procedural rules? Then you should involve an attorney with experience in dispute resolutions.
As a project manager, you need to make an accurate assessment of needs. That will allow you to determine how much time each team member is going to spend on the project.
Furthermore, it's your job to create a team with good working chemistry. A team with poor chemistry will struggle with productivity. By nature, projects have enough issues and conflicts without the additional burden of human conflict. In the end, managing a project is largely about managing people.
2: Analyze and Visualize
What's the bigger picture? Assess the problems and actual needs of your situation. Having a clear picture will help you decide where you need to go.
Analyzing is not just about having a one-hour Zoom meeting. On the contrary, it means taking the time and going into the details to map out a plan to ensure all needs are covered. Approach all interested stakeholders in the project and understand their goals and priorities.
Thorough analysis makes it possible to visualize the whole project. Determine the process you'll use to execute, and assign the right tasks to the right team members to get it done.
Visualization also requires building a clear scope of what the project is going to entail (better known as “scope of work”) and the resources (budget) that should be allocated.
In the last few weeks, we’ve received some inquiries regarding the implementation of a virtual court. Sometimes, clients believe they need sophisticated technologies such as artificial intelligence or the internet of things to have a proper virtual court. That's not always the case.
As the project manager, you decide what matters and what doesn't. Focus on creating a system that functions properly. Hold off on additional enhancements and functionalities that might overcomplicate your project. You can always upgrade later, but taking on too complex of a project might be too much to execute.
Before building a solution, you should have a prototype or minimum viable product (MVP) that is refined through an iterative process of analysis. This allows the team to see what is available before heading down the customization path.
For example, for a virtual court you don't need an automated judge or a complex user interface. There is currently no ‘single’ technology to be used by the judiciary. The court and parties must choose from a selection of possible IT platforms (e.g. Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype.) In Texas, the use of YouTube to hold court hearings remotely and stream them live on the Internet has become widely popular.
Many of the virtual courts have used these solutions with the correct implementation to comply with procedural rules. For example, a summarized prototype for a virtual hearing room could look like this:
Changes are an inevitable part of the design and implementation of any project. Even the best scope of work is not immune to numerous changes. Things as simple as design standards, unforeseen complexities, site conditions and legal requirements can have an impact.
It is possible that the team has an "aha!" moment and feels it is necessary to broaden the scope of the project.
Once the new scope is identified, a project manager can identify the additional tasks and activities required. As a project manager, you have to be aware that more resources (time, money, and staff) may be required.
Product scope and its changes are essential for the successful implementation of a project. Remember that as a project manager, you should be “client-centric.” That means that the end product should satisfy and be completely functional for your client.
For example, the implementation of a virtual court in Denver is not the same as the implementation of a virtual court in Guatemala. You are working with different stakeholders, cultures, and legal requirements.
Be ready to change your initial scope of work and respond accordingly to the client. As a project manager you don't have a default template to execute every project. With virtual courts, expect that every jurisdiction will need a smooth and orderly operation, despite operating remotely and under different procedural rules.
Recently our company was approached by some practitioners that want to implement “remote arbitration courts.” This requires a special configuration since the procedural rules are very different from judicial proceedings. Rather than being nervous, a project manager should be willing to take on new and different projects, as long as the right methodology is in place to execute a solution.
Project managers do not only plan, coordinate, and direct the activities in an organization. They also set technology goals and drive the action to meet them.
Once the project manager has completed the planning process, it is time for implementation, also known as the “build” phase of the project.
In order to implement a solution, the project manager has to update his planning, scheduling, execution, tracking and monitoring.
The implementation of a solution is not a “downhill” road. On the contrary, it is a precise craft that requires sticking to specifications, procedures and timelines. Granted, project management, like any other activity, has become simpler because of project management software tools. These software tools allow scheduling and sequencing of project activities, workstreams and tasks.
If you are implementing a solution for virtual courts, your execution requires a high level of technical accuracy.
For example, you might have a solution for a virtual hearing. However, what should happen if a member of the media or the public wishes to observe a remote proceeding?
The project manager has to determine a solution and implement it. A solution that a project manager might recommend is that any member of the media or the public email their request to the local courthouse staff in advance of the hearing. The person requesting access should provide their name, the hearing they wish to observe, and their contact information. Afterward, the courthouse staff will provide the Web Link and the password (which can be encrypted for cybersecurity concerns).
Let’s use another example.
As a project manager, you have to implement a solution not only for a virtual hearing, but also for any emergency response in case the virtual hearing fails. You must foresee potential problems and come up with solutions ahead of time.
In this case, a solution that could be implemented is a telephone conference, in which the person has to dial a given phone number with a Meeting ID provided immediately prior to the listed appearance time. For security reasons, the person will be requested to enter a PIN.
Modernizing the justice system through information technology needs a vision of the judiciary that goes beyond a narrow approach. That means that a project manager has to build an integrated solution that is a truly hands-on approach to innovation.
Once the solution has been built, it is time to begin a series of tests as per their designed test cases. Testing is one of the least understood parts of a project. Successful project managers recognize that testing is a constant and is a vital component of a functional solution. These tests may pass or fail, and their status will be continually reported back to the project manager. Testing will provide data on the product and how well it is performing.
Remember that testing is just a way of measuring your project. If the standard is not met, then the process starts again. For example, the Beijing Internet Court released the country's first protocol of an online court hearing with 26 procedures. Some of those solutions have been successful. Those procedures that have been wanting will need to undergo some changes. Although those changes come after the deployment, a successful project manager will detect problems before the placement of the solution.
6: Deployment and Reporting
If the tests are passed, then the project is ready for release to the end-user. At this point, the project manager has completed the fully operational project.
Don't be mistaken, the deployment of a solution is great. However, a great project manager will often follow-up with their clients. Sometimes clients will request updates or upgrades. Others will request some additional changes. Regardless, remember a great project manager is always there for his or her clients.
Technology is an important part of our lives today. For the implementation of successful digital solutions, you should consider having a project manager. As we like to put it at A2J, a project manager is a “unicorn” with different skills. A project manager not only has an understanding of technology, but an ability to analyze data, communicate with his team, assign a competent staff, budgeting, strategic planning and quality management. In other words, project management is “easy in theory, hard in practice.”
Virtual courts can be implemented with the adoption of simple and clear technologies that are interconnected in a defined system. However, a project manager can enhance the implementation process by providing a set of skills from multiple disciplines to ensure a successful deployment. Guidance in the design, implementation and measurement of the performance of a virtual court is essential to ensuring that the solution enhances access to justice.
Efficiency is central to innovation in the judicial system. A project manager can efficiently lead a team and direct resources to where they are needed. Virtual courts can be an opportunity to unlock the potential of human creativity and innovation. However, that process can only be complete if there is genuine collaboration between software developers, lawyers, policymakers and project managers.