Today’s guest post is authored by Rohan Pavuluri, co-founder and CEO at Upsolve, a nonprofit that helps low-income families file bankruptcy for free using an online web app. The idea for Upsolve grew out of Pavuluri’s work as a research assistant at the Access to Justice Lab. The Access to Justice Lab does not endorse Upsolve or its products. The A2J Lab materials will be made available after the completion of the Financial Distress Research Project evaluation.
In 2015, I joined the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School as a research assistant. It exposed me to a huge civil rights injustice in our country: low-income families can’t access their basic civil legal rights because they can’t afford lawyers. Professor Jim Greiner explained to me how the supply of free lawyers will never match the demand from low-income individuals. Self-help materials, he explained, could be an answer to the access to justice gap, but nobody was testing whether self-help legal information actually fulfilled its intended purpose. The Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP), then about to launch, would evaluate this issue by producing self-help packets for people facing consumer debt problems and testing whether the packets worked.
My first job as a research assistant was to take the rough drafts of the packets for bankruptcy to a local courthouse and get feedback from everyday people visiting the court for their own legal problems on how they could be improved. This is how I first learned how to do a user research interview, a skill I’ve used every week since my first courthouse visit. The most striking takeaway from my initial courthouse interviews was the huge potential for impact these self-help materials had. Within a few minutes, someone who had no training in the law could understand a legal concept that could help transform their lives. At a glance, the paper packets hardly seemed like a life-changing tool. But they were. I found that deeply inspiring. The challenge, I learned during these interviews, was to make sure the packets were simple enough to understand, didn’t use any jargon, and had enough white space to reduce cognitive barriers.
Up until that point, I shared the notion that law was a complex topic best left to lawyers to understand and navigate. My thinking quickly changed. I realized that if you followed certain design principles and did basic user testing, it wasn’t actually that hard to communicate seemingly complex legal topics to everyday people. The Financial Distress Research Project packets showed me a glimpse of what a more equal, fair legal system could look like. The problem, though, was that not everybody could find these packets when they needed them. While more RCTs would be needed to test out the actual efficacy of the packets I worked on with the A2J Lab, initial studies and my own personal experience proved promising.
One purpose of academic research is to present new, useful ideas to the world, so that the private, public, and social sector can scale the findings to improve society. I decided that everybody in America should have access to content similar to that in the Financial Distress Research Project’s bankruptcy packet, which guided low-income people trapped in debt step-by-step through Chapter 7 bankruptcy when they couldn’t afford a lawyer. I chose to focus on bankruptcy because it had powerful outcomes like stopping wage garnishment, and I saw a pathway towards helping people file online on their own. When I shared my goal with Professor Greiner, he supported my efforts. Upsolve was born in the summer of 2016.
While it took us 2.5 years to find the right service model, distribution model, and business model, our online web app today continues to draw inspiration from the bankruptcy packets from the Access to Justice Lab. In our bankruptcy web app, users enter information about what they earn, spend, own, and owe, and our software populates the bankruptcy forms that they can take to the court to file. The questions are written in plain language with motivational messages and cartoons sprinkled in between. We also have content that explains the different types of bankruptcy, such as Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13. In 2019, Upsolve relieved $130 million in debt for over 2,500 low-income families. Upsolve is the largest nonprofit for bankruptcy in America and one of the largest legal aid nonprofits launched in the last two decades, measured by cases filed per year. None of this would’ve been possible without the Access to Justice Lab, which exposed our team to a deep injustice in our country and provided the launching pad to help address it.