Michael Semanchik, Managing Attorney, California Innocence Project
The California Innocence Project (CIP) is a law school clinic at the California Western School of Law that provides free legal services to wrongfully convicted people in California. It also works to improve state laws and policies to reduce wrongful convictions, while also providing ongoing training and experience to law students.
At the age of 17, Brian Banks was a rising high school football star, destined to play in the NFL, when he was wrongfully convicted for kidnapping and rape. After being forced into a plea, he spent more than five years in a California prison before being exonerated.
“We had his sentence reversed in 2012, and Brian got his shot in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013,” says Mike Semanchik, Managing Attorney at the CIP. “Brian is a great example of the impact this organization can have for people wrongly sent to prison, who suffer horribly for no reason.”
The CIP operates like any other law firm—it takes in clients, tracks evidence, and works cases that span months, if not years. As one of the largest innocence organizations in the United States, the CIP receives more than 2,500 new inquiries requesting their services every year—all of which need to be tracked, followed up on, and managed across a team of 42 attorneys, staff, and volunteers.
Managing information for 30,000 contacts
When Mike first started with CIP in 2011, the organization used Amicus Attorney to manage its potential clients and casework.
“It was a bulky application that was a nightmare to use,” says Mike. “It used a lot of server time and space. It often crashed. And, for the 12 licences we purchased, it was expensive.” As part of Clio’s Academic Access Program, which supports university legal clinics around the world, Clio donates licences to all CIP staff for free.
Mike began working with Clio’s migration team to get the CIP set up over the holiday break in December 2014. “Clio’s tech team was able to transfer 23,116 contacts from our previous system so that they were ready when our students returned in January 2015. The changeover was seamless, and now we’re up to more than 30,000 contacts in our system.”
With so many prospective clients, Clio allows CIP staff to group contacts based on where they are in the application process—which helps systematize follow-up tasks such as completing applications, gathering evidence, and shortlisting formal representation. At each stage, the organization works with more than 400 attorneys and other professionals to help screen cases.
Clio also makes it easy to find contacts and perform conflict checks. “We use Clio’s search to find contacts using their name or inmate number, and we’ll see if they were listed as a witness for another case,” says Raquel Cohen, Staff Attorney with CIP.
Organization in—and out—of office
“For me, it’s all about organization,” says Mike, who uses Clio’s Firm Feed to get updates on cases his attorneys are working on. “When I review a case with one of our attorneys, we can pull up the case notes in Clio, and it’s all there on the screen.”
Remote access to firm resources is also important for CIP staff, who often deal with out-of-office communications in the evening or when on the road. Mike can access firm information with Clio’s mobile app, or via his laptop, which he tethers to his smartphone.
“I’ve been to 27 of California’s prisons, which tend to be located in remote areas,” says Mike. “With Clio, I don’t have to wait to get back to the office to check in on the status of a case or to access our notes.”
Raquel also uses Clio to manage volunteer staff at the organization. “I use Clio heavily to supervise volunteers, to monitor how cases are progressing, and to follow-up on how to prosecute specific cases,” says Raquel.
CIP has a high turnover rate for its volunteers, bringing on 12 to 14 new clinic students every year. “When we used Amicus Attorney, we had to swap licences between new staff, but they were generic and we couldn’t see who was making which updates. With Clio, every intern gets their own login, so we’re able to see exactly who does what.”
Onboarding new staff and getting them trained is also important for CIP. “Clio is extremely user-friendly,” says Raquel. “Whenever we bring in new interns, they’re able to pick it up quickly.”
Building impactful relationships
The CIP works to ensure that everyone in the criminal justice system gets their fair chance at justice, and working closely with inmates has formed many close relationships for Mike and Raquel.
“We’ve attended weddings that wouldn’t have happened. We’ve had children born that wouldn’t have existed without a system like Clio. The service that Clio is providing us is changing lives,” says Mike.
The CIP can’t always help everyone who needs it, but Clio can help manage the overwhelming amount of requests that they receive, helping them build those initial relationships so that they can have the greatest impact possible.
The full mandate
Overturning wrongful convictions is only part of the organization’s mandate, however. It also works to improve the legal system to avoid wrongful accusations in the first place.
“We try to change laws in the criminal justice system to help solve problems at the source,” says Mike. Since the organization began its work in California, it’s managed to influence eight laws and compensation processes.
The California Innocence Project, as a program run under California Western School of Law also works with students on campus to train them and prepare them for a successful career in the legal industry. Each year the project selects 12 to 14 clinic students to work alongside staff attorneys and to investigate cases. Their 235 alumni have gone on to take roles all over the world.