A Silicon Valley escapee takes a tech approach to law in Philly

Michael Hollander, a former programmer in Silicon Valley, is now a lawyer for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, using his software skills to help clients. Often, he works on coding at his home in South Philadelphia.

Nearly 13 years ago, systems engineer Michael Hollander looked up from his computer screen in Silicon Valley, where he sat writing code for yet another wrinkle in an office communication software suite, and thought to himself: What am I doing here?

Yes, he was earning close to $90,000 a year, living the life in San Francisco with his girlfriend, who became his wife. But looking ahead, all he saw was the same thing: more Java, more Python, catching a code, winter, spring, summer, and fall. “What am I going to be doing 10, 20 years from now? Programming.”

He decided to quit, go to law school, and represent the poor and downtrodden.

So guess what Hollander is doing now? Programming — and through it representing the poor and downtrodden.

These days, he’s an employment lawyer with Community Legal Services, juggling coding with a full caseload of the working miserable — people not getting paid, people not getting jobs because of criminal records, people not getting unemployment benefits, people facing discrimination and harassment.

Hollander’s programming has a different goal now: to create software that makes it easier for chronically underfunded CLS to represent its low-income clients. Satisfying, but not the pay.  “I still haven’t reached the salary I earned in 2004,” when he left Silicon Valley to travel and go to law school.

Even at the University of Virginia’s law school, Hollander couldn’t resist the programming pull. Interning in a law clinic, he represented pineros, farm workers who plant Christmas trees around the South. They weren’t being paid for travel time. Using mapping software, Hollander was able to figure out how much time the workers were owed as they moved among farms.

“In law school, you see that you have a tool, but no one else is using it, but you know it’s going to make everything much easier,” said Hollander, 38. “It’s like you are going camping, and everyone is trying to start a fire with two sticks and you have a lighter in your pocket. It’s hard not to pull it out.”

In 2011, three years after he was hired at CLS, Hollander created a program that automated expungement petitions. Depending on the person and the offense, expungement removes the conviction from public records.

“Expungement is easy from the lawyer standpoint, and it’s extremely rewarding from the client’s point of view,” he said. The process isn’t complicated legally, Hollander said, but the paperwork was so tedious that it was easy to make mistakes.

For Hollander, necessity was the mother of invention. In 2011, he and other volunteer public-interest lawyers operated an expungement clinic at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. More than 300 people showed up. Hollander ended up with 80 cases to be done after hours.

That’s when he made a strategic decision: “Instead of sitting at my dining-room table working on expungements, I sat at my dining-room table and wrote a program” to deal with them. “The alpha version was probably put together with duct tape and chewing gum,” but it worked for Hollander, and he was able to polish it over the next year. Now, many other groups in the city are using the “Expungement Generator” software, which is owned by CLS.

Hollander estimated that 35,000 cases have been run through the Generator since 2012.

“Not only have we made the process easy for us, but we’ve reduced the learning curve,” he said. The program pulls a client’s criminal record, scans it to see if the offenses are expungeable under Pennsylvania law, and generates a petition for each offense, making it easy for even a novice lawyer. More experienced lawyers check the paperwork.

In 2016, Hollander went on paternity leave. He used his son’s nap time to learn new software and develop it to analyze U.S. Department of Labor unemployment-insurance data, the better to advocate for policy changes that make jobless benefits available to more people.

In Philadelphia, a small group of techie lawyers — among them Hollander; Nate Vogel, CLS director of law and technology; and Jonathan Pyle, of Philadelphia Legal Assistance — have also been working on technical/legal software solutions. Helping them is Hack4Impact, a nonprofit tech crew from the University of Pennsylvania.

One program uses smartphone location services to determine when and where workers were actually on the job. Hollander is representing a housekeeper who never got paid overtime when she was house-sitting for her vacationing employers. Using the program, Hollander can determine exactly when she worked and figure out how to get her paid.

Another integrates specialized programs, such as the Expungement Generator, with CLS’s client-intake system, allowing the computer to scan public records to see whether a client who, for example, may have sought help paying his Peco bill has other problems, too.

“Maybe the person who came in for energy help couldn’t pay their bill because they lost their job because they had a criminal record, which is why their house is in foreclosure,” Hollander said. “Maybe if we can expunge their record, they can get a job and a loan modification, and maybe even keep their power from being turned off.”