Pro Bono Net interviewed Leah Margulies, Project Director at LawHelp/NY, New York’s leading source of online legal referrals and Know Your Rights information. On June 13th, Leah will receive the New York City Bar’s annual Legal Services Award in recognition for her leadership of LawHelp/NY. As Project Director, Leah is responsible for the website’s content, supervising a staff of 5-8, representing LawHelp/NY to the public and media, and leading statewide advocacy campaigns. Her vision and programmatic focus have fueled tremendous growth at LawHelp/NY. Usage of the site has tripled during her tenure. Her ability to embrace new technology has improved the site, including the introduction of a real-time chat service, LiveHelp, available in English and Spanish, as well as a search engine optimization and social marketing initiative that improved search rankings and increased online exposure. We interviewed Leah to find out about her work in legal services and her very interesting professional background.
1. How did you end up in your current position?
I got a call from an old friend. I had left the legal services community earlier, but had kept in touch with colleagues. I hadn’t intended to return to legal services, but I was very lucky when the call came about a position. I started with New York LawHelp as the Program Director in January 2006. They were looking for someone with experience as a project manager so they could focus on building the project. I was fortunate to have experience in nonprofit management and the technology sector.
2. What led you to legal services work?
In the 1970s, prior to attending law school, I started a boycott of Nestle. The boycott led to an International Code of Marketing for the baby formula industry co-sponsored by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. During the code negotiations I’d often be in meetings with about 50 men and 3 women—the other two women, besides myself, were doctors. So I decided I should probably go to law school! To run the boycott, I founded the organization now known as Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly Infact), of which I am still a member of the Board of Directors. The organization directs campaigns to challenge irresponsible marketing practices by corporations. Currently the organization has three major campaigns:
- A highly successful campaign against the tobacco industry, to stop big tobacco from interfering in public health measures;
- “Think Outside the Bottle” which is working to protect, promote and ensure public funding for public water systems. The campaign gets people to understand why bottled water is a bad idea and does not protect our municipalities or the environment; and
- The “Retire Ronald” campaign, aiming to get McDonalds away from marketing to children. CAI worked with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when they adopted legislation restricting marketing efforts to children.
During law school, I continued working on the Nestle boycott and monitoring the code of marketing that was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. I finished law school during the Reagan years, and it was tough doing the kind of consumer advocacy work I was doing. Since I had spent ten years on an infant formula campaign to protect Third World mothers and babies, I thought I should learn how to protect poor women in our own country, in New York City, so I did that for the next five years.
3. What can you tell me about your professional experience working in legal services?
I started as a staff attorney at Queens Legal Services and then at MFY Legal Services focusing on housing issues and representing low-income, homeless and indigent clients (primarily families and single mothers). Then I spent seven years at the United Nations, half at the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC), where I developed intergovernmental policies for environmentally sound and sustainable development standards for transnational corporations. I spent three years at UNICEF, developing and implementing controls on exploitative marketing practices in the infant formula industry and implementing the code of marketing as national law. After years in the nonprofit sector, I took a position in the corporate technology sector. I had never wanted to be an attorney in the corporate world but as a single mother, I had to compromise, so I worked in the corporate technology sector.
4. What would you like people to know about LawHelp?
The most important thing about LawHelp/NY is that it is the collective way that legal services organizations throughout the state are able to respond to the needs of unrepresented people. New York Chief Judge Lippman’s Access to Justice Report states that more than two million New Yorkers per year are going to court without an attorney and that doesn’t include federal court or fair hearings. LawHelp is designed to help people without attorneys by initially leading them to free legal aid projects that might be able to help them, but more importantly since there aren’t enough attorneys to go around, directing them to self-help and know- your -rights resources so they will be better able to help themselves. The biggest complaint we hear (besides not being able to find an attorney) is that someone can’t find a resource, but that is often because people may not know how to navigate a large website, or may be inexperienced using the website, and they may not understand the relevant legal terms. Having LiveHelp now really makes a difference—LiveHelp navigators will lead that person to the resources they really need. People are thrilled using Live Help.
5. So LiveHelp truly makes a difference in increasing access to justice?
The difference after people use LiveHelp is tremendous. The program is staffed by an Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorp Legal Fellow and more than 100 volunteers a year, mostly law students. Upon using LiveHelp people have said how helpful they found the service and how wonderful the volunteers were. My favorite quote about LiveHelp is: “Take good care of your employees because they are doing a great job. Help them help others and keep them satisfied with good paychecks and a fat bonus from time to time. Thank you very much!”
6. What is on the horizon for LawHelp/NY?
The most exciting project that we are embarking on is an effort to raise the funds necessary to create a mobile optimized site. Research indicates that poor people are accessing the Internet via their mobile phones, more so than from a computer, so it is important to create a mobile optimized site to reach them where they are.