June 2012

This spring, Pro Bono Net is rolling out a new LawHelp platform to our justice community partners in 27 states. Originally developed in 2001 with funding from the Legal Services Corporation, the Open Society Institute and others, the network of LawHelp nonprofit legal information portals has become a significant part of legal services delivery in the US, serving more than 4 million visitors last year. On an average day, more than 8,000 know-your- rights resources are downloaded from LawHelp sites, providing critical information to those seeking help with issues such as housing, domestic violence, consumer debt and immigration. Every day, hundreds of consumers, legal aid staff, courts and community partners also use LawHelp to find referrals for free or low-cost legal assistance in local communities.

The new LawHelp platform (dubbed “LH3” for short) makes it easier for those facing potentially life-altering issues to find legal assistance, and offers our state partners a suite of new tools to help clients understand and solve their legal problems. LH3’s new features include:

  • A new interface design that couples LawHelp’s familiar icon-based browsing with enhanced navigation and search options
  • Expanded support for multilingual content and language-specific portals to serve a growing number of users looking for help in languages other than English
  • New tools for spotlighting key content such as LawHelp Interactive online legal forms or videos
  •  Improved administration tools to make managing content-rich websites more efficient
  • Improved searchability from external search engines such as Google or Bing

Behind the scenes, LawHelp’s new extensible architecture offers new opportunities for content syndication, for example to partner websites or into case management systems. And thanks to a partnership with Montana Legal Services Association, LawHelp is going mobile this year. After a pilot with MontanaLawHelp.org, any state will have the ability to create a mobile-optimized version of their LawHelp website.

The LawHelp redesign was supported by the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grants program and the LawHelp network’s innovative collaborative investment model. Along with significant input from the national LawHelp network, the process was guided by a steering committee of LawHelp coordinators from the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Legal Services State Support (MN), Montana Legal Services Association and the LawHelp/NY Consortium. Check out these recently launched LH3 sites and let us know what you think! More states to launch in the months ahead.

Pro Bono Net interviewed Michael Mills, Board Member at Pro Bono Net and CEO of Neota Logic.  Michael was an early supporter of Pro Bono Net, and he remains an active member of the Board of Directors and a strong advocate for the work Pro Bono Net is doing to improve access to justice through innovative uses of technology.

How did you come to co-found Neota Logic?

Since I stopped practicing law 22 years ago, I have devoted my career to applying technology to improve the practice of law.  That was the focus of my work at Davis Polk as chief knowledge officer and co-head of technology, and continued in my consulting practice at Kraft Kennedy. And it’s what brought me to found Neota Logic with friends in 2010. What we do at Neota Logic is the absolute leading edge of technology in law practice.

How did you develop an interest in legal technology?

As an undergraduate, I learned to program for the simple reason that the pay was better than washing dishes. It turned out to be more fun too, and indeed more fun than most of my coursework. After law school, I clerked in a US district court, then went to Davis Polk as an associate, and eventually to Mayer Brown as a partner.  At Mayer Brown I was founding chairman of the technology committee. After practicing law for 15 years, I thought it time for a second career, and returned to Davis Polk as Director of Professional Services & Systems.

Law firms are filled with very smart, very busy people doing (mostly) very complex work. Technology can reduce friction, create leverage (in the Archimedean sense) and improve quality, ultimately improving service to clients.

How and why did you get involved at Pro Bono Net?

Mark O’Brien was a colleague at Davis Polk [where he ran the firm’s pro bono program from 1991-2000], and I gave him and [co-founder] Michael Hertz some help getting started and then they invited me to join the board. It seemed to me that Pro Bono Net was aiming to do for the public interest legal world what I and my counterparts in other firms were aiming to do for lawyers in private practice – improve the quality and quantity of service that lawyers can deliver to clients.

Looking back at your time with Pro Bono Net, what have been some of the highlights of working with our organization?

From the beginning Pro Bono Net has had a broad vision of how technology can improve access to justice. We started in New York City with the service for lawyers in private practice doing (or wanting to do) pro bono work. Then, in partnership with many, many organizations, we replicated probono.net across the country. Next, again in partnership with other organizations, we built the LawHelp service for consumers, and replicated that. Since then LawHelp has been extended with document assembly as LawHelp Interactive. The success of these projects shows that technology, when effectively designed and used, truly can improve access to justice.

Pro Bono Net’s vision has remained the same, but the scope of our work has steadily increased.

Can you tell me a little more about Neota Logic?

Technically, we offer an expert systems development and delivery platform, which enables people who are not programmers (lawyers, even) to build very subtle and complex expert systems.  What we do is enable people who are experts on a topic to package what they know interactively so it can be used by tens of thousands. There are demonstrations on our web site.

How did Neota Logic get involved with the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition at Georgetown Law School?

We had been working with David Johnson, a visiting professor of law at New York Law School and pioneer in legal technology, who introduced us to Georgetown Law Professor Tanina Rostain. We worked with Tanina to develop a curriculum for a spring semester seminar in which the students, instead of writing papers, used the Neota Logic System to build applications that deliver online answers to real-world legal questions. We plan to repeat the program at Georgetown next year, and hope to replicate it at other law schools. [For more information about the Iron Tech Lawyer Competition, see coverage in the National Law Journal and Nightly Business Report.]

What were some of the outcomes of this project?

The students built realistic applications, enjoyed the work, and learned a lot. As Professor Rostain said to me, building expert systems is a great pedagogical tool. Students have to learn the law (in a decision tree, one can’t blur or obfuscate answers as one can in a memo), learn to think from the client’s perspective (what does the client want the app to do?), and learn to write about legal topics in plain English (real people aren’t as patient as law professors).

Any last words on Pro Bono Net?

The challenge for Pro Bono Net is that the gap between demand and supply for legal services is bigger than ever.  Bigger than when we started 10 years ago. Think of the foreclosure crisis. Think of the funding shortfall in court systems, forcing some courts to close a day a week. There is no prospect that the number of lawyers working pro bono will multiply miraculously. Or that rich funding for legal aid will start growing on the Congressional budget tree. Creative use of technology is the only way to close that gap, and Pro Bono Net is at the center of the community of people thinking about how.

As you may have read in Jillian Theil’s blog post, Pushing the Envelope of Innovation, earlier this spring Pro Bono Net attended the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) in San Francisco, where we shared lessons from our and our partners’ uses of technology in the justice community, and also gained insights from other nonprofits. Fast forward a month and 3,000 miles to the Equal Justice Conference (EJC) in Jacksonville, FL, in May, where Pro Bono Net staff members Liz Keith, Tony Lu, and Claudia Johnson presented during a combined total of 10 sessions.  (Materials from some of these are posted here.)

Pro Bono Net staff at EJC: Tony Lu, Liz Keith, Claudia Johnson & Jessica Stuart

It’s at this conference where the work we do connecting justice communities through the use of technology really shines. During our panels, we presented on a number of topics that illustrated the large scope of the work we do, such as:

  • Improving language access to better connect non-English speakers with access to legal resources and institutions
  • Taking advantage of internet and mobile technologies to allow volunteer attorneys to engage in pro bono remotely
  • Using technology to connect rural communities to pro bono lawyers and other justice resources they need
  • Expanding efficiency in the courts and improving access for self-represented litigants through the use of online document assembly forms
  • Collaborating with librarians to provide access to legal information for a broad population of individuals

In addition to presenting on a number of substantive topics, we had the opportunity to attend other sessions related to the wider worlds of legal services and pro bono. As an EJC first-timer, I bounced from one session to another, picking up a wealth of interesting information from each presentation. One of the sessions I enjoyed the most was the Community Action Poverty Simulation, led by Pro Bono Net board member Tiela Chalmers. The Poverty Simulation is an interactive exercise enabling participants to experience, in detail, the barriers and challenges low-income families face each day. As Tiela notes on her website, the Poverty Simulation “simulates a one-month time frame, with each week consuming a 15-20 minute period. Participants are divided into ‘families,’ ranging in size from 1 to 5 persons. Each group is assigned a different life scenario, and volunteers live the life of that family for one month, trying to work and access benefits, buy food, and maintain housing. The training also uses participants or volunteers to play the vital roles of community resources, such as the bank, the employer, the doctor and other resources the family members will interact with during the ‘month’.”

Tiela Chalmers leads the Poverty Simulation

With a room full of legal services and pro bono staff acting as participants, it was very useful to be reminded of the more minute and personal need for the work we all do. One participant played the role of a mother who inadvertently ended up neglecting her children while trying to take care of other logistical aspects of everyday life. This participant commented on how the experience made her think of mothers she assists at her organization who experience trouble discussing their children. She stated that the experience provided her with a reminder of why that seemingly simple topic may be so difficult for some mothers.

The simulation was a good reminder of those details of peoples’ lives that serve as drivers in the work that we and our partners do. The challenges that people face while navigating their daily lives inform the ways in which we build technology solutions to lighten the already heavy burden of claiming and fighting for one’s rights.

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 SLeah Margulies Imageervices 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.