February 2013

The past few months saw major changes for one of Pro Bono Net’s oldest programs, LawHelp.org. LawHelp.org helps people of low and moderate incomes find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights and forms to help them with their legal problems.

Last year we rolled out a new LawHelp statewide website platform designed to improve users’ experience, and make legal information and resources more accessible.  You can read more about the new platform design in Liz Keith’s blog post Have You Seen LawHelp Lately?

Part of this initiative included a redesign and expansion of the LawHelp.org national portal, the national gateway to all 50 statewide websites. Highlights of the new national portal include:

Spanish Language Page

LawHelp Español, a mirror of LawHelp.org completely accessible to Spanish speaking users.  LawHelp Español was developed to improve access to the statewide website network for individuals searching for legal aid resources in Spanish. The entire LawHelp site is now translated, with the same content and design as LawHelp.org, including 10 plain language guides (described below), LiveHelp assistance as well as resources tailored to the needs of the Spanish-speaking community.

LiveHelp

Users of the Spanish language version of LawHelp.org now have an additional option for help. Through LiveHelp, they can access real-time assistance from trained volunteer navigators to help them find the resources they are searching for. This service is currently staffed by Spanish speaking volunteers across the county, who are dedicated to making Spanish language legal information and referrals accessible to users.  A LawHelp Español user can click on the “LiveHelp” button at the top of the page, where a chat box opens, allowing them to ask questions of the navigator and find the content they are looking for.

New Design

The entire LawHelp.org website was redesigned, allowing users to easily access the directory of statewide websites, as well as our new featured resources (described below).  The clean, highly intuitive design was created to maximize the ease with which users navigate our site, encouraging users to find sources of local legal information through our portal, as well as general legal information on the site.

We also highlight other websites and resources targeted at low income and vulnerable individuals seeking legal assistance.  Currently, LawHelp.org highlights Consumer.gov– assisting individuals facing financials issues; Stateside Legal– designed to assist military members, veterans and their families; as well as  Immigration LawHelp and CitizenshipWorks– two initiatives housed at Pro Bono Net that help individuals access information on immigration legal services and the naturalization process. These resources rotate on a regular basis.

Featured Resources

While LawHelp.org served as a portal page in the past, we are excited to announce the addition on 10 plain language guides to common legal issues and questions.  These guides are specifically designed to help low income and vulnerable users understand basic concepts that impact their ability to access legal aid, the courts and interpretation services in a legal context.  These guides include the following topics:

  • Legal Aid and Other Low-Cost Legal Help
  • Understanding Federal, State and Local Laws
  • The Differences Between Criminal and Civil Court
  • Preparing for Court
  • Court Fees and Getting Court Fees Paid
  • Overview of Legal Services State Websites
  • Getting Legal Assistance in your Language
  • Your Right to Assistance in your Language
  • Working with an Interpreter in a Legal Setting
  • Finding Immigration Help

These resources are available in both English and Spanish and will be available in three other languages in the upcoming months.

LawHelp Español, the Plain Language Guides, and the national LiveHelp initiative were developed through a partnership between the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Pro Bono Net and LawHelp New York, with funding from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant program.

We are very excited about the redesigned site, and the new offerings on LawHelp.org and LawHelp Español, and hope you will surf over to see all the improvements.

Last summer, I attended a 1st birthday party for a close friend’s daughter named Joi. I remembered visiting my friend and baby Joi in the hospital a few days after Joi was born. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to watch Joi grow and am reminded of the importance of taking a moment to recognize the beauty of growth in various aspects of our lives.  Last summer, I also started working at Pro Bono Net within the LawHelp Interactive Program (LHI). LHI works with state legal aid and court partners to allow low-income people without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. In 2006, LHI users assembled 47,429 legal forms through LHI. By the summer of 2012, LawHelp Interactive reported that over 1.1 million legal forms and other documents were generated and that over 1.9 million interviews were served. These numbers show, in part, LHI’s growth over the years.

Last month, I visited our New York office to attend the LHI Tech Summit where LHI’s various partners and stakeholders met to discuss the technology goals for LHI in the new year. In attendance were folks like Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems and Chris Crownhart of Kaivo who were involved at the early stages of LHI and have seen its progress. Newbies also came to the tech summit like Greg Tenzer who will play a central role in rebuilding the technical infrastructure of LHI beginning this year. We were also honored to have John Mayer of Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) join us shortly after receiving a 2012 ‘LTN’ Innovation Award.

LHI Program Manager Claudia Johnson started things off with a presentation on LHI from a program perspective. This included sharing about the growing international community using the program. For example, there were 4,192 LHI website visits from Canada, 479 from the UK, 235 from India, and 244 site visits from Guam. There’s also been growth in usage in states where there have been LHI projects as early as 2005. This include California, Georgia, and Illinois.

The tech summit continued with presentations from LHI’s tech team and partners. It was a fantastic group of individuals who shared thoughtful and interesting ideas about how to move LHI forward. I left the tech summit energized after learning about where LHI is headed and the technical improvements and innovations that will support the growing community of LHI users and partners. I am also inspired by how LHI has grown.

Also during my visit to NYC, I was able to spend some quality time with Joi who is now walking and dancing. She is saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

A little woman after my own heart!

On January 15, 2013, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel on Pro Bono Opportunities as part of Practicing Law Institute’s Bridge the Gap program for newly admitted attorneys. The panel featured Laren Spirer (Pro Bono Manager, Debevoise & Plimpton), Melissa Godwin (Senior Associate, Shearman and Sterling), and Klara Ng (Staff Attorney, inMotion), who each brought a unique perspective to the questions “Why pro bono? And how?

Surveying the crowd, we discovered that many in the room had participated in at least one pro bono activity previously. But could these newly admitted litigators make pro bono a part of their careers as they started down a demanding career path that includes long hours devoted to paying clients? We set about addressing many of the main concerns attorneys have about pro bono. I began the discussion by posing a simple question:

Why do pro bono at all? Aren’t there numerous legal aid organizations that attend to these needs?

The need for pro bono cannot be understated, and Klara offered some sobering statistics from the New York Courts about the lack of legal help among New Yorkers. Out of a population of eight million, more than 20 percent live below the poverty line. Klara added that of those, 1.2 million had one or more legal problems. In 2011, more than 2.3 million were forced to navigate the system on their own. The simple reality is there are more people in need of services than there is help to go around. Melissa and I noted that the Legal Aid Society is forced to turn away 8 of every 9 people that approach them for help due to lack of resources. Laren added that many areas of need for civil legal services involve issues fundamental to people’s everyday lives, such as housing.

So it is obvious that the need is overwhelming, but so is a busy work day: how do you find the time?

You need to make the time, said Melissa. She stressed the importance of pro bono to professional development. She added that not only does it give you the chance to hone your skills, but it offers the partners a chance to see you in action while getting you outside the walls of the firm. Laren noted that it forges good connections for the future. Both she and Melissa noted that friends or colleagues of theirs had found themselves on a new career path thanks to their pro bono work.

If you make the time in your day, how do you find cases or issues that interest you?

“There is a flavor of pro bono for everyone [whether you are] looking for a particular skill, area, or type of client,” said Laren. The panelists all agreed that many different types of pro bono opportunities existed. They also suggested that newly admitted attorneys look to housing and family courts for great opportunities to litigate cases in court.

Each of the panelists had unique experiences sharing or finding pro bono opportunities. As the Pro Bono Manager for her firm, Laren communicates with many nonprofit providers such as inMotion, and is always sharing various pro bono opportunities with her colleagues. Melissa found many opportunities within her firm by reviewing the cases regularly sent around by email. By simply responding to an email, she was able to work on an amazing case in which the pro bono teams helped to overturn a conviction for murder and free their client after many years of wrongful incarceration. While the chance to change the course of someone’s life was strong motivation, Melissa also emphasized all the skills she acquired as a young associate. At the case’s completion, a colleague told her he’d been waiting his whole career to work on a case like that.

But you don’t have to wait for an email for the perfect pro bono case to come along; sometimes you may be the one to bring the case to the firm. Laren talked about her own experience bringing clients to the firm. She had a personal association with a small organization, Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. When she found out the organization needed legal assistance to incorporate as a nonprofit, Laren stepped in. She said that cases are frequently brought to the firm because of personal connections to organizations or individuals.

With so many opportunities and benefits, what’s the hesitation?

For those doubting that they have the necessary skills to take on a case, Klara said not to worry. Most civil legal services organizations have training programs and extensive mentoring. Laren added that, even if you’re not an expert, you can take a pro bono case. You’ll have the opportunity to ask numerous questions of experienced practitioners and learn in a hands-on manner. You’ll also gain confidence by realizing how much your legal training has already prepared you for.

And at the end of the day, Klara added, you’ll receive the reward of helping those in need. So, “why pro bono?” The better question is “why not?”

– Adam Friedl is the Pro Bono Coordinator for Pro Bono Net.

As we blogged about last month, Pro Bono Net was well-represented at LSC’s 2013 TIG Conference in Jacksonville, FL with Claudia Johnson, Mirenda Watkins, Xander Karsten, Jillian Theil, Tony Lu, Jim Wiegand and I attending and presenting several workshops. In addition, Pro Bono Net Executive Director, Mark O’Brien attended LSC’s Summit on the Use of Technology to Enhance Access to Justice, held just before the conference kick off.

One of the personal highlights of TIG for me was getting to connect in person with the dedicated and creative community of people who work on LawHelp.org, probono.net and LiveHelp projects. More than 50 project staff and stakeholders attended the LawHelp Network session, and throughout the conference I learned about a number of exciting statewide website developments. One such example comes from our partners at the Northwest Justice Project, which has integrated WashingtonLawHelp.org resources with its online intake system, CLEAR*Online, to provide applicants with relevant self-help information at the end of the intake interview. And both WashingtonLawHelp.org and LawHelp.org/NY have developed robust online outreach programs, including regular e-newsletters to several thousand clients, advocates and community groups.

Similarly, Vince Morris and Kim Marshall from Arkansas Legal Services Partnership also presented a great session on methods to increase and maintain quality content for statewide websites. Stay tuned to the TIG conference website for an archive of all workshop materials.

Resources from the LawHelp Network session are online now:

January 2013 LawHelp TIG Network Session PowerPoint

2013 LawHelp Program Initiatives

2013 LawHelp and probono.net Technology Initiatives

2013 Statewide Website Marketing Support Initiatives

On February 28th, we will reprise the LawHelp Network session as a webinar. Join us at 11am PST / 2pm EST to learn about new program and technology resources available through PBN to grow your LawHelp and probono.net projects! Email me at lkeith@probono.net for webinar details. The webinar will be 75 minutes.