OSI Chicago-Kent Consultancy 

Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Advocate for Them

Interim Executive Report: Introduction and Summary

Richard Zorza, Esq.



The first phase of the OSI Chicago-Kent Consultancy on the Legal Information Need of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Serve Them, was designed in the Scope of Work as a review phase, in which the current state and potential of a number of aspects of the study were to be analyzed.[1]

A total of six separate preliminary mini-studies have been prepared.These studies, which are attached, in draft, offer tentative conclusions about: 1) the extent of direct legal information needs of poor and middle income people, 2) the equivalent needs of legal advocates for this population, 3) the state and potential of information providers and aggregators, 4) the state of the relevant technologies, 5) the potential for private sector partnerships, and, 6) the opportunities for community and other nonprofit partnerships.

These studies are designed to constitute the background against which planning and the development of recommendations will take place, and as such do not include and should be distinguished from such specific recommendations.The key components of these preliminary general conclusions themselves are summarized as follows:

I. The Legal Information Needs of the Poor and Middle Income Population

·There is massive unmet need for legal information directly accessible by the poor and middle income populations and the community organizations that serve them.Current on- and off- web submissions only begin to scratch the need, and even are, at least on the web, almost exclusively in English.

·That need will only properly be met through technology deployment and extensive partnerships with national and local networks of community based organizations.

·Those collaborations will only work if both the software and the collaborations are designed to meet the needs not just of legal advocacy programs and the clients, but also of the collaborating organizations.

II. The Information Needs of Advocacy Organizations

·Despite much superb work, the current system is idiosyncratic, fragmented, and it reflects funding needs and funder interest and partial analyses, rather than any integrated analysis of overall need.It is in urgent need of coordination and integration.

·The current system does not reflect the wide variety of needs, from new advocate training, to advocate legal updating, to support networking.

·The current system has components of great potential, including a unique and vast knowledge base, important technology innovations, and a commitment to a collaborative community.

III. The Content Provider and Aggregator Organizations

·Despite their success at institutional survival in the face of the loss of federal funding, and largely as a result of the pressures of that survival, the content providers (who generate the written legal information) and the aggregators (who bring it together) are not yet meeting the overall comprehensive needs of the legal services and advocacy comminutes.While they do enormously valuable work, they have been forced to focus on fundable projects and when possible on the needs of what they perceive as their constituency, rather than the need of the community as a whole.

·Similarly, while the need and potential of integrated content is great, the content aggregators are not yet succeeding in organizing the information in ways that have sufficiently engaged the potential user community.

·The user community has not yet sufficiency committed itself to supporting the content system that it needs and would use.

IV. Potential Private Sector Partnerships

·The mainstream legal content providers have tended to put little emphasis on the needs of this market.Where is reason for skepticism that this is likely to change with respect to self-help content, there is a possibility of partnerships aimed at the distribution of at least certain categories of advocate content.

·The variety of lay-targeted legal content providers on the web might provide appropriate partnerships for the distribution of client-oriented legal content..However there would be complex problems of pricing, culture and management that would need to be resolved.These matters should be explored.

·One or more of the wide variety of non-legal content aggregators on the web (also known as “portals”)might provide the ideal partner or partners for distribution of legal information content, as such a partnership would provide access to a huge volume of users, without competition between the partners.These potential partnerships should be aggressively explored.

V. The Potential of Technology Innovations

·Technologies of search, display, information standardization, and categorization will make the next generation of legal information far more extensive and far easier to use both for advocates and for the poor and middle income target populations.

·Technologies of information submission and web site data structuring will make a new system far easier to build and maintain, since the information gathering system can be greatly decentralized.

·Technologies of content management will make it possible to integrate data from different sources regardless of software, helping provide a technical solution to many of the political problems of information integration.

VI. The Potential of Partnerships

·The research identified a wide variety of potential partners, from Bar Associations to the Urban League, from law schools to the UAW,from senior centers to domestic violence organizations.The research confirmed widespread interest in such partnerships.

·These partnerships can assist with content, provide the physical Internet access and clients will need, and the support, help and follow-up that are critical to effective use of the resources.

·The partnerships must be built carefully with mutual respect for the complex of needs of all the parties;courts, for example, have special needs deriving from the required neutrality of their role.

These conclusions suggest the urgent need and the strong potential or technology facilitated partnerships to meet the legal information needs of poor and middle income people, and of the advocacy organizations that serve them.In the second phase of the project, as described in the Scope ofWork, a plan or plans will be developed to meet the needs, as identified in the first two papers, with the goal of making as much use of as possible of the resources and potential identified in the remaining four papers.

Particular attention will be paid to the structure of any innovation, the funding and long term self-sufficiency of any solution, and the complexities of meeting the interrelated and often competing needs of the players.

Copyright Reserved 2000


[1]Individuals associated with thefollowing organizations (among others) have been consulted directly in the preparation of these papers: American Bar Association, American Association of Retired Persons, American Judicature Society, Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Berkman Center of Harvard Law School, Brennan Center of Yew York Law School,, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, California Administrative Office of the Courts, Center for Law and Social Policy, Child Care Law Center, Children’s Defense Fund, CLEAR, Columbia Law School, CTCNet, FindLaw, Food Research and Action Center, Generations On-line, Glasser Legal Works, John Tull Associates, Law School Consortium of Law and Society Program of Open Society Institute, Forester Research, Free Law Consortium of Yale Law School, Georgia Legal Services Program, Law Foundation of New South Wales, LawHelp Consortium, IAPPS, Handsnet, iRenaisance, Legal Advice Line, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Legal Aid Services of Oregon , Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, Legal Services of New York, Legal Services Corporation, Legal XML Group, Lexis-Nexis, Libraries for the Future, Massachusetts IOLTA Program, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, National Association of IOLTA Programs, National Center for Health Law, Milwaukee Legal Aid (?), National Center for Immigrant Rights, National Center for Poverty Law (formerly Clearinghouse), National Center for State Courts, National Veteran’s Legal Services Program, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Consumer Law Center, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, National Legal Aid and Defender Support Section, National Senior Citizens Law Center, National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology (National Technology Enterprise Network), National Urban League, Nevada Legal Services, North Dakota Legal Services, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, New York IOLA, OMB Watch, Orange County Legal Aid (California), Oven Software, Pinetree Legal Assistance, Probono.net, Project for the Future of Equal Justice, Rockefeller Family Fund Technology Project, Technology Infrastructure Assistance Program (U.S. Commerce Department), Gerry Singsen, United Automobile Workers Union, Washington State Bar Association, Welfare Law Center, West Publishing, West Virginia Services Plan, Kathy Dee Zasloff.Close coordination has been maintained with the Information Management Advisory Group (IMAG) of the Project for the Future of Equal Justice.It goes without saying that any conclusions are the responsibility of the author, even with respect to any specific organization here listed or described.Additional research and consultations continue.