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

Richard Zorza, Esq.

Paper Two: Legal Advocate Need and Potential

Introduction

This paper explores legal information needs of poor people’s legal advocacy organizations.The paper is one of a series prepared under the Chicago Kent Law School/Open Society Institute Consultancy on the Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Serve Them.[1]

Summary

Despite superb contributions, the current system of delivering legal information to legal advocacy organizations is highly fragmented, irrational, and inefficient.Notwithstanding hard work and individual state and subject area success stories, the structure now in place reflects an idiosyncratic history, and an irrational funding structure, rather than any coherent need analysis or planThere is urgent need to rebuild the systems in ways that reflect the actual multi-faceted needs of the advocacy environment, a realistic view of the financing possibilities, and the rapidly growing potential of technology to meet these needs.

Part One:  The Need

Legal Information Needs of Advocates and Legal Advocacy Organizations can not be Analyzed Monolithically. 

There is a general tendency in the legal services community to analyze legal information needs from a single point of view, and then announce the urgent need for new resources.This approach is not helpful.Rather one must first identify the legal information needs that exist, need by need, and then analyze the extent to which these needs are met both in substantive and in geographical terms.

The First Need, Providing Basic Information and Training on the Law for New Advocates, is Sadly Lacking

There is a major gap in the system in that advocates new to poverty advocacy are often not being brought up to speed on the underlying legal environment in which they must practice.The annual “sub law” training, sponsored by NLADA while very valuable, happens only once a year, is expensive, and not available to all.The lack of this information encourages overspecialization since it makes it much harder for advocates to reach out beyond the area in which they have trained themselves.It thus also militates against experimentation with holistic representation.

More generally, the state of this basic introductory information is of a patchwork. Some state and some national information is available either digitally or on paper; much is missing. The information, even when it exists, is often practically unavailable because no one knows where it is, and it is un-integrated and disorganized.

It might be possible to create an on-line course for new advocates, produced jointly by the back-up centers and experts in on-line training[2], and customized to reflect state law and practice in partnership with state legal services entities.[3]

The Second Need, Keeping Advocates Up To Date About Changes in the law, Varies State by State and Practice Area by Practice Area.

Critical to quality practice is a system for keeping advocates up to date with changes in their and related areas of practice.

It seems that the well organized states already do a relatively effective job of keeping their advocates up to date on changes in the law, many mainly on paper or through coalition meetings and training programs, supplemented electronically.

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However, many states, generally those without effective back-up mechanisms, do a very poor job in this area.It is very open to question whether these states will catch up on their own or whether some program of aggressive state by state intervention is needed.

It is suggestive that Government information is, at least compared to legal service information, relatively well organized and accessible on the Web, and helps fill this gap.[4]

The Third Need, for Cross Jurisdiction Comparison Research and Support, is and is not Met, by a Similar Mixture.

Cross jurisdiction research is very much of a patchwork depending on topic, region, history, resources.Where the work is done, it is being done by the back-up centers, and subject to the problems discussed in Paper Three.

The Fourth Need, Support for Law Reform, is Now Generally Weak.

While there are exceptions, such as in the welfare area, national support for law reform is generally weak, with focus being on those areas for which targeted funding is available for the back-up centers.[5]This weakness is, of course, a reflection of the significant decline in impact litigation, a decline in part triggered by the congressional restrictions and by funding cutbacks.There are still too few unrestricted organizations, and those that exist are small.

State law reform support depends heavily on the strength of the state support center, if any,When there are exceptions, they tend to be narrowly focused.

Most of the support that is available is not provided electronically, but still happens person-to-person or on paper.Paper systems are massively under-utilized relative to the investment in the resource.Slowly listserves are filling some of the gap.

The Fifth Need, for Cheap, Efficient, Quick Legal Research, Is Met Only by Over- Priced Commercial Services

As a general matter, there is an inadequate commitment to legal research at the program and staff level.With the focus on the day to day caseload, research skills atrophy.An exception is the group of policy-driven and national support programs whose staff have the capacity to do their own research. 

The problem with commercial legal research is the cost.Indeed, one of the repeated technology assistance demands from the field is for a nationally negotiated discount from these commercial providers.[6]

While it is not comprehensive, there now is a massive amount of free case and statutory information on the Internet.From a legal services point of view, this information is neither well linked or effectively organized.There is therefore a need to link all this information into legal services categories and gateways and into the tools that could be used by legal services advocates.[7]

Moreover, this information is not sufficiently used, partly because of inadequate training.

There is some reason to believe that private attorneys make better use of the paper documents available from Clearinghouse than legal services advocates do.

The Sixth Need, Finding the Key Experts to Help with a Problem, Depends Too Much on Historic Networks of Individual Connections.

The system of obtaining referrals to experts is highly inadequate.Referrals tend to be made to a small out of date and informal list, rather than make use of the broad range of knowledge and skill in the community.Thought might be given to helping solve this problem by using the technology to create automatic electronic mailing lists from groups of people who download the same information from resource sites.[8]

The Seventh Need, Cross Subject Area Research, is Only Just Beginning to be Met From Within the Network.

There is an increasing understanding of the need for “holistic” advocacy, advocacy that cuts across traditional areas at both the day to day client serving and the law reform levels.However, only the initial beginnings of this service have begun, with some programs attempting to provide services in this way, and with some networks of information sharing and cross area advocacy developing.

For example the holistic services listserve acts as an important tool for exchange of ideas about this area of innovation.[9]

As a General Matter, the Extent to Which These Needs are Met Varies Even More State by State, Than Topic Area by Topic Area.

As is all too well known, some states have no support system at all, while others have well-funded and well-embedded systems.In some states the support center is truly the flagship of the legal services community, while in others the need for such support is not even fully grasped.Given that most poverty law is now state based, and given that most of the above described needs must be met at least in part at the state level, these gaps are ultimately crippling.

Part Two: System-wide Barriers to Meeting Need

The Largest Overall System-wide Barrier to the Meeting of These Needs is the Absence of any Entity Taking Overall Responsibility for Coordination of How These Multiple Needs are Met.

While each player in the system identifies particular barriers to effective delivery of support information to advocates, the real reason is the absence of any centralized responsibility for organizing this function.

While the Legal Services Corporation is not formally prohibited by statute from facilitating a support system, it has been deprived of all funding resources to support such a system, and is thus effectively forbidden by having anything other than the most indirect effect in this area.In fact, however, the Corporation’s efforts to stimulate state planning have in practice facilitated state level analysis of, and investment in meeting support needs, particularly at the state level.

Similarly, while the Project for the Future of Equal Justice has included analysis of support and training needs in its processes,[10] and has worked to encourage the holistic representation idea, and the re-energizing of the Support Section of NLADA,[11] the relative paucity of its resources and the multiplicity of its goals have made it hard for the Project to play more than a hortatory role.

In some states, particularly those with either a strong pre-1994 state support function, or a strong IOLTA leadership, there remains a state support role.The quality of that role varies, and the scope of its connection to national support resources varies.

It is noteworthy that the organizations of national and state support centers that existed prior to 1996 have largely withered with the disappearance of their centralized funding sources.[12]

System-wide the Consumers of Support Remain Largely Unwilling to Finance the Support Function

As the old support centers found whenthey tried to get legal services programs to pay a voluntary tax to support those centers, the field tends to be unwilling to take responsibility for the need to pay for its support needs.[13]Rather, at least with respect to national support, the field tends to expect support to be funded from outside, or simply does without.Moreover, once the habit of consulting support disappears, the perception of need follows too.The relatively rapid turnover of field staff further accelerates this trend.

Similarly, Consumers of Support Often Remain Un-persuaded of the Need for, and Value of, Support.

Particularly in the light of this history, too many field programs appear to have lost touch with the need for national support.They have come to see their work as involving day to day “less complicated” problems, rather than the more difficult problems that need national support.Of course, while there is an element of truth in this, it excludes the need for quality and sensitivity to complexity in any legal task, and the range of needs described in the first part of this paper.

In contrast, larger statewide programs, and long-serving legal services staff continue to maintain relationships with national support centers.These relationships may give the Support Centers the field information that they need, but alone they do not meet the support needs of the field.

The Former Providers of National Support Have not Figured Out How to Provide It Efficiently and Broadly in the Current Environment.

As discussed in substantial detail in Paper Three, partly as a result of the resulting lack of resources, but also for historical and structural reasons, and with exceptions, the national support centers have not figured out how best to fulfill the support needs described above.At this point they can no longer see the legal services programs as their primary service constituency and they report great difficulties in raising money to fulfill that "routine" function.This may in part be because the funding community feels that the consumers of the service should pay their way.It may also be because the support programs have failed to make the case for the importance of the participation of the field constituency in advancing the particular agenda for which money is being raised.

While A Financial Support Mechanism is Critical for Any Stable Support Mechanism, it is a Mistake to Analyze the Potential and Need Primarily in Financial Terms.

The current relative failure of the back-up system is perhaps inevitably, usually analyzed in financial terms.The dramatic and relatively sudden elimination of federal funding had a devastating effect.It forced every back-up resource to scramble for whatever funding it could find, and re-structured them around funding imperatives.The more successful back-up centers now have larger budgets than they did in 1994.

However, the structure of funding does not answer the difficult question: what kind of support is really needed, and how can that be provided.

As Discussed in Paper Three, The Real Question is what Support System is Needed, and How is it Integrated with, and Itself Supported by Service Delivery.

There is a need for a very different infrastructure, one that meets the complex above described needs of the field and that provides the funding to those who meet needs.

Part Three: Potential for Overcoming the Barriers

There is, however, substantial potential for overcoming all these barriers.

There is Potential in the Huge volume of Accumulated Legal Information Materials

Between them, the legal services backup providers have developed a huge volume of legal information in various electronic and non-electronic forms, and significant skill in sharing it.This content covers a huge variety of areas, and is structured to meet many kinds of needs.It is, at least with respect to poverty practice, absolutely unique.

There is Potential in the Human Resources of the Network

Legal services programs, the back-up centers, and the collaborating organizations that are not formally considered back-up centers, have a huge reservoir of stored human experience and knowledge in this area.Once again, this is unique.Often much of this potential is effectively unused.It is called upon only in informal networks, and too little of the knowledge is captured in ways that maximize its distribution.

There is Potential in the Emerging use of Technology

While the legal services movement is often self critical about its usage of technology, the fact is that most of the back-up centers are making efforts to use the web to distribute their products. Perhaps most noteworthy are Clearinghouse’s steps toward a central electronic repository, Handsnet, the Welfare Law Center’s Link Project, and The National Center for Health Law’s Web site.[14]

There is Potential in the Governing Ideology of Legal Services – the Strong Anti-monopolistic and Sharing value.

The willingness of legal services staff to share in a common cause is legendary.This provides a great basis on which to build a sharing-based information system.

Put Together Correctly, a Multi-facet Internet-Enabled Support System Could Fulfill Many of these Needs, But Only If Carefully Planned, and With Flexibility from Existing Players.

Put together carefully, so that it educates the field about the potential and the need, while meeting that need, and so that it draws in providers while providing them the support to do the work, such a system could be transformative.

Conclusions

The effective absence of an integrated support mechanism is seriously weakening the effectiveness of legal services as a whole.

Building an effective system will require a large scale rethinking of roles and relative relationship of the support organizations -- state and national -- and the field and the creation of some function that coordinates the meeting of need.This rethinking canbe assisted by technology, but the problems will not be solved by technological innovation alone.

Copyright Reserved 2000


[1]It should be emphasized that this paper does not address the direct information needs of the client population. Unlike Paper One in this series, this paper focuses on the needs of those who advocate for the members of poor and middle income groups.
[2]One example is the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction, www.cali.org.
[3]Such a program would be greatly useful for clinical programs and for pro bono attorneys.The development of such a program, and its updating, might be appropriate for a partnership with law schools.
[4]One good index into these sites can be reached at www.search-it-all.com/government.asp.
[5]Ironically, for the reasons discussed in Paper One, while the field commitment to welfare representation has radically weakened, the national welfare focus, perhaps perversely strengthenedby the welfare focus of the 1995 restrictions, has become stronger, with the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Welfare Law Center particularly active.The Welfare Information Network, http://www.welfareinfo.org, also acts as an information source.Of course, financing remains an issue, and the actual delivery or use of that support remains a patchwork.
[6]Various ad-hoc systems have developed.Some programs make user of law-student research.Others of pro bono services from law firms.There are suggestions that Lexis is willing to provide no-fee services to subscriber lawyers for research associated with their pro bono cases.As of this writing, the Corporation is in the process of discussing such bulk discounts with the leading providers.
[7]The leading portal for this free information remains the massive Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. http://www.law.cornell.edu.
[8]A simpler solution would be an on-line database, but the problem would be keeping it up to date.
[9]Potential subscribers may contact the listserve at n.patel@nlada.org.
[10]See, Discussion Draft, Comprehensive, Integrated Statewide System for the Provision of Civil Legal Assistance, at www.equaljustice.org/Compdft.htm.
[11]See, generally, the above website.
[12]There remains a Support Section of NLADA, which combines both the old National Support group OLSBUC (Organizations of Legal Services Back-Up Centers) and the parallel State Support grouping.The Support Section now meets twice a year under the auspices of NLADA, including at the Annual Conference.For natural reasons that flow from funding self interest, the Support Section inevitably receives less support and attention from its members than did its predecessor organizations.
[13]It would be easier to take this as proof of the absence of need for support were there not a similar history of legal services unwillingness to invest in effectiveness in areas such as technology.
[14]A comprehensive list appears in Paper Three.