The Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations
that Advocate for Them
Richard Zorza, Esq.
Two: Legal Advocate Need and
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.
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
Legal Information Needs of Advocates and Legal
Advocacy Organizations can not be Analyzed Monolithically.
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.
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.
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,
and customized to reflect state law and practice in partnership with state
legal services entities.
The Second Need, Keeping Advocates Up To Date
About Changes in the law, Varies State by State and Practice Area by Practice
to quality practice is a system for keeping advocates up to date with changes
in their and related areas of practice.
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
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.
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.
The Third Need, for Cross Jurisdiction Comparison
Research and Support, is and is not Met, by a Similar Mixture.
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.
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.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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
this information is not sufficiently used, partly because of inadequate
is some reason to believe that private attorneys make better use of the
paper documents available from Clearinghouse than legal services advocates
The Sixth Need, Finding the Key Experts to
Help with a Problem, Depends Too Much on Historic Networks of Individual
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.
The Seventh Need, Cross Subject Area Research,
is Only Just Beginning to be Met From Within the Network.
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.
example the holistic services listserve acts as an important tool for exchange
of ideas about this area of innovation.
As a General Matter, the Extent to Which These Needs
are Met Varies Even More State by State, Than Topic Area by Topic Area.
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
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.
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.
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.
while the Project for the Future of Equal Justice has included analysis
of support and training needs in its processes,
and has worked to encourage the holistic representation idea, and the re-energizing
of the Support Section of NLADA,
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.
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.
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.
System-wide the Consumers of Support Remain
Largely Unwilling to Finance the Support Function
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
is, however, substantial potential for overcoming all these barriers.
is Potential in the Huge volume of Accumulated Legal Information Materials
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
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
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.
There is Potential in the Governing Ideology
of Legal Services – the Strong Anti-monopolistic and Sharing value.
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.
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.
effective absence of an integrated support mechanism is seriously weakening
the effectiveness of legal services as a whole.
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.