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

Richard Zorza, Esq.

Paper Three: Content Provider and Aggregator Capacity, Need and Restructuring

Introduction

This paper focuses on the capacity, potential and resources of organizations that provide and integrate legal information to the poverty advocacy community.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. 

Summary

The existing content provider network brings great skill, much knowledge, and many strengths and resources to any potential national legal services information network and current innovations highlight the potential of such a network.However, in general, technological capacity is too limited, and the system, unplanned as it is, will need strengthening and structuring, and above all integrating, if it is to meet the long term need and potential of the advocacy community.

As Discussed in Paper Two, Notwithstanding the Quality of its Members Work, the Existing Support Network is Inevitably Characterized by Fragmentation and Lack of Integration with the Needs of the Field.

The general quality of the national back-up centers remains, of course, without question.

However, after the withdrawal of funding for the support centers, the centers became fully dependant on non-legal services funding.While maintaining their general excellence, the programs and focus of the centers have become somewhat divorced from the legal services community, with linkages being maintained as much by long standing relationships as conscious planning.Thus, while some centers have kept in close touch with field defined need, others have become largely independent.In most cases, day to day support for the field has inevitably become a much lower priority.[1]

As Similarly Discussed, Content Integrators Are Beginning to Take What is Offered by the Specialist Content Providers and Provide Services Needed By the Field Programs.

Clearinghouse, sometimes working alone, and sometimes in partnership with other support centers, has positioned itself as the “default” provider of legal information.It has emphasized “pure” legal information, cases and pleadings, while other organizations like CLASP/NLADA and MIE have added information about the management and structure of Legal Services and fundraising.

Prior to the 1996 changes, Clearinghouse was the premier provider of integratedcontent for the community, funded by the Legal Services Corporation.After the changes, it was able to generate some revenue from the bulk purchase system developed with the Legal Services Corporation, however that system replaced only part of its revenue.This forced a radical reduction in program.Clearinghouse continues to publish, continues to operate its paper clearinghouse, although now on a paid basis, and is building a web presence.[2]

Handsnet has been the other main legal services content aggregator.However, as can be seen by viewing any legal services e-mail list, the role of Handsnet in the community appears to have fallen, overtaken by the huge amount of data on the web, and the ease of obtaining program specific e-mail domain addresses.While the strength of Handsnet is the breadth of its social service reach, relatively little law is maintained on Handsnet (although back-up centers material is automatically trawled for content by WebClipper),[3] and it appears that the community no longer uses Handsnet as the major resource it once did.Unfortunately, the WebClipper project, discussed in technical detail in an accompanying paper, similarly does not seem to be as widely used as a useful resource for the community as it might be, notwithstanding its ambitious reach.It was less frequently mentioned in interviews than might have been anticipated.[4]

The Content Aggregators -- Existing Multi-purpose Support and Resource Providers -- Have Failed to Attract Sufficient Information Provider Energy or Consumer Demand to Guarantee Their Long Term Stability.

Thus, while these organizations continue to be used by programs around the country, and while they have a widely recognized “brand name,” they are far from approaching the levels of ongoing support to meet the need in a stable long term way.The problems start with the limited “business model” and extend to the limited constituency and the unwillingness of that constituency to provide support.

Notwithstanding their Importance and Contributions, the Substantive Content Providers Are Not Currently Receiving the Community Usage Or Support to Justify the Investments They Need to Make To Fulfill the Need. 

Before real progress can be made towards the creation of a new system, we must recognize that at this point the natural consumers of content, the local programs, are failing to provide the content providers with the financial and usage support that they need to make it possible for them to make the system investments needed to rebuild the system. 

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this.These include inadequacies in the work of the content providers.These inadequacies include lack up breadth of reach, lack of detailed local responsiveness, lack of use of technology to provide high quality up to date and well distributed content.

However, it must be noted that there remains a widespread reluctance within the consuming community to “carry the freight.”Many programs regard back-up information as a luxury, and are unwilling to pay for services.Others use informal networks of contacts to get free back-up services.The legal services community has always been weak at valuing the contribution of back-up services.The crisis created by the 1996 changes has not as yet changed this fact.

However, The Community Must Find a Way That The Many Suggesting Beginnings and Potential Content Provider Resources Discussed in Paper Two Can be Used Integrated into a New System.

Given the immensity of the need, and given the huge potential resources, we have to find a way to break out of this self-perpetuating and inadequate state of affairs. 

If there is no intervention, there will be slow and incremental improvement.Additional web sites will slowly be developed.The existing web sites will slowly come to include more and more of their organizations’ content.Additional content will be slowly be developed.More and more links between the back-up programs will grow on their web pages.The content aggregators will slowly do a better job of linking to material from their providers.

But none of this will transform a network that is not structured to meet the support and law reform resource needs oflegal services into a system that does provide that information. The key reason is that none of these changes will transform the chaotic and un-integrated relationship between content providers and consumers.The incentives just will not be there on either side, and any improvements will be driven by the realities of funding that do not reflect the needs of the whole system.

Therefore what is needed is more that myriad small incentives for improvement.Rather there is need for a broader transformative vision for integration of the potential resources into a broader system.[5]The implementation of that vision must be grounded in a detailed analysis of the potential and weakness of the provider and aggregator network that we now have.

For Example, Almost all the Former National Support Centers Have Web Sites – Some of Very High Quality -- And We Need to Figure Out How to Get That Information Out Much More Widely, Improve it and Integrate It into a More Broadly Envisioned System, and Create a More Ambitious Understanding of the Role That Such Sites Can Play.

Highlighting the support centers understaning of the potential of technology is the fact that almost all the still-existing support centers have web sites.[6]Although there are of course wide variations, these web sites appear as a general matter to be broadly used within the community and beyond it.[7]However, regardless of the strength of the individual sites – and it varies – the content remains fragmented.All the back-up centers still develop generate web based content by translating some of their paper content onto the web and few if any have “self updating” engines that make for speedy modification..

None of them have gone beyond carrying traditional document to generate web-conceived and web driven advocate assistance tools.[8]The furthest they have gone is to include tools that allow the whole site to be searched for key words.[9]Such tools will not just be downloadable documents.They will be on-line operations that act on documents and other objects to empower advocates in their tasks.

More prosaically, the sites, with perhaps a few exceptions, have only began to evaluate and understand how the technology can be used to meet the real day to day needs of the organizations with which they work. (there is much need for developing tools that will help organizations do so.)[10]They have failed to create the partnerships that outreach that will improve their utilization and thus their impact.[11]

Nor can we ignore that there are significant gaps in the content provider network.Some subjects, such as family law, have effective no support source at all, others such as farm worker law, have almost disappeared, and all the sources – through no fault of their own -- are no longer structured around the needs of the field advocacy community.

We Must Study and Understand the Reasons for the Current Situation of the Existing Aggregators.

The current situation described above with respect to the existing content aggregators is best explained as follows:

·Need for integration with users needs

·Need for market (field unwillingness to pay for or understand importance of use)

·Need for on-line tools that optimize usage and utility – beyond information

·Need for marketing

·Need for understanding what is really wanted by consumers (being driven by pre-existing or funder- driven roles)

·Need for technology skills[12]

·Lack of understanding the potential of technology and the Internet

Each of these inadequacies can be overcome.However, substantial energy and re-envisioning is required.

The Community Needs to Figure Out First How to Replicate and Spread Those Web Sites Which Do Provide Powerful Models of Providing Information to the Field, as Well as to Low and Middle Income Serving Groups, and the Client Population, and Then How to Improve Those Sites so That They fulfill the Potential of the Medium.

Those web sites that go beyond the mere re-distribution of paper content – and even those that do a good job of that task – must be nurtured to spread their skill and models to the rest of the community.At a minimum, these sites must be given the intellectual resources to make full use of their potential.Such resources should include:

·Marketing assistance with users

·Marketing and partnering assistance with gateways and portals

·Technology assistance to improve and create additional community building resources

·Assistance in providing support and assistance to other parallel sites.

Such resources may be available pro bono from within the technology communities and from the technology components of law firms.The development of any content consortium will be a major tool for providing this assistance.

Ultimately, however, we must find ways to creating a broad linking strategy that puts all the information – client or advocate – into the right hands.This is not just a matter of building better web sites, it is a matter of creating a new architecture, and a new way of thinking among advocates and client serving organizations.

Similarly, The Community Must Replicate and Integrate the Promising Experiments Which Show the Possibility of Using the Linking and Communication Building Capacity of the Internet to Create Support Networks Among Advocates.

Right now, there are number of relatively well known examples of using the Internet to create focused advocacy communities.Among the many listserves are the welfare advocates listserv and the welfare litigation listserv operated by the Welfare Law Center.There is an electronic newsletter issued by the Food Resource and Action Center. [13]

Most important, because it is conceptualized as a community building resource, is Probono.net.Probono.net offers resources, information, a calendar, discussion and feedback systems and news.It is divided up by practice area, and uses a specially engineered Cold Fusion interface so that each practice area can be maintained by non-techies.The project has been successful at recruiting attorneys in a number of practice areas, and is now expanding beyond its New York base to other cities.

The importance of the model is that it uses content, but focuses on the use of content and resources to build a community.It is that community that holds members, and provides an incentive to content providers to contribute their energy as content managers.We must find ways of building on this kind of model to create far broader and more comprehensive content-driven legal support communities.

Particularly Given the Wide Range of State Support Capacity, the Community Must Find a Mechanism for Nurturing and Replicating the beginning Models of On-Line State Support Networks that Use Web Gateways and Communication Systems to Provide Information and Keep Advocates and Community Groups in Touch. The Community Must Find Ways of Spreading this Information From State to State.

In the state support area, the problem is even more complicated.Of course many states now have no state support function at all, let alone any form of electronic state support.

However, a number of state support web sites are already functioning.As with the national sites, they vary in quality, level of innovation, and range of features, but all underline the enormous potential of the technology to re-create and expand the legal services community.[14]

In the long term we need to build on this base to find an equivalent model for state support, linking both traditional advocacy organizations and the community organizations that have been less directly involved with legal services or advocacy or services in the past.The states of New Jersey has thus far probably been most effective at using technology to achieve this result.New York[15] and Michigan[16] have made particularly good use of content-driven sites to keep people connected to one information source.

But here again, these models only begin to scratch the potential of the technology to transform the practice, by giving advocates the legal advocacy tools they need day to day to be effective.

We Must Find a Model that Supports the Technology Capacity to Develop, Maintain and Integrate These Resources.

These models will only reach their fullest potential if we find a way to keep resources flowing to the successful, a way to fill the gaps in the system when parts of the system fail to meet need and methods of pulling the information together so that it meets advocate and client needs. 

We Must Build a System in Which it is Assumed That Advocates and Client Groups Use and Support the Resource Routinely.

We must find a model in which it is assumed that no advocate is doing his or her job unless they are using the on-line self-updating tools.Minimum components include a requirement of continuous web access from every desk-top, a training expectation, and strong management and supervisor support.

We Must Build a System That Sustains Itself For the Long Term.

Finally, we must build the system so that resources are fully sustainable, either from the field users community or a long term stable source.

Conclusion

There are promising beginnings inthe current provider community.However the twin tasks of strengthening provider capacity and linking that capacity into an effective overall whole has only just begun.What is needed is more than just band aids, more money, or a few new centers.

We have to find a radically different relationship between the centers, the content aggregators and the field, and we have to find a way of supporting the work of the centers as they provide the content and substance that justifies such a relationship.

Copyright Reserved 2000


[1]It must be emphasized that this fact is reported by the directors of these programs with genuine regret, and with an awareness of the loss of program effectiveness occasioned by the loss of information from the field.
[2]The payment structure for this web resource is as follows:Certain limited content is available free to all.Additional content can be paid for on a subscription basis at a cost of $25 a month or $200 a year. This content includes unlimited access to case pleadings in electronic format (where available), case pleadings in hard copy, and articles from Clearinghouse from 1996 and previously.Finally, at a cost of $300 a year, subscribers to the paper edition of Clearinghouse can also obtain the prior year’s issues on line.Complete subscription is available at http://www.povertylaw.org/ibill/subfaq.htm
The site includes a search capacity, and includes the Hotline Library, which itself includes lists of Frequently asked questions from the AARP hotlines from a number of states. http://www.povertylaw.org/hotline/hotline.htm.This material could provide the core of a much larger legal information site/system.

 
[3]The original concept, launched in the early 1990’s was that each back-up center would maintain a password protected on-line resource of advocacy information.There was a wide range of quality and wide variation in provider commitment to this model.While some substantive areas proved highly useful, others, such as that of The National Center for Women and Family Law, perhaps reflecting its other problems, never fulfilled its responsibility to Handsnet, and that portion of the site never “came alive”.Thus the original concept has been replaced by an automated system.
[4]This project allows members to subscribe by interest and topic to daily updates of news.The news is obtained by automatic reads on a large number of public interest web sites, and by direct submissions to Handsnet. www.handsnet.org.It appears that most potential users regard the content as insufficiently focused for legal advocate needs.Perhaps more disquieting is the possibility that most potential users are not yet ready to make appropriate use of such an on-line resource.WebClipper costs $99 a year of $10 a month.Information can be obtained at www.handsnet.org/information1239/information.htm
[5]In a sense the situation is a small example of the broader points made in the Blueprint Report of the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology.That Report recommends a “big bang” to create a new way of thinking about nonprofits, technology, and the relationships between funders, nonprofits, and technology support organizations. http://www.nten.org/nsnt.htm.
[6]The following have sites: Center for Law and Education, www.cleweb.org; (About the Center, Current Federal Legislation and National Issuess; Title I and School Reform Project; Educational Rights of Students with Disabilities; High School Reform Project; CLE Resrouces; Useful Links); Center for Law and Social Policy, www.clasp.org (information on CLASP; descriptions of Projects; materials on TANF, child support, Legal Servies, workforce development, etc.; Project for the Future of Equal Justice); Child Care Law Center, www.childcarelaw.org (publications listing, general information about the program; Other Websites about Children);Farmer's Legal Action Group, www.flaginc.org(alerts, news, case summaries); National Center for Poverty Law, www.povertylaw.org (described in footnote above); National Center for Youth Law, www.youthlaw.org (Publications listings, publications texts, docket, articles and information relevant to youth law issues); National Consumer Law Center www.consumerlaw.org, (conferences, publications, training, attorney advice, free consumer information, broad set of useful links); National Economic Development and Law Center, www.nedlc.org (Newsletters, organization, staff and board, publication listings); National Employment Law Project, www.nelp.org (Initiatives, publications on-line and pulblicaions list, links); National Health Law Program, www.healthlaw.org (extensive searchable site including Consumer Resources, Medicaid, Legal Researcxh, Reproductive Health, Immigrant Health; includes on-line sign up for newsletter and donation and matching program link); National Housing Law Project, www.nhlp.org (publications, some materials, links); National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty, www.nlchp.org (project information, publciations, brief legal information) National Immigration Law Center, www.nilc.org (publications listing, subscriptions listing, on-line community legal education materials, materials on discrimination, etc.); National Senior Citizens Law Center, www.nsclc.org (listings of publications, on-line materials, consumer FAQs); National Veterans Legal Services Program, www.nvlsp.org, (publications listings, Agent Orange Information), Welfare Law Center, www.welfarelaw.org (Extensive site of news, links, legal information, materials and resources).
[7]The Health Law and Welfare Law sites must be lauded for their relevance to the community.
[8]For example, in this network, no one has developed a law “up-dater”, that allows a user to “run” a document through a site to see what cases or statutes have changed since the date of the document.No one has yet developed on line benefit calculation assistance engines (such as the DOS Micromax benefit maximizer developed for Massachusetts).No-one has developed tools that allow users to show the impact of a reform or proposed change on impacted communities.These are only examples, but they demonstrate the unique capacity of the Web to provide a different kind of tool for advocates.
[9]Remarkably, only some of the sites have this technology in one form or another.The technology is now routinely provided by web hosting services.For access to free search engines that can be added to as site, see, www.searchengines.net.
[10]For example, there is still relatively little surveying or registration of site users, little attempt to follow up with users, little attempt to link together users with common interests, and little outreach to far broader potential user communities.
[11]There is little attempt to make sure that sites are properly registered in the search engines, or to create the cross linking partnerships that generate traffic and thus impact and potentially revenue.
[12]Although Webclipper is sophisticated in its potential and some singe topic sites such as the Health Law one are impressive.
[13]Among the other listserves are the housing/welfare listser, the holistic representation listserv, a housing advocates and a domestic violence listserv, the national and state support listserves, an ABA pro bono listserv, and a legal services managers and a fundraising listserv, as well as those operated by the Consumer and Health Law Centers.
[14]Major sites with a state focus (in their materials, if not necessarily their progrm reach) include: Arizona, Arizona Justice Institute, www.azji.org (sponsored by LSC grantee and law firms, includes some legal information,); Massachusetts, Neighborhood Legal Services, www.neighborhoodlaw.org (extensive self-help materials, pro bono materials, and links); Maine, Pinetree Legal Services, www.ptls.org (extensive self-help and forms), Michigan , Michigan Poverty Law Program, www.mplp.org (brief bank, training information and materials, task force meetings, client education materials etc.); New Jersey, Legal Services of New Jersey, www.lsnj.org/ (documents aimed at attorneys, project descriptions); New York, Western New York Law Center, www.wnylc.com (excellent news updating system, discussion groups, training calendar, links, substantial advocate oriented welfare material, including hearing decisions library, fact sheets and manuals, software resources); Rhode Island, Rhode Island Legal Services, www.rils.org (client materials, “staff only” section, extensive pro se materials, large text and Spanish versions, newsletters, link to Hotbot search engine): Washington, Northwest Justice Center, www.nwjustice.org (extensive multi-lingual client information library).Note that neither the above list nor the above descriptions are comprehensive.The descriptions exclude standard items such as office directories.On these state state sites there is a relative absence of easy to find or use search tools.
[15]The site is www.wnylc.com.
[16]The site is at www.mplp.org.Interestingly, it includes the brief bank is operated in conjunction with the Michigan State Appellate Defenders Office.The overall site describes itself thus “The Michigan Poverty Law Program (MPLP) is a cooperative effort of the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project, Legal Services of Southeastern Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School.An important model.