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

Richard Zorza, Esq.

Paper Six: The Potential of Community Partnerships, Holistic Problem Solving, and an Integrated Delivery System


This paper focuses on the potential for community partnering to help meet the legal information needs of poor and middle income people and the organizations that serve them.It is one of a series prepared under the Chicago Ken Law School/Open Society Institute Consultancy.

Summary: A High Potential for Transformative Partnerships.

Perhaps the most exciting potential of the technology-enabled legal information systems being planned is the possibility that they will help build far stronger and more effective relationships with community partners.

Community partners can be providers of content, consumers of content, and shapers of content.But much more important, they can become collaborators in the process of using content to help solve the legal problems of poor and middle income people.Moreover, in the process of that collaboration, we can move toward erasing the current political and ideological barriers between poor and middle income legal consumers.By so doing we can help build the political support for the systems that meet all of these inter-related needs.

Community Partners Can be Courts or Government, They Can be Neighborhood Based or National Networks, and They Can Offer A Wide Variety of Resources to the Partnership.

If the huge unmet legal need is to be met, a technology system alone will not be enough.To meet those needs, the system will need information from many sources beyond the traditional legal services network.The system will also need to create a myriad of gateways to the information it aggregates, integrates, and disseminates.These gateways will need to be both physical – places for people to get on line – and electronic – portals that connect to any new legal content integration sites.An extensive web of partnerships will be critical to making all this happen.Moreover, Since many of these potential partners work with people at widely varied income levels, such partnerships can help eliminate many of the false aspects of the believed distinction between the legal needs of poor and middle income people.

Below are detailed discussions of various of the potential community partners, of what they would bring to the partnership, of what they would need for the partnership to work, of models of how the partnerships might work, and of the overall implications of each potential partnership.

National Networks -- Libraries

Libraries have long seen themselves as information sources for their community.They have been leaders in creation of electronic access gateways to the Internet.They have been highly successful in attracting financial resources and legitimacy to this mission.[1]As such we can be comfortable that libraries across the county will be available as easy to use electronic access points for whatever legal information systems may be developed

Moreover, we know that electronic access is often not enough.Those in nee of legal information may not yet be sophisticated or technologically experienced enough to manage the access process on their own.It is thus particularly encouraging that many libraries are coming to experiment with a much broader view of their access role.In Brooklyn NY, for example the public library, in cooperation with a group called Libraries for the Future, has set up a project in which the libraries are used as on-line health information centers.A network of 30 community organizations feeds people to the libraries and at the libraries a trained staff person assists them to locate the on-line health information that they need.This is clearly an important model for potential similar legal information access sites at libraries and other similar institutions.

In a similar project, the Orange County California Public Library has announced a partnership with the local legal services program in which the legal services program, in cooperation with the court and local domestic violence program, will program court access software, and the library will offer the access and assistance that the client population needs to make use of this software.The first planned modules are domestic violence and eviction defense.[2]

If libraries are to function well as legal public information sites, the following tools and approaches will help build and facilitate the partnerships needed.

·Ease of access software

·Tools to manage paper and printing (a major library issue)[3]

·Training systems to bring library staff up to speed

·Writing software that is easy for volunteers to use as they help those in need

·Making sure that “unauthorized practice of law” issues are resolved[4]

·Developing model court-library-legal service-community organization partnerships so that these are seen as politically low risk.[5]

National Networks -- Unions

Unions are a natural partner for legal services. As a general matter, union members and legal services clients share many of the same legal problems.Moreover, as unions increase their organizing efforts into traditionally less well organized sectors of the population, their new members will be those who suffer discrimination, those who lack health insurance, who fear eviction, and those whose close relatives and friends are struggling with what is left of the welfare system. -- in other words those who share legal problems with the traditional legal services client group.[6]Union members are often desperately in need of legal assistance, and need access to help put together by those who understand their needs and whom they can trust.

As they expand onto the Internet, unions will want to make sure that their sites feature the kind of services and help that members need.If not, members will ignore the Internet web front page that the union offers, and go straight to Excite or some other portal. 

There are two important potential points of partnership entry into the union network.The first is the new plan of the AFL-CIO to create an internet provider service that will give members low cost access to the Internet, and bring union users to a uniform entry portal. The AFL plan to provide Internet access to millions of union members provides a potentially huge access partnership for any legal services legal information project.

The second point of entry is the significant union investment in pre-paid legal service plans.This commitment has resulted, particularly on the part of the UAW, in significant software development.Thus both access and content partnerships are realistic and potentially very useful.

The legal information content developed by these union prepaid plans offers the basis for a long term natural partnership.Unions have a similar target population, every interest in sharing their material, and no real competitive reason to hold that information close.Rather, they have every interest in making the information that they do have as accessible as possible to their members.Since, as a general matter, they have tended to develop materials for their attorneys rather than for their members, a partnership structured around making that information more directly accessible both to union members and a broader in-need population would serve everyone.Indeed, unions might regard public credit for such information as providing a useful public image enhancement and recruitment tool.[7]

Pension plans share many of the same interests, and would provide a more focused but general partnership opportunity.

For such partnerships with unions to come to pass, the following would be helpful:

·Structuring on-line gateways to information to reflect union membership concerns.

·Identification of, and focusing on, on-line self-help material relating to issues of special union concern

·Figuring out what unions as institutions can gain from this partnership

·Linking to training programs for union members

In summary, unions provide a potential key ally for maximizing the power and use of any integrated solution.

National Networks – Seniors

The senior networks, led by AARP, provide an equally important partner for such a system. These networks include Internet gateways, substantial legal content, and a large system of Senior Centers which can provide help to seniors in obtaining access.

AARP, like the unions, offers internet access to its members.[8]Like the unions, AARP has a massive membership, with a generally, but not exclusively progressive bent. Its members share a general set of policy interests, although they do not necessarily vote in accordance with their leaders interpretations of those interests.Interestingly, there is research that suggests that lower income seniors are less frustrated by the process of mastering the technology that higher income seniors.[9]

Perhaps more significantly, AARP, through its legal service plans, already controls a huge mine of state-specific legal content.The AARP legal services hotlines, now operating in many states, are backed up by substantial pro-se and attorney oriented materials.This material is in the process of being made specific to state law.[10]When fully state-specific, it will provide an excellent basis for a national on-line library of on-line content.(Of course the material is focused on the concerns of the elderly, and would need to be supplemented with additional topics.)

Finally, although not directly associated with AARP, seniors enjoy a massive network of service organizations, reaching into every community, and usually with a physical manifestation (a senior “drop-in” or community center), a paid staff, often supplemented with volunteers, and enormous public sympathy.These programs, with their professional but legally untrained staff, would be ideal gateways into legal Internet content.

Partnerships with elder-serving organizations will be facilitated by:

·Design that is sensitive to the special visual and access needs of the elderly.[11]

·Content that reflects the legal problems of the aging population[12]

·Access methodologies that are sensitive to the professional and volunteer staffs that serve the elderly.

·Cooperation in content development and integration that reflects the substantial base of already developed content aimed at this population.

National Networks – Urban Access Groups

There are now extensive networks of organizations dedicated to technology access for urban groups.The National Urban League, for example, is in the process of developing an extensive network of community based technology access centers.These centers provide both access to the net and the training and support that new users need.Similarly, CTCNet is a national network of organizations that are dedicated to providing such access resources.As yet, there is very little collaboration with legal services providers and these groups, or others like them, at either the national or local level.There has apparently been no need.

Both groups, and others like them, could become critical partners in the deployment of accessible legal content.As experts in getting urban dwellers on the net, and providing the support that is needed to make that access meaningful they would play a critical role.For such organizations, partnership with legal content providers would give them the tools to show the critical relevance of their work to the day to day lives of the people they serve.

Collaboration with such groups will be facilitated by the following:

·Attention of software designers to needs of such consumers

·Analysis of how to link the content sites with the community organizations’ sites.

·Focus on content that meets the needs of partner organizations

National Networks – Community and Social Service Groupings

Similarly, there is a huge variety of community and social service groupings that are only beginning to realize the power of the Internet to serve their members.Examples are the Girl Scouts, the "Y", "YW", and the Salvation Army.Interestingly, these organizations are affiliated in an organization called National Assembly, and their computer executives meet regularly, providing a potential gateway into these groupings.[13]

If it were possible to create a collective connection to this group, or to a significant portion of its members, that would provide dramatic leveraging of access to the content.Specifically, many of these organizations have hundreds of member or affiliates organizations, and many of them are slowly realizing the potential of the Internet to transform the lives of the people with which they work.The Girl Scouts, for example, as well as using the web to promote itself and recruit members, has programmed its site with specialized information and connection opportunities for its GirlScout members.

Many of these organizations target the poor and middle income group as among those they serve.Others serve people who work with or seek themselves to be of help to the target population.In either event, the potential of partnering exists.While the nature of such partnering will depend on the mission of the individual organization or network, the following will be helpful in bringing such partnering to fruition.[14]

·Developing legal content so that it appeals to, and helps, different constituencies

·Developing the content system so that it can be integrated into the display systems of other web sources.In this way a new legal site could provide the legal content for the client serving web sites of many different kinds of organizations. 

·Developing outreach materials so that other groups will want to develop such relationships with a new legal information system.

National Networks – Courts

The national network of courts is obviously a critical partner in the development of any such system.Courts feel the most pressure from the pro se revolution and the huge increase of un-represented individuals.Moreover, courts and legal services share a common fundamental mission: Access to Justice.The National Center for State Courts, the State Justice Institute, and the American Judicature Society are all working to respond to this now well-perceived need.[15]Moreover, partly as a result of the recent pro se conference and the process that led to it, many of the states have various forms of pro se planning or projects.

Indeed, there are many reasons for this natural partnership:Legal service and Community Programs bring a wide range of resources including skill and experience in the substantive areas and the techniques of communicating to the pro se population.It is only legal services and community programs which really know the poor.Courts must be careful not to build pro se programs that work only for people who have the resources to hire lawyers anyway, just choose not to.Like courts, Legal Service programs are obliged to plan for and take responsibility for everyone, not just for individual clients. 

However, there are powerful cultural barriers to effective collaboration.Courts must preserve the judges’ role as a neutral arbiters – but that that does prevent courts as institutions from helping making sure that everyone has the best chance to tell their story to that arbiter.Limitations on the Judge’s role do not necessarily extend to all in the court house.

Similarly, Legal Services Programs are advocates for poor clients – but that does not stop them from working with Courts to make sure that pro se programs are seen as fully consistent with the neutral role of judges.They can contribute to pro se programs without becoming arms of the court, or captives of the court, or captors of the court.Their contribution will always have a flexibility that the court can never have.

Moving forward on collaboration will require:

·Identification of national network partners

·Figuring out how the collaboration can preserve the neutral roles of courts while taking advantage of their critical role in the legal decision-making process

·Learning how to create sites that do advocacy, yet are acceptable to courts

·Figuring out the roles and relationships that will support this partnership.

·Model partnerships that are carefully structured, and designed for replication

·Involving local bar and communities in these partnerships

The Non-Profit Community – National and Local Networks

The local and national non-profit networks will be critical to effective deployment of such an innovation.Specifically, technology innovation groups, like the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology, now morphing into the National Technology Enterprise Network, can be of great use in evangelizing, and providing technical support to those partners that will otherwise be unable to play the role that is needed in creating and submitting content, and providing access to that content.

Many of the local nonprofit support groups are now becoming actively involved in technology support.Moreover, many new technology support groups are being formed.Examples are N-Power in Seattle, and DC Works in Washington DC.

These groups, now coalescing into a network will provide the parallel access support that a system as ambitious as the one needed to distribute legal content will require.


Issue Driven National and Local Networks

The issue driven national networks will provide critical partnerships.Examples of such groups include the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence,[16] and the national network of disability advocates.Many of these organizations already use the Internet as a recruiting and information tool.However, their legal force is inevitably limited by their inability to get out legal information.

The system under consideration needs to be able to make use of the legal content generated by these many organizations, and also to distribute to as broad an audience as possible the combined legal service and issue driven network is a good example of the use of technology by a central group that enables smaller issue groups to get their word out in an integrated way.

Effective collaboration with these groups will require the kind of electronic linkage that allows groups to make what use they want of information, without surrendering control to an outside entity.

Local Community Networks -- Schools

Schools will provide a critical access point for the system.There will be two main uses: by the young people themselves to understand their own legal situations, and by the young people on behalf or, and in support of their parents.

There are in place numerous networks of progressive educators, concerned with the huge potential of the Internet to expand education. Moreover, there are many school systems that have grasped this potential, and are working to make the resource as broadly available as possible.Government and the private sector has collaborated with particular intensity to make this access point available.[17]The StreetLaw program has shown the power of legal content in this educational environment.[18]

This there will be no problem finding model partners.The greater difficulty will be finding those partners in jurisdictions in which the other partners are ready for experimentation.For such partnerships to work, the following will be helpful:

·Software that works with young people and reflects their media expectations

·Content that reflects the legal interests of young people[19]

·Content and design that is built around the idea of a young computer savvy person working on line with an older person who has the legal problem.

·Design that deals with the problem of teacher supervision

Local and National Community Networks – Bar Associations and Other Legal Organizations

An additional critical component of the overall partnership are the bar associations and other legal organizations.These organizations can provide content and access.[20]But more importantly, they are a critical legitimating glue that can make possible the entire enterprise.

At both the national and local level, many bar associations have developed pro se or legal information materials.Such material could well be integrated into a more comprehensive system.In addition, the bar associations offer various forms of lawyer referral system.These systems could be integrated into an attorney advertising system that might finance the whole project.One advantage would be that a different non-legal services entity would then take responsibility for all the politically complicated issues deriving from the possible need to screen attorneys.

Most importantly, however, at both the state and local levels, bar associations can provide the leadership that would make a project such as this of use to, rather than a threat to, the organized bar.

Thus the example of the state of Washington, with its Access to Justice Board, a partnership of the judiciary, legal services, and the bar, provides an important basis on which to build.That Board regards access to justice as a high priority of the State Bar (as well as the other players) and is already engaged in a wide variety of technology and non-technology projects to engage as many groups as possible in providing access to justice. 

For such collaboration to work, the following would need to be addressed:

·A structure of information that integrates existing bar information

·A structure that provides access to information for private lawyers

·Systems that help those who need and can afford private lawyers get to those lawyers

·Building it so that it increases rather than threatens the role and legitimacy of the private bar.

Law Schools as Content, Access, and Support Partners

Law schools, with their large pools of relatively cheap labor, could provide an important partnership group.Law schools could, for example, agree to take existing pro se content and structure it for the web.They could draft pro se content, based on more formal legal materials, for review by legal advocacy programs prior to inclusion in any system.The Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute,[21] already the premier source of primary legal material on the web, would be a particularly appropriate partner.

Law schools could also expand their clinics to be provide legal information access points, and the clinic students could help clients use the system.Indeed, one way of looking at the software would be as a tool to make sure that student advice was high quality and reliable.Generally the main interest of law schools is likely to be providing their students an opportunity for real world practice engagement. 

Software and Tools for Community Collaboration

Certain common threads run through the analysis of the different potential partnerships.Perhaps most important is the idea that the structure of the content and the design of the systems that access the content must be “partner-friendly”, that is that they must meet the needs of, and support the world view of, the various different partners.

This may lead to the conclusion that not one, but several different gateways to the same information are required.Indeed, that the information should be structured so that it can be accessed and structured in a myriad of ways.That, of course, is what the Internet and particularly XML are all about.The challenge is to create the data structures and the front ends that are flexible to meet these myriad needs, while being easy enough to manage and distribute widely.

In Many Communities, Legal Services Organizations Have the Potential to Become the Technology Standard Bearers and Pioneers

Traditionally, legal services programs have been very self critical about their technology capacity, comparing themselves to often much better provided for private sector.[22]

Compared, however, to the other organizations in the neighborhoods which they serve, the legal services program is often “high tech.”It is the legal services program that has the office network and the Internet connection.It is the legal services program that has someone trained as a network administrator, and it is the legal services program that is connected to a larger statewide network of technology resources.

In the partnerships that may develop, the legal services community brings its technology leadership as an asset.


There are a wide and powerful range of potential supportive partners.Their participation can help guarantee effective access of legal information, and to the range of services that give that information meaning.

The task of building a system that engages the enthusiasm, data and potential of even a small portion will be difficult, but the payoff is potentially transformative in terms of expanding the reach of legal services to poor and middle income people, and the political and social power of the ideas that lie behind those service.

Copyright Reserved 2000

[1]It should be noted that the Gates Library Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already made grants to move than 1300 libraries to assist in technology access.This information is detailed at
[2]The software is modeled on that developed by the Fund for the City of New York for domestic violence project and for housing court eviction defense, .
[3]Since on-line library users, unlike those who have computers at home, end up printing out most of what they find for later review at home, the cost of paper and toner turns out to be a major disincentive for libraries to provide access.On partial solution is to redesign documents and search reports so that they use less paper to print.
[4]While this topic is worthy of a paper of its own, it seems safe to say at this point, that clarification of these issues will not be difficult so long as library partners provide no more than “information”.
[5]Another topic for a full paper.Once again, there is every reason for confidence that the perceived court neutrality needs can be overcome by careful structuring of the relationship.Of course, courts’ participation will provide great legitimacy to the legal services program’s participation.
[6]Perhaps less significant in terms of numbers will be the professionals who newly see themselves as union members.These groups are natural providers of content.
[7]Prepaid plans usually come with significant restrictions.For example the UAW plans prohibit assistance in any situation in which the employer, or any of its affiliates, are involved.Such prepaid plans might welcome access for their members to general sites covering, for example, redress under the automobile “lemon” laws.
[8]It appears that AARP is currently less aggressive than the unions intend to be in channeling that access to content.
[9]Generations On Line, the group that has conducted the focus groups that led to these conclusions, has hypothesized that retired professionals and managers are used to having problems solved for them, while lower income seniors are using to the frustrations of government bureaucracies and finding ways round them.Did you know that learning to use the Internet is like learning to deal with the welfare department?
[10]It is highly suggestive that the process of state-customizing this material has been largely performed by local legal services programs for relatively small contracting fees.
[11]A working prototype of such a site, developed by Generations On-line, can be viewed at group reports that sensible design for seniors should present only one idea on each screen, should be designed not to confuse, and that colors and fonts should be chosen to reflect the visual deterioration of the eyesight of seniors.In summary, a site should be test viewed though a sheet of yellow acetate, since that simulates the cornea of older people; blues and greens should not be used together; 12 point type is best; serif type with mixed capitals and lower case is best; bold is good and italic is bad.
[12]See, e.g. the Scams and Fraud Center at
[13]The full member list, together with links to their respective web sites, appears at
[14]As a general matter, the task of partnering will be made much easier by the emerging network of non-profit technology support centers such as N-Power in Seattle, and DC Works in Washington DC.
An additional aspect of such parnternships is to advance the use of data about commnities to assit in social imnrovement.A potential partner for such work might be the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, which describes itself on its website as follows: “The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) is a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute and local partners to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems in local policymaking and community building.”

[15]The recent AJS conference, sponsored by SJI and OSI, on courts and pro se, provided an important impetus to the possible collaborations between courts and legal services programs.Approximately one quarter of the states included people associated with legal services in their pro se planning teams sent to the conference.These individuals were nominated by the Chief Justices of their respective states.
[17]Perhaps the most dramatic example is Netday, the national government, school, volunteer and private sector partnership that aims to wire every
[18] organization already provides a useful gateway into legal self help materials of many kinds.
[19]It has been reported in the State of Washington that young people have less interest in what they elders think they should know (the constitution, civics, etc.) and are much more interested in the day to day details oftheir own legal rights (how should I deal with a cop?, when can I be arrested?).This is a strong argument for inclusion of general criminal information in any legal information system.
[20]Bar associations might be particularly helpful at brining the appropriate law librarians into the process.
[22]This was not always accurate.In the mid-1980’s, there was extensive legal services community interest in the potential of technology.Indeed the NLADA co-sponsored technology conferences attracted almost as many as the ABA conferences during that period.However, in the more recent term, disparities of investment, as well, until recently, as lack of management commitment, have had their toll.It is worth noting, as a general matter, that legal services programs have every incentive to use technology to reduce the cost of each case, while for a private sector billing by the hour, the incentive system is more complicated.