Legal Information Access for Poor and Middle Income People,

and for the Organizations that Advocate for them: 

A Comprehensive Internet-Empowered Plan

Richard Zorza, Esq.

Developed in Cooperation with the Chicago Kent College of Law 

The Law and Society Program of the
Open Society Institute

Copyright Reserved 2000

Recommendation Group One: Legal Internet Self-help Portal (LISP)

A. Easy-to-Use State-Specific Self Help Portal

There should be an easy-to-use and broadly known central gateway or portal to client-oriented state-specific self-help legal information provided by legal services programs on the Internet.  The LISP portal, and the information that is accessed through the portal, must be comprehensive and timely and must be structured around the way lay people view their problems, not the way lawyers or other professionals do.  The Portal should be built so that legal services programs could use a customized version of this portal as their public Internet presence.  The Portal should be built so that any user can chose on a menu first what kind of problem they face, and then the specific problem.  Since they will have logged in by zip code, they will then get state specific legal rights information, as well as legal services program referral information, and links to on-line tools, such as court document generators and relevant social service resources.

B. Diagnostic Tools

The site and its content should be built to include diagnostic tools and warnings so that lay users understand the risks of self-representation, and can make informed choices about whether, in the circumstances, they should choose to proceed without counsel, obtain counsel, or postpone action until counsel is obtained.

C. Serving the Unserved

The site – and the institutions that maintain it --  should be structured to take maximum advantage of the exposure it will obtain to millions low and middle income people not currently served by legal services, and to take advantage of the revenue potential.  This should include the broad gathering of information on legal problems, the ability to develop lists of those helped by legal services information, the capacity to keep people up to date on future developments, and a fundraising tool focused on those helped by the legal-services-provided resource.

D. State-Based Planning for Content

The Legal Services planning process in each state should establish a system for identifying, converting, writing, submitting and updating a comprehensive set of self-help legal content that meets these standards of quality, comprehensiveness and accessibility for the state.  The system should include powerful financial and other incentives for the contribution of content.

E. Data Standards

An Internet data structure standard for self-help client information should be established.  Such a standard will make it possible for self-help legal information associated with the portal to be received , integrated and distributed through a wide variety of places and organizations on the Internet.

F. Community Advocacy and Service Collaborations

To maximize its strength and impact, the Portal should be conceived, developed, filled with legal content, positioned and marketed in close collaboration with a wide network of non-legal service providers, including civil rights and other advocacy and community organizations (e.g. public libraries, schools and churches), nonprofit groupings (e.g. unions, bar associations) and courts. The collaboration of courts is particularly crucial and holds particularly great potential.

G. Evaluation Systems

The Portal should be designed and operated with a variety of feedback and evaluation systems, designed to give information on the utility of the portal and its legal information and on the responsiveness of the legal system to those who must rely on self-help information to protect their rights.

H. Integration with Other Modes of Service Delivery

The LISP should be designed, built and operated with a view to maximum integration with other modes of legal service delivery.  It should be planned to include diagnosis, referral and intake linkages, and should provide planning and management information to assist in advocating for, and optimizing all modes of legal assistance, including the traditional model.


Group Two:  The Legal Advocate Desktop

I. Advocate Desktop

There should be a web-based national Legal Advocate Resource and Information Desktop, designed to use to Internet to provide constant on-line access to every advocate in the legal services and community advocacy communities.  This should be fully customizable so that each advocate would use this as his or her on-line "base of operations," and structured to allow for and encourage the input of up-to-date legal information and news from a large variety of national, state and local legal services and advocacy organizations. The main menu will give advocates access to up-to date legal developments, training materials, calendars, news, as well as a broad range of legal research tools and manuals.

J. Tools and Content

The Desktop should combine a wide variety of types of timely, comprehensive and accurate content (such as news, calendars, legal content, and training materials) from local, state, and national advocacy organizations, both LSC and non-LSC funded.  The Desktop Portal should include tools for communication and community building to help reconnect the Legal Services movement.

K. State-Based Content System

To provide for state level comprehensiveness, every state should establish a system for identifying, converting, writing, and submitting a wide variety of types of advocate-oriented legal content for its jurisdiction into the Desktop.  It should also create the systems that manage and support this process.

L. Quality Control and Comprehensiveness

The Desktop and each state system must  be built to provide for quality control and comprehensiveness of the information.  This will require significant human intervention to evaluate and categorize the information.

M. Content Generating Partnerships

Each state must exploit the opportunities inherent in a variety of content generating partnerships to support its Desktop users.  Different kinds of partners will be more or less appropriate for different types of content, including civil rights and other advocacy groups.

N. State Planning and Access Partnerships

The State Planning Process, in cooperation with the national coordinating group described below, must take responsibility for encouraging the creation of a wide variety of access partnerships for the Desktop.  These partnerships will facilitate both Internet access for community organizations and their advocates and holistic representation.

O. Independent Stable Financial Support

In close cooperation with the national coordinating entity recommended below, the overall state responsible group must generate long term, content-independent and secure financial support from a wide variety of sources.  This support must be integrated with, not an add on to, the core mission of legal services.

P. National Level Content

The Advocate Desktop should be built so that a large network of nationally focused specialist organizations, including the former back-up centers and other organizations providing such information and resources can collectively be responsible for comprehensive and integrated national level self-help and advocate legal information including civil rights and related community advocacy.  This should function across the entire spectrum of need, both in terms of the substantive areas, and the different kinds of support needed.

Q. Support for National Functions

A wide variety of stable long term and integrated resources must be found to support this range of national back-up and resource work. Strenuous efforts should be made to generate resources from use of the content

R. Legal Advocacy Data Standard

To facilitate this, thought should be given into whether a Standard Data Structure (such as XML) for legal advocacy backup info should be found or created.  Even if such a structure were not initially implemented, the first version of the Desktop should be designed to comply with future XML standards.

S. Communications and Networking

National and state responsible organizations must collaborate to take advantage of the Portal to stimulate a broad range of routine one to one, group to group and community advocacy interactions, including advocate/advocate, expert/advocate, community/advocate and community wide communications.


Group Three:  Overall Coordination and Facilitation

T. Coordinating and Facilitating Process and Entity

Given the complexity of the relationships needed to advance these portals and the need for universal “buy-in”, a national principles-driven coordinating and facilitating process should be established to explore how best to build appropriate state and national content relationships between the gateway and the content providers and the Content Consumers.  The process should explore the creation of a more formal institutional capacity to manage these relationships and associated tasks in the long term (hereafter referred to as an entity).  The process and any entity should be simple and low-overhead, designed to maximize the participation of all partners.

U. Appropriate Principles

To build an organization that meets these goals, the community must carefully engage to craft the most appropriate principles.  Key principles might include those of Access Maximization, Cost Minimization, Fair Return, Independence and Neutrality, Maximization of Distribution, Comprehensiveness, Interoperability, Scalability and Incentive.

V. Revenue from Attorney Advertising

The facilitating entity should seriously explore how to generate money by attorney advertising on the Self Help Portal and to channel the money to content providers.  State specific advertising should be coordinated by appropriate groups in each state.  Consideration should be given to subcontracting the revenue generating function and preference should be given to taking advantage of existing bar relationships to manage the attorney advertising.

W. Relationship to General Portals

The facilitating entity should negotiate relationships with existing general content portals such as Excite, AOL Time Warner, and Netscape NetCenter.  Such relationships can bring users to the Self-Help Legal Sites, and get legal content to those in need.

X. Relationship to Legal Content Providers

The facilitating entity should also explore relationships with existing on-line legal content providers and self-help and legal gateway initiatives.

Y. Standardized Submission of Data and Revenue Return

The facilitating entity should enter into agreements with network of back-up centers and legal services content aggregators for standardized submission of data.  Revenue should flow to these providers, and the National Entity must develop appropriate rules for the distribution of this revenue.

Z. State Content Relationships

As described above, the facilitating entity should negotiate content providing relationships with appropriate partners in each state.  Preference should be given to existing groups of LS providers, provided they can demonstrate capacity and integration.

AA. National Content and Access Partnerships

The facilitating entity should create focused collaborations with national level nonprofit special interest groups such as unions, courts, law schools, for the creation and enhancement of content and for maximizing user access to that content.

BB. Central Functions

The facilitating entity should be responsible for a variety of functions that must be handled centrally, including the design and maintenance of the portals, the coordination of the system, broad programs of training and outreach to maximize community buy-in and portal usage, and designing both portals to take maximum advantage of the ways that each portal can strengthen the other, including in terms of content and financial support.

CC. Facilitation of On-Line Content

The facilitating entity should facilitate the development of on-line content.  It should provide training in development of content.  It should design,  develop and distribute on-line tools such as content generators and literacy-level testers.  It should encourage model state development and research and development about how to integrate new technologies into the content of the self-help portal and advocate desktop.

DD. Structure for Flexibility

The facilitating entity itself should be structured for maximum flexibility, and to minimize the possibility of external political control.

EE.   Board Membership

To the extent that an entity with a formal Board is ultimately found appropriate by the process, membership of the board of the entity should be structured to include those with the legitimacy and perspective to build a transformation facilitating entity, but should not include those whose institutional relationships would inhibit the development of the appropriate contractual relationships.  Consideration should be given to having the initial board nominated by the funding community.

FF.   Advisory Group

Regardless of the form that the institutional capacity ultimately takes, an Advisory Group to that entity should be created, and should include representatives of groups that for legal or political reasons should not have formal authority for the conduct of the conduct of the entity but whose participation will be critical to the success of the innovations here proposed.

GG. Use of Information About Users

The entity should be structured so that the information gathered from users could be used to provide users with legal news, to advocate for policy changes, or for Access to Justice issues.

HH. Maintaining Flexibility about Use of Information

The entity should take care to protect the flexibility of the community to make broad use of the information gathered from the Portals.

II. Access Consortium

The national entity should create a consortium of groups interested in broad poor and middle income access to legal information.  These groups would work together to help overcome access-to-technology issues.

JJ. Mutual Access and Portal Linking

In addition, the facilitating entity should negotiate mutual agreements for access to content with a wide variety of special interest groups.  These agreements will create permanent linking of portals.

KK. Advocacy With Respect to Access to Self-Help Information

Given that legal self-help and pro-se remain legally controversial, it is important that the legal information facilitating entity should engage in for research and advocacy with respect to maintaining and expanding the right of lay people to access and make appropriate use such information.

LL. Broad Financial Support

The system should be structured so that it can be supported by a number of financial models, at least in its early phases.  These models should include adverting, user fees, program support and outside funding.   In the short term, the entity itself will need seed money.

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