Tech Beat

VOLUME 1 ISSUE 1March 2003
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Tech Beat
by Michael Hertz and Mark O'Brien

2002 was a watershed year for Pro Bono Net. Our expansion from a handful of locations to almost 30 states meant tremendously increased usage of our two technology platforms: www.lawhelp.org and www.probono.net. To make sure that our partners, both new and existing, would receive the maximum benefits, we invested in a thorough rebuild of both platforms. As always, throughout the redesign process, we relied upon feedback from the field, especially the legal services communities in Minnesota and New York, to ensure the design would ultimately reflect the needs they expressed. To see a breakdown of how our platforms and programs are organized, take a look at Frequently Asked Questions.

LawHelp – Serving the Public

At the beginning of 2002, only one state – New York – had a LawHelp site. Developed through the collaboration of the LawHelp/NY Consortium, it provided legal referral and intake information for residents of New York City. Today, almost 30 states are building LawHelp sites. Ten states have launched these online legal information web sites to the public. Already, 4,000 resources and links have been published, organized within dozens of state-customized “channels” such as Know Your Rights (community legal education in New York), We Can Help You (referral information in the Virgin Islands), and Community Resources, (Michigan social service agencies). Together, the sites contain profiles of nearly 1,300 organizations that provide legal assistance to poor people. This represents an impressive amount of work by Pro Bono Net and the staffs of the nonprofit legal organizations using the platform.

LawHelp also allows each statewide site to be individually customized. Compare LawHelp/NY to the statewide site developed by the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii: both have been built on the LawHelp platform, yet each bears the individual character appropriate for its region. In the Northwest, OregonLawHelp has been developed from the ground up to be fully bilingual in English and Spanish. And with a minimal investment of time by local programmers, Iowa’s Legal Aid community has created IowaLegalAid.org as a gateway both to their statewide LawHelp site and an online bank of Legal Resources for Older Iowans, built using the Organizational Web Site feature of the LawHelp template.

Lastly, LawHelp has a content management system that is easy for non-technology staff to manage and administer. This is another way in which LawHelp is helping the public interest law community take advantage of sophisticated technology without having to add specialized personnel costs to already-stretched budgets.

Probono.net - Lawyer and Pro Bono Resources

With local sites in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and Minnesota, probono.net now has over 14,000 registered users. Over 70% of these users are private practitioners; another 10% are law students. The remaining 20% are from legal aid, pro bono and other public interest legal organizations. (For legal aid organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation, these sites function as powerful tools for “private attorney involvement” initiatives, increasing the number of volunteers that available to help needy clients.)

This spring, we will be introducing a redesigned probono.net platform. In 2003, more than 20 new states will be building lawyer-support sites using this system.  Also in the R&D stage are new national practice areas in addition to the existing Asylum, Death Penalty and Civil Rights areas. We believe that within a few years, the combined LawHelp/Pro Bono Net system may realistically support 30+ geographic state sites, more than 100 practice areas, hundreds of legal aid and pro bono organizations, and, easily, 50,000 registered users. This unprecedented, linked virtual community of public interest lawyers will form a very powerful engine for increasing access to justice.

The redesigned system that we have been building over the last year will be very familiar to Pro Bono Net’s existing users yet will offer many powerful new features. The most important enhancements to the new system are:

  • Better Navigation and Searching. We have made it easier for users to find the vital information they need. E.g., we have added a “topic” view feature that sorts the content by legal subject areas, and a new search feature that allows users of one practice area to find relevant content in other practice areas (allowing, for example, a domestic violence advocate in Georgia to search materials posted by domestic violence advocates in California).
  • Improved Communication Tools. The database of registered users, when tied to email, allows host organizations to (i) place pro bono opportunities with specific lawyers who have listed specific interests, (ii) educate users about new developments in the law and training opportunities, and (iii) generate awareness and support for critical advocacy issues. The new system, therefore, features enhanced email tools
  • Member Type Access Control. In the new version of probono.net, all members will be associated with a user type (e.g., legal aid, pro bono, law student, civil rights, courts, etc.). Similarly, each piece of content can be tagged with the user-type permissions. This will allow groups to develop libraries serving the broadest audience possible, while limiting sensitive content to specific audiences.
  • Area Specific URLs. The new probono.net site will allow each geographic or practice area to carry a unique URL. This will help groups using the platform to preserve their unique public identities. For example, the Minnesota area of probono.net will become ProJusticeMN, while New York can retain probono.net/ny. All areas will continue to be linked through a common navigation and national entry point (www.probono.net).

As always, thanks to our partners in Minnesota and New York – especially the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, the Minnesota State Bar Association, and the entire New York LawHelp Consortium – for their investments in, and contributions to, the building of these technology platforms. We at Pro Bono Net are convinced that this collaborative process not only yields better technology than if we work separately, but also a stronger group of advocates fighting for the right of poor people.


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