Riding the Circuit

VOLUME 1 ISSUE 1March 2003
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Riding the Circuit
by Christie Constantine

My name is Christie Constantine and Iím one of Pro Bono Netís two Circuit Riders Ė I know, it sounds like something out of the Old West. And, like the circuit judges of that era, I spend lots of time traveling. I do this because, in the last two years, Pro Bono Net has been working with legal services organizations in 30 states that want to build statewide legal information web sites in their regions using Pro Bono Netís technology Ė the LawHelp Project. These web sites are going to make an enormous difference in these areas to the accessibility of legal help and information. Most exciting, to me, is that these states will be incorporating both Pro Bono Netís program models: one that provides resources to legal professionals and organizations (LawHelp for advocates), and one that provides legal information directly to the public (LawHelp for clients).

Needless to say, this kind of project is no small undertaking for these organizations, whose staffs usually consist of non-techies. But one of the great thing about Pro Bono Net is that it is so user-friendly that it only needs everyday technical expertise to make it work. Itís the Circuit Riderís job to demonstrate that to our organizational partners, and to help them get started and stay on course as their statewide web sites are built and launched.

My bailiwick consists of our state partners on the east coast.  Our other Circuit Rider, David Raikow, handles the west coast and is based in San Francisco. At our farthest limits so far, I have traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands and David has visited Alaska. Together, we help our partners formulate work plans to implement the web site building process, learn how to administer and manage the technology, draw together groups and individuals in their states who take a strong interest in access to justice, and gather quality content to place in the new web sitesí resource libraries.

During my travels on behalf of LawHelp and its partners, Iím always struck by the diversity of communities with which we are working, and the corresponding diversity of needs our program seems to meet.  In early November, I traveled for the first time to Bristol, Virginia, (the official "Birthplace of Country Music") to visit the Virginia LawHelp project (www.VaLegalAid.org). Bristol is located in the southwest corner of Virginia on the Tennessee border. The trip gave me an opportunity to meet face to face with people Iíve spoken with many times by telephone, learn more about the issues facing both the legal services community and their clients in that region, and to answer questions. As in many areas outside large urban centers, legal assistance resources are scarce and often not easily accessible.

We held two LawHelp project workshops in Bristol. The first one provided training for our partners on how to upload client resources such as legal education materials or referral information about their organizations. One attendee used this opportunity to prepare and upload client materials on obtaining Food Stamps. The second workshop demonstrated how the LawHelp client site interface works, and, by contrast, also toured several current advocate sites, such as the national Asylum practice area (www.probono.net/asylum) and the Minnesota Civil Law practice area (www.probono.net/mn). Participants were also interested to learn about the many features that the LawHelp sites offer, especially the ability for organizations to create and maintain their own web sites using the ďprogram sitesĒ feature. By the end of my visit, several new groups asked to join LawHelp, which made me feel that I had done my job well.

As I left Bristol I noted the huge sign that straddles downtown State Street and marks the border between Virginia and Tennessee. The sign was erected in 1910 and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Now Bristol can boast another historic milestone: participation in the LawHelp project as it spearheads a new way to bring legal help and information into so many places in America.

Christie Constantine
Pro Bono Net Circuit Rider
cconstantine@probono.net


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