With a population of close to 1 million spread over 146,000 square miles, Montana can be a difficult place to find needed legal help. But thanks to the efforts of Sam Alpert, a Pro Bono Net AmeriCorps VISTA working at the Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), residents of this rural state have access to kiosks that provide access to free legal information, referrals and self-help tools.
After graduating from college, Sam Alpert chose to apply to the AmeriCorps VISTA program. He began working with Pro Bono Net in January 2010. He saw the role as a way to have a broad, national impact by
working with LiveHelp,a real-time, online chat service that allows users who have difficulty navigating the LawHelp.org site to get help from a volunteer trained in finding legal resources. LiveHelp is used on LawHelp sites in 10 states.
AmeriCorps VISTA is a federally funded, national service program designed to fight poverty. VISTA members commit to serve full-time for a year at a nonprofit organization or local government agency. Over the years, AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteers have played a key role in access to justice technology projects, including Pro Bono Net programs. Sam is the third Helena-based VISTA member to work on the LiveHelp project. An Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow also helps staff LawHelp/NY, including coordinating LiveHelp.
Another AmeriCorps-funded initiative, the California JusticeCorps program, places college students in overburdened court self-help centers. Under the supervision of an attorney, JusticeCorps members conduct front-desk triage, refer litigants to appropriate resources, and help them complete legal forms, including LawHelp Interactive documents.
As part of the partnership in Montana, Sam was responsible for the Eastern Montana LiveHelp Kiosk project under the supervision of Liz Keith, LawHelp Program Manager, in coordination with staff leading the project at MLSA.
The project, developed for rural areas of Montana, provides access to the LiveHelp service as well as state and local resources through the placement of legal assistance kiosks in eastern Montana. For those looking for legal services in eastern Montana the drive to access services can be up to 500 miles, Sam explains.
In total there are three kiosks in Montana, two of which are in courthouses. This allows more patrons to help themselves by connecting them to highly credible resources on the web rather than relying solely on the court clerks. With LiveHelp, those who have trouble finding needed resources can get navigational assistance from an MLSA staff member.
Sam has also assisted with efforts to support LiveHelp replication nationwide. Working with Liz, he has helped to expand the program by creating guides for program volunteers and administrators as well as assisting program managers with technical issues.
"One of the great perks of being a VISTA supervisor is the opportunity to work with motivated and talented volunteers like Sam who bring a fresh perspective to our work,” Liz said. “The growth in our LiveHelp program simply would not have been possible without his help. Right now, we’re working together to develop a national webinar series on legal self-help tools that Pro Bono Net will produce for public librarians this summer – another new frontier for us.”
While working in Montana, Sam also discovered a need for services in the American Indian community. He set out to assess the technological capacity on the reservation and develop a plan for outreach to develop online resources for people who live on Montana’s legal reservations.
“I wanted to see how technology could bring parity between the resources available for tribal and state courts,” says Sam, who did much of the research for this project on his own, eventually joining up with the Montana State Bar Access to Justice Committee’s Native American Working Group. Through his work, Sam has assessed the legal needs of the Native American community and has started to collect and make available online resources for tribal courts in Montana.
Sam has also worked on LawHelp Interactive, Pro Bono Net’s online legal document assembly service. Working with Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, Claudia Johnson, he developed training webinars for programs nationwide using LawHelp Interactive. “It was a privilege working on that project,” says Sam. “There are not many like it.”
Despite having completed two years of service in January 2012, Sam chose to extend his VISTA stay by six months so that he could see through to completion several projects he was working on, including the series of webinars targeted towards librarians. The purpose is to raise awareness in the community of available legal service and resources. Sam is working on that project with Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, Central Minnesota Legal Services and Legal Aid Society of Louisville.
Sam has enjoyed his time as a VISTA, learning a lot from the experience. “I feel more valuable than when I first graduated,” he said.