Pro Bono Net — LawHelp Interactive (2010)
Pro Bono Net
Pro Bono Net was selected for its “LawHelp Interactive” initiative, which provides a national infrastructure for online legal document assembly and helps tens of thousands of low-income people each year to complete needed legal forms. LawHelp Interactive was launched in 2005 with support from the Legal Services Corporation, and was used last year to complete nearly 150,000 civil court forms covering such critical areas as child support, protection orders for victims of domestic violence, consumer debt and eviction. LawHelp Interactive increases efficiency for legal aid programs, allowing more people to be helped in less time. It also removes barriers to pro bono participation by making it easier for attorneys to work in areas of law where they may lack experience, and by allowing them to spend less time on tedious paperwork and more time interacting with clients.
by Pam Weisz
1. What goal were you trying to achieve? Why was it important?
Pro Bono Net’s goal is to address the increasingly wide gap between the availability of high-quality, free legal aid, and the number of those in need of civil legal assistance. LawHelp Interactive, the subject of our Innovaction Award application, offers free online legal document assembly to pro se litigants, allowing them to quickly and easily fill out needed legal forms to deal with areas such as family law, housing and consumer debt. LawHelp Interactive increases opportunities for self-represented litigants to achieve justice on their own and improves efficiency for legal aid organizations, pro bono programs, and courts.
As much as 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet in theU.S. InNew Yorkstate courts alone, almost 2 million people appear without lawyers each year, often facing extremely stressful situations involving the potential loss of property, money or even their children. Technology solutions like LawHelp Interactive are one way to address the lack of legal help for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
2. How did you gather the internal support, resources and personnel to make it happen? Was there resistance?
Like all of Pro Bono Net’s programs, LawHelp Interactive is based on collaboration, in this case between Pro Bono Net and the Ohio State Legal Services Association, with support from the Legal Services Corporation, State Justice Institute, LexisNexis, HotDocs Corporation, and theCalifornia,MontanaandNew Yorkstate courts. Sharing of information and best practices among legal aid, pro bono and court groups using the service is not only encouraged but facilitated by Pro Bono Net staff. The collaborative nature of this initiative means that a great deal can be accomplished without a lot of resources.
3. What was the most satisfying aspect of making your project a reality?
Satisfaction comes from seeing the impact of LawHelp Interactive on the lives of those in need. In 2010, more than 217,000 documents were completed using the service. In many cases, these users would have had nowhere to turn for assistance if not for LawHelp Interactive.
It’s also very satisfying seeing LawHelp Interactive used as the basis for new models of service delivery and pro bono participation. For example, inCalifornia, pro bono volunteers remotely review guardianship and family law pleadings created by litigants participating in self-help workshops at the Los Angeles Superior Court. InOntario, attorneys volunteering at a self-help center atToronto’s Superior Court advise clients on filling out needed forms. The client then uses LawHelp Interactive, on a terminal at the center, to fill out the form and brings it back to the pro bono attorney for review. This system improves outcomes for the client while minimizing the amount of time pro bono attorneys spend on administrative work.
4. How have you measured the success of your innovation over time?
LawHelp Interactive’s usage has increased dramatically. More than 217,000 documents were completed using the system in 2010, a 48% increase over 2009. We’ve also seen adoption of LawHelp Interactive increase – it’s currently used in 27U.S.states andOntario.
In addition, we receive anecdotal feedback through optional feedback forms filled out by LawHelp Interactive users. Recent responses have included the following:
“This was helpful beyond belief! This is a fantastic service you provide and we hope you continued success in your profession. We can’t thank you enough!” (Foreclosure case)
“This site and info is EXCELLENT!!! It has taken the pain out of the legal process. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU” (Divorce)
“Your website is a great service to someone on a limited income. Thank you.” (Power of Attorney)
5. How have your lawyers, staff and clients responded to this innovative accomplishment?
6. What has been the reaction from your competitors, or from the local legal community and media?
Pro bono, legal aid and court-based access tojustice organizations nationwide have responded enthusiastically to LawHelp Interactive with the service seeing widespreak adoption and fueling innovation in service delivery and creation of pro bono opportunities.
The service has been covered by The Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2009, in an article headlined “Automated Legal Documents Assist People Without Laywers.”
Law Technology News published an article on the service, “Help Yourself,” in January 2010. (The article can be found here: http://www.law.com/jsp/lawtechnology/PubArticleLTN.jsp?id=1202437097271&help yourself#)
Producers of the Gov 2.0 Expo chose to include LawHelp Interactive in their 2010 conference, inviting Pro Bono Net to deliver a presentation entitled, “Opening the Courts — Using Technology to Empower the Unrepresented.”
And Pro Bono Net was selected as a finalist for the American College of Trial Lawers’ 2010 Emil Gumpert Award based in part on the success of LawHelp Interactive.
7. What advice do you have for others who might wish to make something new happen in their law practice or firm?
Collaboration – both internal and external – can be extremely valuable in achieving a lot with few resources, with replicating best practices and with obtaining buy-in for new ideas.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about your experience with this project?