By Todd Cohen
Poor people and their legal advocates can find help at an emerging Web portal that aims to pool and share content provided by legal groups throughout the United States.
The justice portal is taking shape through expansion of probono.net, a two-year-old site backed by George Soros’ Open Society Institute that initially provided online resources for “pro-bono” volunteer lawyers in New York City.
probono.net, which has added sites for San Francisco and Minnesota, is organized both by geographic region and by area of legal practice – such as housing or family law — and features materials for lawyers representing low- and moderate-income clients.
Now, with additional Open Society funding, partnerships with grantees of the Legal Services Corp. and support from a broad range of legal groups and other funders, probono.net is developing technology to integrate content provided by local legal groups, and to share it with advocates and low- and moderate-income people.
“Our mission is to use technology to both increase the quality and quantity of services provided by lawyers to poor people,” says Michael Hertz, founder and executive director of probono.net.
Persuading hundreds of legal groups to share their content on the site depends on making it easy for them to use the site to get materials they themselves need, says Richard Zorza, a consultant advising probono.net and funded by Open Society.
“It allows local legal services programs to focus their resources, both financial and managerial, on the development and management of content, as opposed to the technological platform,” he says.
probono.net on average generates four visits a month from each of roughly 4,000 lawyers, including lawyers in big and small firms, members of bar associations, and law students working in clinics or pro-bono programs.
A growing number of law schools and legal services groups are asking for access to the site, or for probono.net to add resources they could use, says Hertz.
The site features information such as news and training calendars available to any visitor.
And lawyers who register as members get access to online libraries of training materials, model legal briefs and model legal pleadings – content provided by local and national groups that host the site in different locales and for different topic areas.
probono.net is working with grantees of the federally funded Legal Services Corp. to expand the site to help meet the needs of programs in other locations and topic areas.
As part of that expansion, probono.net is developing lawhelp.org, a site to help visitors find a lawyer, understand their rights and navigate social-service agency bureaucracies.
“Our bigger vision,” says Hertz, “is a justice portal that really has a tremendous amount of information for a diverse range of lawyers, but also a comprehensive sweep of information for clients.”
Zorza, the consultant, says probono.net aims “to get away from the idea that poor peoples’ legal problems are different from everybody else’s.”
Technology, he says, offers a powerful incentive for the large and highly fragmented community of lawyers and legal groups throughout the United States to share information with one another.
“The technology transcends the turf,” he says. “Each organization continues to control its own destiny but is part of a much larger destiny.”