At the turn of the century, just as the Internet was becoming mainstream in the United States, five legal services organizations in New York came together to make the law more accessible to New Yorkers. These five collaborators were the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC, Pro Bono Net, and Volunteers of Legal Services. Together, they recognized how low-income and other vulnerable New Yorkers often had little access to solving their legal problems. This need led to the reaction of LawHelpNY.org, an online legal information and referral site. In the beginning, LawHelp intended to serve people in New York City, but collaborators realized that New York State could also benefit from the online resource. So, the collaborators jointly fundraised to create the site and hire staff. These staff collected and organized referral information and legal rights information to be understandable and straightforward to site visitors who needed legal assistance. With the help of a growing network, partner organizations across the state could provide these resources for LawHelp to curate. This growth led to LawHelp as it exists today, a collaborative with more than a dozen partners statewide by 2009, and a site reaching more than just New York.
In 2002, Pro Bono Net, a founding partner specializing in developing technology services to improve access to justice, received grants that allowed them to replicate the platform in over 25 other states. This growth has continued over the years, and the site is now able to suggest services based on one’s location in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Some resources include education guides, interactive forms, and external links for legal questions concerning immigration, disaster, or military service. Pro Bono Net’s platform contributions led to LawHelp receiving a Webby Award in 2007 for Best Law Site.
Furthermore, with rapid growth across a large geographic region, measuring success can be a challenge. Initially, LawHelp determined their success by observing their website traffic. However, as the platform has expanded, the network has been developing methods to measure how organizations and individuals use the site’s information to make a social impact. By measuring what people do on the site, where they go, and what resources they use, LawHelp identifies the most empowering strategies for users to take legal action. This way, LawHelp can further their initiatives to make law the most accessible through an online site.
LawHelp claims its success stems partly from its decentralized structure. With many partners contributing to fundraising, the online platform’s success skyrocketed with independent efforts to one common goal: reach by the site. Of course, this structure led to challenges, such as finding a common strategy and managing overlapping goals. Using a central online platform helped increase the network’s capacity through collaborative technology; it allowed LawHelp to stay consistent and on the same page with many partner organizations contributing to the cause. The network claims that technology collaboration allowed partners to establish a joint mission, clear responsibilities, and a decision-making system.
Because of the impact of this collaborative technology, the program became a Lodestar Collaboration Prize finalist in 2009. LawHelp partners find that a few strategies accomplished this feat. First, the network established a clear governance structure. Through the government, the program defined expected benefits to collaboration––as well as threats. By recognizing potential problems early, LawHelp partners found that overcoming challenges was much more comfortable than facing them head-on. In all, the program reached success through proactive collaboration, which helped their reactive collaboration much less of an obstacle to tackle.
LawHelp is still active today and continues to monitor progress in their user-empowerment model. In the future, the program hopes to work more closely with state departments, using their website traffic to predict better which resources are most valuable on the site. By expanding their understanding of which problems people face with law, program partners hope to continue making legal solutions as accessible as possible online.
Learn more about LawHelp and other networks in:
Networks for Social Impact by Michelle Shumate and Katherine Cooper – expected publications July 2021 by Oxford University Press.