At the most recent Legal Services Corporation's Annual TIG Conference I had an unexpected experience. I've been chewing it over for the last few weeks and would like to share with you. For those less familiar with the TIG conference and what happens when legal aid programs from across the country get together to talk about technology, here's some additional information:
SETTING: First afternoon of the conference, break-out room, a focus group of about 15 people, led by LSC TIG staff, who took advantage of the conference to get in-person feedback with legal aid tech leaders from around the nation.
PLOT: The topic was LSC’s formal assessment of the nation’s statewide legal aid websites, a project recently funded by the Ford Foundation. The proposed categories for the assessment were: SEO; content depth; navigation; plain language; mobile access, and language access.
TIG staff posed a question, “What is missing from this list - what else should we be considering in assessing websites?” One criterion suggested was the level of investment in the organization that is hosting the website and support for the website by the local community.
It may have been suggested by Vince Morris, a 2012 ABA Legal Rebel, well-known and beloved by many across the legal aid tech community, or it may have been someone else who proposed the additional criterion. Whoever said it, Vince followed by emphasizing that you can’t evaluate a website with no investment or support against one like Illinois. Then he quipped, “Illinois has more money than Google.”
Also at the meeting was the Executive Director of the Lawyers Trust Fund (Illinois’ IOLTA provider), Mark Marquardt. When these words rolled off Vince’s tongue, I nervously looked at Mark. Moments later, he left the room and I resisted the urge to chase after him and beg him not to cut ILAO’s funding because some people think we have more money than Google.
At the end of the meeting, David Bonebrake (Illinois’ awesome TIG rep) apologized, “I am sorry for all the Illinois bashing.” Oh, well, bashing can result from envy.
By way of explanation, Vince is a one-person show in his state - he is tech director, content manager, automated document producer, development associate, grant writer, etc. There are many Vince-like managers across the nation who struggle to deliver relevant, accurate legal information online to people who legal aid services, in its limited and over-worked capacity, cannot help.
Illinois Legal Aid Online is in the enviable position of having local funders who support its mission and its work at a ‘general operating’ level. This enables ILAO to have: a staff of 15; 5 websites hosting 4000 legal articles, forms, videos, guides and other content; a mirrored website experience in English and Spanish; a LiveHelp program taking 40 chats per day; awesome SEO; strong, mutually beneficial relationships with legal-aid partners, and so on. It does not mean, however, that we have more money than Google, or that we have the funding we need to achieve our strategic plans.
In fact, we are struggling to find funding for our best product yet - a new, open source website. So if even Illinois, as the "Google of legal aid websites," doesn’t have enough funding to meet its goals, why bother trying?
Because someone has to. Because it is important, necessary, and (usually) rewarding work. Because if we can do it and others can be ‘fast followers’, in John Mayer’s words, then maybe this investment can be shared and impactful, not just in Illinois, but nationwide.
Here's to moving forward and to getting there together.