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Carl Rauscher
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LSC Funding and High-Tech Partnerships Keep Expanding Access to Legal Aid

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23, 2009

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Washington, DC - It's a website that offers self-help resources in 15 areas of law, and in 34 languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Last year, it recorded more than 1.6 million page views.

The website is LawHelp/NY (www.lawhelp.org/ny), a one-stop, legal information Internet portal for low-income New Yorkers that lists hundreds of nonprofit organizations that provide free legal services. Twenty-nine other states and territories have replicated the New York website, and counted more than 15.6 million page views last year.

Because of the exceptional cooperation among legal aid organizations in New York state that led to the creation of the website, the New York LawHelp Consortium has been named one of eight finalists for the inaugural Collaboration Prize, a $250,000 award to be presented to an outstanding nonprofit initiative. The winner will be announced in March by the Lodestar Foundation, sponsor of the prize.

The success of the statewide legal aid website underscores the importance of federal funding in the delivery of legal services. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) provided crucial startup money for the creation of the LawHelp template in 2000, and since then has provided 23 percent of the funding received by LawHelp/NY.  LSC's funding, through its Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program, permitted LawHelp/NY to also attract funding from the State of New York, foundations, and the New York Interest on Lawyer Accounts (IOLA) trust program.

"This is a good illustration of how LSC's TIG program has sought from the outset to fund projects with strong partnerships and has been able to leverage our seed money so that our grants have spurred projects worth much, much more," said Glenn Rawdon, who heads up the TIG program at LSC.

A decade ago, there were no easily accessible clearinghouses on civil legal aid. Finding legal help was difficult for low-income individuals and families and also for those trying to help the poor, such as social service agencies, schools, libraries and the offices of elected officials.

Today, the Internet is speeding the delivery of legal assistance. It enables the poor to more quickly find lawyers when dealing with crucial legal problems, such as eviction lawsuits, loss of food stamps and protection from domestic violence. Legal aid organizations, in turn, operate with improved efficiency, using the Internet to share material and avoid time-consuming writing of often duplicative fact sheets and manuals. Instead, they can direct more attention to getting potential clients to the right place for assistance.

"People who use LawHelp/NY the most are those that serve the poor - social services, youth centers, librarians, National Guard, teachers - anybody who might be serving low-income communities," said Leah Margulies, project director for LawHelp.org/NY.

The inspiration for LawHelp/NY came at a meeting of legal aid and pro bono leaders at the New York City Bar in early 2000, where Pro Bono Net demonstrated a new website (www.probono.net) to help match volunteer private attorneys with legal aid groups in New York City. When Andrew Scherer, executive director and president of Legal Services NYC, challenged the group to think about how the legal aid community could use emerging technologies to provide greater access to services, a working group from the city's leading legal aid and pro bono organizations quickly formed to put the idea into action.

Launched in April 2001, the original LawHelp/NY site, which focused on New York City, was a joint undertaking of the City Bar Justice Center (part of the New York City Bar), Volunteers of Legal Service, the Legal Aid Society of New York, Legal Services NYC and Pro Bono Net. The collaboration became known as the New York LawHelp Consortium.

By mid-2003, the founders decided to expand to help meet the needs of low-income persons across New York. New members of the Consortium included the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, the Empire Justice Center, the New York State Bar Association, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and Nassau/Suffolk Law Services. Today, all 62 counties in New York are being served through LawHelp/NY.

Using LawHelp/NY as a model, Pro Bono Net replicated the website across the country to other states. LSC estimated in a January 2008 report that using a template rather than each state developing a legal aid and referral website from scratch has saved an average of $85,000 per state, for a net savings of about $4 million nationally.

"I can tell you that there have been significant savings in staff time, especially in finding materials to give to potential clients to whom we can't offer extended resources and we want them to walk away with some self-help material," said C. Kenneth Perri, executive director of Legal Assistance of Western New York.

Added Mark O'Brien, executive director of Pro Bono Net, "Clearly, LSC support, at an early moment and on an ongoing basis, has been critical to the success of LawHelp/NY as well as to the national success of the statewide legal aid website model."

About LawHelp/NY
LawHelp/NY is an online tool for helping low-income New Yorkers solve their legal problems. It is the only comprehensive source of legal referral information in the state and includes listings of free legal service projects and organizations with their contact and intake information, know-your-rights and other self-help resources, and extensive links to social service, advocacy and government and court system information. LawHelp/NY is a collaborative project of The City Bar Justice Center, Legal Services NYC, The Legal Aid Society of New York, Pro Bono Net, Volunteers of Legal Service, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Empire Justice Center, New York State Bar Association, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and Nassau/Suffolk Law Services

About LSC
The Legal Services Corporation is a federally funded, independent, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equal access to justice in our nation and to providing high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income persons. LSC currently funds 137 civil legal aid programs with more than 920 offices serving low-income Americans across the country.

About Pro Bono Net
Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to justice through innovative uses of technology and increased volunteer lawyer participation. Founded in 1998 with support from the Open Society Institute, Pro Bono Net has created a broad and powerful network of nonprofit legal aid providers, courts and bar associations across the United States and Canada.