In states across the nation, legal assistance portals, or websites that provide legal information and referrals to assist with civil legal issues, are not a new concept in the access-to-justice space. However, there has been recent momentum building around them in the national community, and these tools are coming online in more states every year.
The PEW Charitable Trusts recently released a framework to identify legal assistance portals, stating that “[t]hey should enable users to ask questions about a legal issue, interactively refine their requests, learn about their options, and connect with relevant resources—such as legal aid and social services organizations or court websites—that can help.” (Emphasis in original.)
In Ohio, we have recently launched a new portal that does just that—Ohio Legal Help. The portal uses a series of simple, often yes or no, questions to help people diagnose problems related to housing, family, debt and public benefits.
These are issues that come up for many of us, regardless of income, throughout our lives. However, the answers can vary significantly based on where we live, so even if you’re practicing family law, you might not be particularly helpful to your cousin getting divorced in another state.
Understanding the Basics
Once you have completed the “ask” and “refine” steps of a portal, you get to “learn.”
Portals provide basic self-help information that can help people navigate simple legal issues, sometimes without even stepping foot in a courthouse.
For example, say that your younger sibling is dealing with an unresponsive landlord, and has a refrigerator that’s been broken for weeks. A portal is the perfect place for your sibling to learn what her rights are as a tenant and how to enforce them.
Many portals combine this basic information with self-help tools that can help users take action, for example, a template letter requesting repairs to rental housing.
Finally, a portal connects its users with the right legal and community organizations in their area if they’re dealing with something that they can’t handle alone.
Issues that have wide-ranging impacts, especially on a person’s family or health, often require more expertise than the average self-helper can manage. In Ohio, we ask a series of optional questions, such as whether a user is a senior or a veteran, to find out the types of services that might benefit that user. We then pull information on the relevant services in a person’s area that helps with that person’s specific legal issue. Information about local legal aids and information about local bar association lawyer-referral services are the first resources that our users see—we are a legal site after all—but we also provide information about courts and other organizations that might fill in gaps for our users.
The sibling with the landlord problem whom I mentioned earlier probably doesn’t need to call a lawyer yet, but she might need a printer so that she can mail her letter. Ohio Legal Help directs users to public libraries, law libraries, and court help desks where they can access printing and notary services. We refer to this continuum of services as the “legal ecosystem” and strive to contextualize different options and services within that ecosystem.
Cultivating Educated Consumers
For lawyers, portals not only cut down on the emotional labor of avoiding cocktail party consultations but also overall support a more legally fluent consumer base.
When we surveyed 800 Ohio residents about how they had dealt with legal problems in the past, we found that confusion about the legal system was widespread. One respondent reported being “afraid of my lack of knowledge.”
Contextualizing the services of an attorney within the larger legal ecosystem and offering basic legal information empowers consumers. They can feel confident that an attorney will bring them value and help them secure a positive outcome. This phenomenon of increasing consumer confidence and loyalty through education has been documented in the financial services industry and in courts.
Legal services portals help laypeople and attorneys alike. Through reliable, action-oriented information, nonlawyers can feel confident in seeking out and hiring a lawyer—without unloading on an unsuspecting attorney acquaintance first.
Rachel Harris is the content manager at Ohio Legal Help in Columbus, Ohio.