Online Justice

May 1, 2001       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,” said 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, said 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 said.

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, said 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,” said 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, said probono.net aims “to get away from the idea that poor peoples’ legal problems are different from everybody else’s.” Technology, he said, 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 said. “Each organization continues to control its own destiny but is part of a much larger destiny.”

Student news online

High school students can publish their own Web newspapers, thanks to an online manual, free software and other resources assembled by The New York Times Company Foundation. The foundation’s Campus Weblines project grew out of its effort to help students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City create an online version of their Stuyvesant Spectator at stuyspectator.org.

The foundation hired two consultants, Karen Freeman, an editor at the Times’ weekly Circuits section, and her husband, Steven Knowlton, a Hofstra University journalism professor, to work with the Stuyvesant students.

During a summer internship, eight students also helped create a manual their counterparts at any high school could use to create a Web newspaper. The manual explains online writing and editing, offers tips for putting words and images online, suggests how to set up a newspaper staff and build journalism into classroom work, and examines professional and ethical issues related to online news. The students also developed online-publishing software, ranging from basic templates to applications for tech-savvy students.

The Times Foundation, which has invested about $100,000 in Campus Weblines, has distributed information about the project to high schools throughout the United States. But the online kit, available at nytimes.com/learning/weblines, also can be used by nonprofits and overseas groups, said Jack Rosenthal, the foundation’s president. The Independent Journalism Foundation in New York, for example, will use Campus Weblines to help young Serb journalists create online newspapers, said Nancy Ward, the foundation’s vice president and managing director.

Strategic sourcing

Some nonprofits and government agencies are starting to adopt the business practice, known as “strategic sourcing,” in which large organizations aggregate purchases by separate divisions from multiple vendors, said Brian Murrow, leader of the eMarkets practice, which includes e-Philanthropy, at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Arlington, Va. Nonprofits, like businesses, can hold “reverse auctions,” he said, announcing their purchasing needs and asking vendors to submit bids. The key for nonprofits, he said, is to team up to pool their purchasing.

Online outsourcing

The Nonprofit Matrix, an online guide to commercial application service providers and portals that offer online outsourcing to nonprofits, has profiled more than 160 organizations since it was launched last fall, including at least 10 that since have folded. George Irish, who tracks outsourcing services for HJC New Media, a Toronto firm that advises nonprofits and publishes the Matrix, said a growing number of firms are moving to become one-stop outsourcing shops. Some providers offering a single service have expanded to offer a bundle of services, while a handful of the largest outsourcing firms are forming alliances to offer nonprofits a full package of services, Irish said. “Outsourcing Web services like events management or online donations has become the usual practice now,” he said, “where last year nonprofits were more skeptical about this whole idea.”

Tech briefs

A group of Silicon Valley executives have launched the Sonrisa Foundation, which will team up with businesses and charities to deliver technology products, services and education to poor people in Latin America…

The Cisco Foundation and Cisco Systems have joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in launching tolerance.org to fight hate and promote tolerance…

The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute has launched a redesigned Web site at upci.upmc.edu to provide cancer information…

artAngels in San Francisco has created an online network at artsangels.org to link arts groups in the region with volunteers, patrons and other arts organizations…

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Nonprofitxpress, an online newspaper at www.npxpress.com. He can be reached at tcohen@ajf.org

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