A Better Internet for Legal Help: more sleeping with Google

Recent discussion of ‘sleeping with google’ prompted a tweet from Stanford Center on the Legal Profession to the effect that ’Margaret Hagan and her Legal Design Lab ‘ have been working on this project for over a year with Google and Microsoft … You can see more at … A Better Internet for Legal Help.’ So, if you first follow the invitation and, second, try to work out the relevance of the project for other jurisdictions, what do you get?

The website gives details of a project designed to develop ‘(1) a backend infrastructure of legal guidance and services, with an open, data-standardized, coordinated system of help-providers, and (2) an ecosystem of more usable, useful, and engaging tools for laypeople to use, built on top of this infrastructure.’  Helpfully, the site provides helpful visual aids for this rather compressed description and  indeed,  a bit more detail: ‘As the Internet becomes more pervasive in the way people respond to problems and seek out help, there is an opportunity to transform how most people interact with the legal system.  What if, when a person searched Google, Bing, or Yahoo about their problem situation, they were able to find clear ways to: (1) understand the legal options open to them, and; (2) find clear, local options to start addressing their problem? What if information about legal services was provided online in a reliable, direct, and interactive way, so that it was more comprehensible and actionable for lay people?Currently, that is not the case. An Internet search for legal help results in a mix of advertisements for lawyers, general articles about legal topics, and forums where people share their personal experiences. The search results are not often jurisdiction-specific, nor do they provide clear ways to figure out services a person is eligible for, or how to get them. Our project aims to start improving this situation by establishing standards for how legal service providers (including courts, legal aid groups, and others) save and share their data about service options, eligibility, and procedures. If service providers use a standard format and common semantics for their data, it will establish a solid groundwork for a new generation of smarter, powerful technology tools to connect lay people with legal help. With a coordinated system of standardized data: (1) search engines could respond to queries by providing clear guidance to local service options, (2) centralized websites could walk users through eligibility-checks and route them to local service-providers for their needs, (3) an ecosystem of apps, websites, and other smart tools that can flourish drawing upon this coordinated infrastructure.

A microsite gives more detail, developed as the project has progressed, on how to review existing online materials for ‘key useability, visual and behavioural design standards’. This gives, as a first step, a helpful 11 point checklist of the usual issues – highlighting, for example, reading levels and a strong hierarchy of information. A second section encourages review of websites to make them ‘more visual, more intuitive and more user-friendly – encouraging use of a standard set of ‘legal task icons’ and applying a stylesheet still at the design stage. A third section introduces a standard mark up of information so that it is compatible with other providers using the same system eg as to hours and days an organisation is open for service.

A blog from a library in Texas provides a further helpful description of the project: ‘When you search Google for something like heat rash, Abraham Lincoln, or the Eiffel Tower, the list of search results is accompanied by a Knowledge Card, which contains brief, supplemental information about your search term along with relevant facts. Symptoms and treatment (for a medical term), biographical data (for a historical figure), or geographic information (for a national landmark) is presented in a box to the right of your search. Pictures, bits of trivia, related search terms, and links to official websites are also included, providing a snapshot, in plain language, of the topic you are researching. This information is all very useful when it’s available, and having this kind of easy-to-access, user-friendly content on the same page as your search results can be a very helpful starting point for your basic online research. For legal terms, however, no such equivalent exists. A search for the terms unlawful detainer, emancipated minor, or protective order do not offer the same benefits. A definition, or a featured snippet from Google, drawn from Wikipedia or FindLaw, may appear at the top of your search results, but no other value-added content is likely to be provided. Knowledge cards simply do not exist for legal terms, nor do so many other search engine features that could improve the user experience for those in need of legal information.’

Interestingly, if you live in England, you do not get a helpful ‘knowledge card’ for heat rash –  but, you can see the point. Ask Google in the UK ‘how do I stop an eviction’; ignore the paid for ads which proposes the answer that a company will buy your house ‘for cash fast’; and you do get a card taken from material on housing advocacy organisation Shelter’s website with six points on what to do if facing eviction by bailiffs. The implication of this project is that this could be extended by identifying nearby agencies that you could consult and by structuring the information from the government, advice and other agencies which is available on the net and could be commonly coded under headings. That is the ‘sleeping with google’ bit. The intent would be to accept that the main search engines (and we surely have to include DuckDuckGo here as a protest against data harvesting) are the way to access and order key information.

Seeking to translate this project into your own jurisdiction makes you realise one of the truths about technology projects: they are, of course, rarely just about technology. Getting domestic legal service organisations (which would include a mix of profit and not for profit providers) to accept a common coding system and structure for information would be a nightmare.  ‘Herding cats, some of which see themselves as tigers’, might be an appropriate image. And, in that context, who would play leader? How lucky that Stanford is leveraging its reputation on such a worthy project. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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