Outreach by Zoom: the experience of the People’s Law School of BC

A number of access to justice organisations are experimenting with the use of video programmes, like Zoom, to replace traditional outreach work impeded by the pandemic. This was, for example, a topic raised by a speaker from Sheffield Law Centre in the December Law Centre Network conference. But the world leader in this field must be the Peoples Law School of British Columbia, Canada. It has had an open webinar programme running from April (‘Your Rights as a worker in the time of Coronavirus’) to the most recent, a fortnight ago (‘Dealing with Neighbour Disputes’).

The People’s Law School  (PLS)  has its origins in the radical law student movement of the early 1970s. It was Canada’s first sole purpose public legal education organisation. It has been going since 1972 within a Canadian province with historically a high commitment to public legal education. The PLS joins Justice  Education Society (formerly the Law Courts Education Society) and Legal Aid BC (provider of the innovative digital information system MyLawBC) as province-wide sources of education and information. PLS Executive Director Patricia Byrne explains that extensive commitment as perhaps reflecting the pioneering nature of the west coast and a lack of deference to figures of authority like lawyers. It is certainly long-lasting and funding for public legal education has carried on through a number of ups and downs of more individualised legal aid services. 

PLS began looking at digital delivery of its historically traditional outreach well before the pandemic struck. Patricia reported, ‘We began a shift of focus in 2017 to use technology. We redesigned the website to begin with. We were  looking to provide people with the skills, knowledge and confidence to help them solve their everyday problems. We re-imagined what a website could be. We wanted actively to curate our information and provide tips and suggestions, to address problems. In 2019, still pre-Covid, we decided to deploy these same elements in our education through webinars. We imagined rolling out in 2020 in tandem with our existing face to face provision.’ As a result, PLS brought Paula Price on board in 2019 as a legal specialist responsible for digital education. She had a nice balance in her background as both a civil litigation lawyer and as a personal coach.

PLS took a fresh look at how a webinar could be organised. Patricia said, ‘We brainstormed what a webinar could be. We were very dissatisfied with run of the mill ones. I was fed up just listening to a lawyer droning on to a powerpoint that was jammed too full of information. We wanted something more like an interview format that you might find on BBC and CNN. We wanted give and take between moderator and presenter so that you are not just listening to one person. So, we got Paula to be the interviewer/moderator with her knowledge and skills as both lawyer and professional coach.’

PLS implemented a whole new style of doing a webinar within the PLE sector. It is fussy about who it chooses to do its teaching. It seeks people who are both experts (not necessarily, though usually, lawyers) and also good communicators. Their presentations are planned in advance and developed around questions from Paula as moderator. As Patricia put it, ‘We chunk up our 60 minutes into different bits and signal what we are doing in each. Then it is really important the moderator sums up after each segment, making it easier to follow and digest.’ Patricia can do a nice turn of phrase. ‘I hate a powerpoint with a wall of words.’

‘The questions to be addressed are drawn in advance from PLS’s own experience of use of its website as well as ones which people ask in the conventional way during the webinar itself. PLS has a team behind the scenes – additional to Paula as moderator – answering and responding to questions coming through the webinar chat or Q and A function or made direct to the PLS. There is good follow up. Sign up for the seminar and you not only get access to the usual recording but ‘show notes’ that give relevant further information and contacts.

Paula stressed that the Q and A function is really important. But also key is the engagement between her and the speakers. ‘There is a structure to the content. I talk it all through with the speakers. The back and forth is important. We want to create a way of speaking that engages the audience. ’We do things like polls during  the session. The feedback is that people want more Q and A. We usually can’t get to all questions.’ The PLS team are continually searching for ways of increasing engagement. They are, for example, looking at showing more video clips within the presentation. 

The webinars are feeding back into PLS’s work more generally. Paula said, ‘We link the live recordings to website. They become part of the whole eco-system of our information provision.’

Patricia and Paula are true believers in digital delivery. There are five ways, says Patricia in which ‘webinars have it over live delivery: ‘reach, convenience, quality control, generation of great data and the fostering of co-ordination with other organisations.’ Covid has caused all PLS outreach sessions to go online. And in the complex situation of the pandemic, online seems to be beating offline over the year. PLS has had a total attendance of 1690 for 9 webinars in 2020-1 with one more to come as compared with 1286 at 52 physical presentations the year previously. The videos of webinars got a further audience of 2,882 who seemed to watch for an average of around 10 minutes – a reasonable period.

A key issue in exploring digital delivery of this kind is whether it reaches a particular audience of those who are better educated, more familiar with technology, more likely to be intermediaries than users of the information as traditionally delivered. This needs more research but PLS has some interesting statistics. At a webinar on benefits for workers during Covid, 67 per cent of attendees were workers themselves. That was roughly the same for a webinar on returning to work during Covid (61 per cent). Both had around a fifth of attendees who classed themselves as ‘helpers’ and a very small minority who admitted to being legal professionals (3 and 7 per cent respectively). The webinar on preparing a will got a similar percentage of potential end users (61 per cent who were looking for help in preparing one).

Zoom and its equivalents has become a staple part of all our experiences during the pandemic and we can all agree that the generation and maintenance of engagement is crucial. An image of myself asleep was once embarrassingly broadcast to an earnest group of lawyers deep in a zoom discussion. One lesson if you are interested in zoom outreach is to swath of your camera if you are dozing off. Another is to look at the example of – and lessons from – the People’s Law School. Check out the recorded webinars on their website: they are impressive.

Leave a Reply