January 30, 2017
Mindsight had the opportunity to sit down with Teri Ross, Program Director for Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO). ILAO provides free legal information and tools to help those that cannot afford a lawyer. As the Program Director, Ross heads up ILAO’s legal content, technology, user experience and outreach staff. Together, these teams look for new opportunities to help spread and solidify ILAO’s message and mission to the larger public. Sometimes that means establishing new strategic partnerships with national leaders and groups, and sometimes it means pursuing new technology options.
She came to ILAO in 2008 from another non-profit legal aid law firm with the goal of helping the largest number of people she could.
Our brief interview covered ILAO’s mission, how technology fits into it, and how technology benefits non-profits in general.
Interview with Teri Ross of Illinois Legal Aid Online
Mindsight Blogging Team: Tell us about ILAO’s mission overall.
Teri Ross: “ILAO provides free legal help online in plain language, so that those who cannot afford a lawyer can still receive accurate and clear answers to their questions. By developing Illinois Legal Aid Online, we hoped that people with legal issues would be able to use the information to help themselves.”
MBT: How does technology play a central role to that mission?
TR: “There’s a scalability problem in the legal field. There can’t be a lawyer for every person who needs legal help, and not every person can afford a lawyer. Technology enables us to overcome that problem.”
By setting up ILAO as a repository of legal information, more people can find the answers they are looking for without having to resort to paying a lawyer for legal counsel. Ross went on to note that 75% of their traffic online comes from organic Google searches, otherwise known as SEO searches. This is an important facet of ILAO’s strategy in that it allows individuals who may not even be aware of ILAO – or the fact that their problem is a legal one – to quickly find the legal information they need to solve their problems.
MBT: What would be an example of the kind of information you can receive on ILAO?
TR: “Legal name change forms or information on simple guardianship cases all the way up to articles on family law matters, which can become very complex.”
This is no exaggeration. Within just a short time browsing through the ILAO website, a user can find dozens of articles on a wide range of topics. During the time this article was written, a widget on the home page of the blog offered articles on, “Expunging a Criminal Record,” “Can I Ride a Bicycle on the Sidewalk,” and “Your Rights as a Domestic Worker.”
In addition, the format this information is delivered on varies from topic to topic. Sometimes, the best way to articulate a legal issue is through a video or by simply providing the standard legal form to submit locally.
MBT: Were it not for your technology solutions and ILAO, what are your client’s alternative options?
TR: “Free legal help has such a low supply and a high demand, that most people would have to pay for a lawyer’s help, or just try to navigate the system alone.”
This loops back to the financial and scalability issues in the legal field. Without online resources like ILAO, much of this legal information would be inaccessible to public without paying an attorney to explain it to them.
MBT: If you can pinpoint one or two technologies that have made the greatest difference to your operation, what would they be?”
TR: “Before our website update and overhaul in August, our site was not optimized for mobile, and ever since about 2010, it has been clear that this is the way the world was moving. Many of our website users forego purchasing a desktop or laptop computer, because they already have a supercomputer in the palm of their hand.
The second technology would be our optimization of the user experience. When redesigning our website, we took great care to step outside ourselves, recognize our assumptions, and make this information as user-friendly as possible.”
MBT: Despite the value technology has provided to ILAO, what challenges does your organization still face?
TR: “Technology is always evolving, so trying to keep up with the pace of innovation is like trying to hit a moving target. Plus, it’s difficult to make decisions on which technologies to adopt, because it is hard to tell, which technologies are going to survive and continue.”
This is an issue for most companies, but it can be twice as complex for non-profit organizations. They often have tighter or at least more rigid budgets and cannot afford to adopt a technology that is not certain to last. To that point, Ross went on to deliver some parting advice.
MBT: If a non-profit is looking to expand their technology investment, what is one piece of advice you would supply them?
TR: “It’s important to have an investment in technology. There’s a hesitancy for a lot of non-profits to make the investment, because technology is not the actual service the non-profit provides. It provides logistics and distribution of services, but that is just as important.”
Technology as a Distribution Model and Disruptor
As many marketers, advertisers, and independent content creators already know, the internet is an extremely powerful tool for spreading a message. For very little cost and almost no time at all, an organization can access the millions of Americans connected to the internet at any time of the day. At the same time, this power has proven to be a disruptor to long-standing, stagnant industries.
For ILAO, the internet is the core of their strategy and also fulfills that disruptor role. Through these services, users of any socio-economic status can access accurate legal information without the need to pay legal fees to an attorney. ILAO both wields technology to spread its message and disrupts the old lawyer-client relationship for the better.
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