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Legal Empowerment Data Literacy and Governance Initiative

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit, founded in 1999, dedicated to increasing access to justice. Through innovative technology solutions and expertise in building and mobilizing justice networks, Pro Bono Net transforms the way legal help reaches those in low income and vulnerable communities. Pro Bono Net received a 2017 Digital Impact Grant for the project “Legal Empowerment Data Literacy and Governance Initiative.”


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Project Overview

This project supported Pro Bono Net’s work in two areas:

  • A series of activities to strengthen data rights and privacy policies for low income individuals seeking legal help online through several existing online platforms we support, and to promote effective models and practices within our national partner network
  • The development a data governance model for a new, groundbreaking online legal referral collaboration.

Both prongs of this project sought to research, incorporate and share with the field promising practices for how to build data literacy and trust among low income and vulnerable users of online legal help systems in a rapidly evolving public policy and privacy landscape.


Nearly 50 million people live in poverty in the U.S., and millions of others struggle to get by on moderate incomes. Many of these individuals face problems with a legal dimension such as finding and maintaining suitable housing, securing stable employment, or finding protection from family violence. The civil justice sector uses web-based tools extensively to empower individuals facing potentially life-altering legal issues to understand their rights, navigate the legal process an find assistance from trusted nonprofit service providers. Pro Bono Net has been a catalyst for this work by developing and deploying web-based platforms that have been adopted across the sector nationally to increase access to diret services and equip individuals with self-advocacy tools to tackle legal problems. Two of these platforms, and, currently reach approximately 8 million individuals per year. Two trends are driving the need for Pro Bono Net and our sector partners to enhance and expand our data policies, user communications and governance strategy:

  • Emerging legal and data literacy needs: it is essential that individuals with legal needs, particularly low-income and vulnerable communities, have trust in online systems that can help them prevent or mitigate life-changing legal problems. Traditional in-person, direct services available from nonprofit legal aid providers is only able to meet a fraction of the current demand for assistance, and the gap is likely to increase. Technology solutions are central to addressing current and emerging legal needs. However, there is a risk that recent high-profile hacks and the rollback of the FCC’s online consumer privacy protections will have a chilling effect on the trust that people have in using online systems to seek help. This work aims to refresh and strengthen our user privacy policies and communication methods, and to propagate effective practices to our sector partners so our users not only solve their legal issues, but also enhance their digital literacy and ownership over decisions related to their personal data.
  • Innovations in service delivery require new data governance models: Pro Bono Net is leading several initiatives in the civil justice sector to develop new, collaborative approaches to service delivery using technology. The most significant involves a partnership with the Legal Services Corporation and Microsoft to pilot the development of statewide civil justice portals to help low and moderate income individuals with legal needs identify and access legal assistance and related social services. Online legal triage and referral collaborations hold significant promise for reducing current fragmentation in services and online resources, and ensuring that individuals are referred to the program best suited to help and lead to actionable results. However, cutting-edge collaborations such as this require a new data governance model among the participating organizations, as well as clear, transparent and accessible information for users of the system about their data rights and privacy options as they navigate the system.


Liz Keith presented the work of Pro Bono Net at the Data on Purpose conference at Stanford University in February 2019.

2017 Digital Impact Grantees from Stanford PACS on Vimeo.


  • Based the immersion studies and ideation workshops we supported with community members in Alaska and Hawaii, as well as related user needs research undertaken by our LawHelpNY Access to Justice Tech Fellow and our Immigration Advocates Network Community Engagement Coordinator, privacy and data rights issues are a mainstream concern among low socio-economic status individuals, particularly those who have experienced disenfranchisement or an adversarial relationship with “the justice system,” broadly defined. In our research, this included low-income and native Alaskans and Hawaii Islanders, immigrants, domestic violence survivors and individuals who felt a general sense of discrimination or disenfranchisement that influenced whether they decided to seek legal help or feel a positive resolution to their legal problem possible. In addition, there is a heightened awareness among these individuals of the way their personal information might be shared and reused, without their knowledge or permission, across online platforms or amongst various government entities. The narrative of privacy being “dead,” as sometimes expressed in the media, is not accurate, at least among low income and marginalized communities we have engaged with over the last year. In addition, immigrants participating in June 2018 focus groups of, conducted under a parallel project with support from pro bono user experience designers from Google, were excited to learn about, but also expressed hesitation about visiting websites related to immigration legal help, out of fear of being surveilled. Our shared key findings from these focus groups, and website design and content changes made in response to them, with our broader program teams working on LawHelp, LawHelp Interactive and the Legal Navigator initiatives to inform similar considerations for those platforms. Across all of the user research activities described above, many participants were adamant about the need to provide clear information about the project partners/sponsors, a phone number and address on online legal help platforms for users to know the platform is legitimate and trustworthy.
  • At the same time, these individuals – particularly people we heard from in the context of the Legal Navigator initiative in Alaska and Hawaii – expressed a desire for easier, more accessible ways of sharing information about their needs with trusted service providers. This finding was somewhat counter-intuitive to some of the nonprofit civil legal services providers that Pro Bono Net engages with in our day-to-day work, who are often averse to capturing any user data in online legal help and triage systems, or feel users do not want to share their personal information under any circumstances. On the contrary, user research for the Legal Navigator project in Alaska and Hawaii indicated that users want an approach that balances common-sense privacy rights and concerns with simple, accessible tools to help them make contact with and obtain assistance from trusted service providers in their area. This desire was one of the top 5 user needs priorities expressed by community members in ideation workshops held in Honolulu and Anchorage, which included a diverse range of participants from urban centers to Native villages off the road system in Alaska. These findings are illustrated in the following quotes, and were underscored by participant comments about the need to access and reuse their data over the long period of time – sometimes months or years – it can take to resolve a legal matter, and to make their data accessible in appropriate ways to the variety of legal and social services providers they are likely to engage with over time to resolve their problems. These insights have directly informed the user experience design of the Legal Navigator platform, how data storage and data-sharing mechanisms have been designed, and where information about user privacy rights will be presented within beta platform, when rolled out in January 2019.
  • Even with an agreed upon, shared vision for a data-sharing project among various civil society collaborators, developing and operationalizing data sharing and data governance agreement can be a complex and time-consuming consensus-building endeavor. The involvement of a for-profit technology provider as one of the collaborators can be an additional barrier for some groups to overcome. For example, while Microsoft’s role and significant in-kind contributions as the lead development partner on the Legal Navigator initiative were largely welcomed by civil justice and social services organizations in Hawaii and Alaska, some organizations, or their own private technical and case management vendors, expressed a degree of skepticism about Microsoft’s motive for participating in the project, or had concerns about if/how data they provide might be used in Microsoft’s research and development activities. This in turn influenced how readily local actors have been willing to engage in data-sharing discussions and agreements. We believe the proof of concepts we are working to develop between the Legal Navigator platform and 211 systems as well as legal aid intake systems will provide a well-tested technical and data-sharing policy foundation to facilitate the integration of additional online help systems in the future, whether for the Legal Navigator, or for similar online civil justice innovations in the future.

Next Steps

  • Completion of the user privacy policies and related user flows within the Legal Navigator platform, in tandem with Microsoft’s development work on the platform.
  • Completion of the case study / Quick Start Guide compiling these policies and related artifacts to build capacity and knowledge within the civil justice field nationally.
  • Planning and implementation of a “phase II” of Legal Navigator with partners in Alaska and Hawaii in 2019 to create a “warm handoff” between the Legal Navigator platform and the legal aid case management systems (CMS) in Alaska and Hawaii PIKA to make the process of applying for legal aid more seamless and successful for individuals likely to benefit from legal aid’s services.

Outputs and Progress

  • Developed updated, plain language privacy policies for three online platforms, including and, the LawHelp initiative in New York State; LiveHelp; and The updated privacy policies for were reviewed by and edited by Transcend, a plain language translation firm with expertise in linguistics, and made available in English and Spanish.
  • Developed model data sharing and data governance agreements for academic researchers and technology developers interested in using platform data in research and research and web development activities.
  • Supported the design and implementation of user immersion studies and ideation workshops in Alaska and Hawaii focused on current barriers to accessing online legal information and services, and user attitudes and needs regarding the use of Legal Navigator, a new online legal triage and referral platform, to obtain legal assistance. Through these activities, we were able to surface key insights about user perspectives and priorities regarding the use and sharing of data about their legal needs to facilitate referrals to legal and social services. A blog post about the ideation workshops was published in March on the Legal Navigator project blog.
  • Worked with legal aid partners in Alaska and Hawaii on initial scoping of methods to receive “warm referrals” from the Legal Navigator platform through the hand-off of legal help requests with legal aid online intake systems, with informed content of the user.
    In addition, we supported the creation of new data-sharing collaborations between civil justice organizations in Alaska and Hawaii with United Way / 211 organizations in each state to make social services referral data available within the Legal Navigator platform, and provided sample data-sharing / data governance agreements to facilitate this collaboration.
  • Presented work on this project to approximately 50 nonprofit civil justice organizations, courts and allied justice community stakeholders across 30 states, including via: a May 2018 Equal Justice Conference, a June 2018 webinar for the network, and an August 2018 webinar for the LawHelp Interactive network.

Learn More

Find out more about Pro Bono Net’s programs and services here.