Finding the Right Legal Information Online Is Difficult, But Does It Have to Be?

August 14, 2020

We’ve all done it—googled something and then went from page to page to page trying to find the best source. And the thing is, you really can’t make an accurate determination of what is or isn’t best—or even trustworthy—unless you have a baseline understanding of what it is that you’re googling. Certain issues are easier to navigate than others, and there’s one that’s particularly challenging: legal matters. As Margaret Hagan of the Stanford Institute of Design recently wrote, when people search online for legal help, they more often than not end up finding sites that don’t actually apply to them.

Hagan cites two major breakdowns in legal help searches:

The first occurs when a search yields results that seem authoritative—and may even answer the question at hand—but that are from the wrong jurisdiction. Location matters when it comes to legal issues, but the degree to which this is true is not always common knowledge. An entirely on-topic article on eviction from a San Francisco source is not what a St. Louis renter needs.

The second breakdown occurs when someone is presented with high-level information that is topically relevant but is too abstract to be useful to a person needing legal help. People need specific and actionable information in order to move forward with a legal issue in a meaningful way.

In either scenario, there is a real potential for harm when people receive and act on incorrect or non-applicable information when pursing their legal issues. The Stanford Legal Design Lab, through the A Better Legal Internet project, has been working on this issue, with the goal of prioritizing the improvement of online searches for legal information, natural language processing (NLP), website portals, and other digital resources. The project’s focus is two-fold: 1) getting those who provide legal help information online (e.g., courts and legal aid groups) to better structure their content, and 2) better understanding how consumers talk about and make sense of their legal needs.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lab has merged the A Better Legal Internet work with an immediate focus on eviction, which is currently front and center for millions of Americans. With support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the lab created Legal Help FAQs, a central national platform where people can find information on eviction (and related issues) and links to resources that are specific to their area. The platform serves users in all 50 states; the project team, with the help of countless volunteers, updates the information weekly (if not more often).

This work represents an important step forward in the movement to make relevant legal information more readily accessible and understandable to those who need it. For many, the internet is the first place they start looking for solutions to problems, and meeting people where they are is critical in the development of effective access to justice solutions. We applaud the Stanford Legal Design Lab for their visionary work and hope to see similar resources—ones that are innovative, forward-thinking, and that utilize relevant technology—in the future. Efforts like these are increasingly important as our legal system faces some of the most pressing issues of our time.