MLH Celebrates Five Years!

MLH Celebrates Five Years!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Can you believe Michigan Legal Help (MLH) is five years old this month? It seems like only yesterday MLH staff were drafting the first articles and planning the original design of MichiganLegalHelp.org. Despite its youth, Michigan Legal Help (MLH) is recognized throughout the state as the most reliable source for free, accurate, up-to-date tools and referrals for civil legal problems. It is also a model for programs developing similar resources across the country. The keys to its success have been the breadth and depth of its content, its outreach efforts, the many elements of the program, the fantastic contributions and support from partners, and the dedication of MLH staff.

In addition to its fifth birthday, this month MLH is also celebrating the Michigan State Bar Foundation’s announcement that MLH Director Angela Tripp is a 2017 recipient of the Access to Justice Award, which honors persons who have significantly advanced access to justice for the poor in Michigan.
The most important component of MLH is the legal information it provides for people with legal problems. New content is always being added to the website, often in response to the requests of visitors. In the last year, MLH has added information about special education, how to make a will, unemployment benefits, and farmworkers’ rights, among others.

MLH works hard to keep everything on the site up to date, which means staying on top of all changes to laws and practices in Michigan. In the past year MLH updated information to reflect the filing fee increase that took effect in 2016, and revised articles and replaced forms as needed to reflect changes to State Court Administrative Office court forms. MLH continues to close in on the goal of translating all of its content into Spanish for publication on its Spanish-language website, AyudaLegaldeMichigan.org.

One of the easiest ways to measure the success of MLH is to look at data about how many people use the resources there. In its first five years, the Michigan Legal Help website had 11.6 million page views and 3.87 million visitors. In July 2017, there were about 29,000 visits per week.  Traffic to the website increased by 20% in MLH’s fifth year.  On MLH, visitors can easily complete the court forms they need in order to resolve their legal problems.  In 2016 MLH visitors completed 86,824 sets of forms. (One “set” may include multiple forms necessary to carry out a legal case.) This is an average of 238 sets of forms completed each day, and represents a 38% increase from 2015.

Another way that MLH helps people is through LiveHelp, an interactive, chat-based form of assisting website users without giving legal advice. From its launch in September 2013, LiveHelp has been available from 11 am to 3 pm, Monday through Friday. LiveHelp agents, who are trained law student volunteers, interact with website visitors, helping them navigate the website and answering questions that do not require legal advice. In 2016 agents helped 7,775 people, an increase of 119% since 2015.

MLH continues to grow and improve in many aspects beyond the publication of new content. For example, in 2016, MLH hired outside evaluators to assess how accessible the website is to users with vision and other disabilities. On the basis of their recommendations, MLH modified the website layout to improve both usability and accessibility. Also in 2016, MLH broke virtual ground on one of its most ambitious programs to date, the MLH Legal Help Finder. When this feature launches in September 2017, it will guide litigants to the most appropriate resources available to them along the continuum of services available in Michigan, from assisted self-help, to unbundled assistance, to full representation by an attorney. The system will use advanced logic trees to help identify a visitor’s legal problem and what services they qualify for, then direct the user to the most appropriate resources to resolve their problem, given what is available in the community.

Michigan Legal Help has developed and continues to support a network of fifteen Self-Help Centers (SHCs) throughout the state. These are locations where visitors can go to access computers, printers, internet, and legal information (but not advice). In most cases, the centers are staffed by trained Navigators who help visitors find the legal information they need at Michigan Legal Help. 

For each new Self-Help Center, MLH staff conduct an on-site training for personnel from local courts, legal services, libraries, community organizations, and the host location. MLH provides continuing support in the form of quarterly webinars, additional trainings, and news updates. In the last year, MLH opened new SHC sites in Saginaw, Livingston, Alpena, and Grand Traverse counties and is are preparing to open more Centers this year in Jackson, Genesee, and Cass counties.

A critical component of the MLH mission is to build strong partnerships with courts, legal services providers, lawyers, and community organizations to improve access to justice. To this end, MLH staff, and in particular, its director, Angela Tripp, participates in numerous statewide and national committees related to legal services delivery, as well as several SCAO forms committees.

MLH continues to look for ways to increase awareness of its website and SHCs throughout the state. Therefore, MLH staff are always willing to make outreach presentations at organizations of all kinds, from academic settings, to governmental bodies, to community festivals, and beyond. MLH staff also regularly contribute to various publications, including SCAO’s Connections, the Bar Journal, and the Family Law Journal.

MLH is proud of its accomplishments so far, but there is always more work to be done.