A Better Internet for Legal Help

The Internet is not a good place to find legal services. Even as more people search the Internet to figure out how to respond to a problem in their life, they can’t find clear answers or paths to get things done easily.

How can we make the internet a better place for legal help

[We recently spun off a micro-site, specifically for our Better Internet project. See it here — to get a design review tool for those legal help website-owners, as well as some free icons and assets to use.

With this project, we aim to begin addressing this problem by establishing (1) a backend infrastructure of legal guidance and services, with an open, data-standardized, coordinated system of help-providers, and (2) an ecosystem of more usable, useful, and engaging tools for laypeople to use, built on top of this infrastructure.

Better internet for legal help coordinated system w many doors

Open, structured data will provide the foundation for new tools that lay people can use to figure out what services they require (and are eligible for), and how to best access them.

In particular, we will develop standardized, structured data representations that will allow search engines to provide clear guidance on trustworthy, local legal services in response to users who are searching for help with a legal problem. We will also define a systematic agenda of what kinds of tools, interfaces, and services are needed to make this data meaningful to people searching for help online.

Working Group

We have been bringing together key stakeholders from legal service providers, courts, technology companies, and researchers working on legal service innovation, open data, search, and related topics.

This working group has been planning and implementing a pilot of data standardization for one area of legal services, and then will begin to generate tools and interventions for the general public’s benefit.

In our meetings, we’ve tackled the question of “How can we make the Internet a place for more accessible & user-friendly legal services?”

Or, how can we make online legal services “Simple at the Front & Smart at the Back?”

This entailed discussions of both:

(1) “Front-End” tools — tools, websites, and other interfaces that laypeople could be using online to find, understand, and act upon legal information & services

(2) “Back-End” coordination — what legal service providers, technology companies, and other social service coordinators can be doing together to allow for more comprehensive, coordinated service offerings online


We went through a series of discussions about current initiatives and proposals, brainstorming new initiatives, and refinement to create an agenda for what needs to be happening on both fronts.

Our goal is to lay the groundwork for some pilots among Bay Area actors, of both front-end tool-building and back-end coordination efforts. Our first effort will be in building a markup schema, to be formed as an extension of Schema.org, that will let existing web content be found, parsed, and delivered better by search engine applications.


Each session with stakeholders has ended with:

  1. developing a shortlist for what needs to be improved for a better legal internet: including coordinated data standardization among service-providers, better user-facing tools and platforms, and other coordination of service providers & systems;
  2. defining what specific pilots we could implement in the Bay Area (or beyond) for a discrete legal issue, to test and gather data about these user-facing tools or back-end coordination;
  3. soliciting participation from a wider community to support these efforts, and promote the importance of improving the lay person’s experience of finding legal help online.

Our primary goal now is to develop Schema.Org extension for legal issues, procedures, and services. This extension will contain markup terms for the content that courts and legal help providers have on their websites.


As the Internet becomes more pervasive in the way people respond to problems and seek out help, there is an opportunity to transform how most people interact with the legal system.  What if, when a person searched Google, Bing, or Yahoo about their problem situation, they were able to find clear ways to: (1) understand the legal options open to them, and; (2) find clear, local options to start addressing their problem? What if information about legal services was provided online in a reliable, direct, and interactive way, so that it was more comprehensible and actionable for lay people?

Currently, that is not the case. An Internet search for legal help results in a mix of advertisements for lawyers, general articles about legal topics, and forums where people share their personal experiences. The search results are not often jurisdiction-specific, nor do they provide clear ways to figure out services a person is eligible for, or how to get them.

Our project aims to start improving this situation by establishing standards for how legal service providers (including courts, legal aid groups, and others) save and share their data about service options, eligibility, and procedures. If service providers use a standard format and common semantics for their data, it will establish a solid groundwork for a new generation of smarter, powerful technology tools to connect lay people with legal help.

With a coordinated system of standardized data:

(1) search engines could respond to queries by providing clear guidance to local service options,

(2) centralized websites could walk users through eligibility-checks and route them to local service-providers for their needs,

(3) an ecosystem of apps, websites, and other smart tools that can flourish drawing upon this coordinated infrastructure.


This project has two main sets of goals, for our work beginning in 2015: the short-term and long-term.

Short term goals:

  1. Assemble a working group of stakeholders with the expertise to define data standards, and to instantiate them in the context of a specific type of legal service in a limited geography (e.g., family law in California)
  2. Establish open standards for data, including file formats and semantics (e.g., ontologies) as required
  3. Generate concepts for tools and Internet search interventions that will use the data standards

Long term goals:

  1. Internet search results that give clear, reliable guidance to local legal services
  2. New tools that allow for eligibility-checks, process-guides, and coordinated legal and social service care
  3. More coordination among social service providers, for improved & holistic care for people in crisis
  4. Increased participation among social (and legal) service providers in making their resources standardized, machine-readable, and coordinated, and increased funding support from philanthropic foundations
  5. (and most importantly) A smooth, holistic way for a layperson to go from ‘searching a problem on a search engine’ to ‘finding and following through on a legal process’, all while online.

Better internet for legal help image user journey


Semantic Schema

For the school year of 2016-2017, we will be working on creating standardized schema of legal help information. These schema can be used by groups that provide legal information online (like courts, legal aid groups, statewide legal assistance sites, and others) in order to tag up their information in machine-readable ways, about what issues and services it concerns. Then search engines and other applications can use this tagged-up information to find the best legal help resources for a specific user and their needs.


 As more people turn to search engines, like Google, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo, to figure out what their problems are, and to determine how best to address them, there is an opportunity to provide meaningful, correct, and public information to them about how the legal system might be useful to solving certain of their problems — like around housing, divorce, child custody and support, cleaning a criminal record, or domestic violence.

In this project, we will develop and pilot the internet infrastructure — in the form of ontologies, or ‘schema’ — that make existing and future online legal help information machine-readable. Many legal service providers, from courts to non-profits to educational institutions, host excellent content online for lay people to diagnose, understand, and follow through on their legal problems. But it is difficult for lay people to find and to use this information, because it is dispersed across many sites, does not surface prominently in search engine searches, and is in competition with legal content from for-profit actors, incorrect jurisdictions, and forum comments. Our project will create a schema of tags that can then be used by legal service providers to encode their content, so that search engines and other applications can recognize what the content is, what jurisdiction it applies to, and what kinds of local and online providers can help a person deal with it.

The approach: We will work on two tracks: first, investing in the groundwork for smarter legal help search and applications in the form of standard Internet schema (taxonomies of information that the three main search engines use to parse, weigh, and deliver search results), and second, designing better search results pages that could give laypeople direct, clear, and actionable summaries of what legal issue they may be facing, and what they could do to resolve it.

We will work in an agile way: with our core team doing user and background research to draft initial schema and search results designs, getting expert and user feedback on our drafts, and refining through this cycle until we can pilot it online with our legal help sites and Search Engine partners.

We have begun to create the classes and terms for the Law Extension of schema.org and invite any potential collaborators to be in touch.

The goal of the project is to improve access to justice on at one of the most important junctions in which lay people seek out legal information and services: the internet search. This project will both increase the ability of the search engines to identify legal issues in people’s queries, and to direct them to relevant, jurisdiction-specific, actionable information to deal with these issues. Our project’s pilot implementation of the schema will lay the groundwork for further infrastructure on the internet, to provide more structured and semantic legal help through search engines and other applications. The process of crafting and implementing these schema will also be instructional for the law students involved, as they learn about ontology engineering and legal informatics.