Top Navigation

You are here

Best Practice: Maintaining an Online Library of Support Materials

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A varied library of support material provides essential assistance to volunteer attorneys. Providing volunteers with training and reference information that they can easily access saves them hours of research and preparation.  Many of these materials – such as basic legal education pamphlets, practice guides, recorded trainings, sample memoranda and briefs, and automated interviews and document assembly packages – are already available to legal aid advocates, and simply need to be shared with volunteer attorneys.

Benefits of Maintaining an Online Library
  • Provide constant support for volunteers.  Handling pro bono cases requires very specific subject knowledge that volunteers might not be able to find through a Google search.  An up-to-date online library provides volunteers with the information they want when and where it is convenient for them.
  • Reinforce training. In-person trainings can be supplemented with “refresher” materials and resources found in the library.
  • Improve consistency of services. If the library provides volunteer attorneys with access to the practice manuals, brief banks, and document assembly tools, then volunteers are more likely to complete work that is consistent with the work legal aid attorneys produce.
Case Study: IllinoisProBono.org’s Public Online Library

IllinoisProBono.org includes a publicly available library of content to support volunteer attorneys. The library houses over 1500 pieces of content, which receives over 171,560 page views per year. 

Though the library  is public, volunteers are encouraged to register for an account, because the site can be customized based on each volunteer's interests. 

Content is organized in four different ways:

  • By content type, so that volunteers can choose between forms, HotDocs assembly packages, the video library, and Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) On-Demand.
  • By volunteer type, so that volunteers can access resources specific to law students, corporate counsel, paralegals, senior attorneys, and government attorneys.
  • By pro bono special project, which includes specialized resources for seven ongoing special projects, such as a recurring bankruptcy clinic and a legal education initiative for seniors.
  • By substantive topic, which includes resources for 33 different practice areas.
IllinoisProBono.org's Library Menu
ILAO library menu

The library is maintained by a content manager, who relies on an automated review process to ensure that content is up-to-date. The library’s content management system includes a quality assurance system that determines which pieces of content need to be updated, based on the relative age and popularity of each piece of content. The content manager updates the content's metadata and related articles, and contacts experts from the legal aid community who are experts in the relevant subject matter. 

Illinois Legal Aid Online maintains a pool of approximately 500 attorneys that they rely on as substantive experts; 20 – 30 of these attorneys actually review content in a given year.

How to Manage an Online Library for Volunteer Attorneys
Steps to manage an online library

Determine your audience

Will your library be publicly available to potential volunteers? Or will it be password-protected, for a specifically approved set of advocates?

Select content 

Start by reviewing the materials that staff attorneys rely on the most. If it’s useful to staff, it’s likely to be useful for volunteers as well.

Appoint a content manager

Assigning a single person or organization the responsibility for maintaining material provides volunteer attorneys with a point-person for their questions. 

Establish review processes

Content is bound to fall out of date. The content manager can manage the workload of updating content by prioritizing the most popular content, and reviewing content that is used less frequently on a rotating schedule. 

Library Tools Available

Legal Aid Statewide Website Templates: LSC’s Technology Initiative Grant Program (TIG) funded the development of two templates for legal aid statewide websites: one template developed by Pro Bono Net, and one open source template built in Drupal. Both templates have the capacity to house an online library. Most statewide websites rely on one of these two templates.  The GeorgiaAdvocates.org website, built on the Pro Bono Net template, has a password-protected practice area devoted to volunteer attorneys. The Arkansas Legal Services Partnership website, built on the open-source Drupal template, includes a password-protected “Pro Bono Toolbox” with legal information, a practice manual, and document assembly packages.

Free-Standing Library Tools: In addition to the statewide website templates, legal aid organizations can create online libraries with free tools like Wikis and Google sites. Wikis, which allow users to contribute website’s content and structure, foster collaboration among subject-area experts, and are easy to set up. Google sites are also free and easy to implement, and are ideal for organizations that want to limit the control that users have to make changes to content.