Executive Director Susan Choe reflects on 2023 and what the Ohio Legal Help team, partners and Ohio families have been able to accomplish over the last year.
As I sat down to write this letter, I reflected on the class I taught at Case Western Reserve University School of Law this past year. Titled “Using Technology to Increase Access to Justice Lab,” my class focused on the best practices to approaching user-centered design as a way to help solve legal problems for real people. This class allowed me to step back and look at the concepts involved in user-centered design and how we incorporate them into our daily work.
When developers and designers discuss user-centered design you often hear technical terms like discovery, user persona, use case, edge case and requirements. But the heart of user-centered design is empathy and placing yourself in the shoes of the user: like a user confused about the divorce process, or a user scared about facing a debt collection lawsuit or a user navigating the stress of an eviction.
To gain insights into our user’s needs and barriers we focus on two key sources of information. First, we review data from our users from Ohio Legal Help including thousands of user surveys. This information provides valuable insights into their preferences and needs and helps us identify problems and opportunities by understanding who they are. Second, we consider our users’ diverse needs through outreach to our partners who know firsthand the complexity and ever-evolving nature of our users legal issues. By placing ourselves in the shoes of our users, we can tailor solutions to problems impacting their lives. Lastly, our users should feel empowered to take action to resolve their legal problems. By providing our users with innovative tools that remove barriers to the civil justice system, we can begin to close the justice gap.
In 2023, we were able to serve nearly 800,000 families from all 88 counties in Ohio as we worked to fulfill our mission to remove barriers so that all Ohioans can understand their legal options, connect to legal and community resources, and make informed decisions. We receive feedback from our users everyday which allows us to discover pain points in a typical user’s journey and work to find solutions.
Through our data gathering, we know that our typical user visits the website on their mobile phone at all hours of the day and night. They are often in a household of at least 3 people, and their household income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Nearly half of our users are facing homelessness, experiencing or have experienced violence or abuse, over the age of 60 or a veteran. This past year, users turned to Ohio Legal Help to help navigate legal issues like getting a protection order, changing their legal name, the divorce and dissolution processes in Ohio, eviction and other landlord/tenant issues. By analyzing this data and listening to our users, we know that the design of our website and the information it contains must be straightforward and action oriented to provide accessible legal help.
One of our users wrote to us after finding the divorce information they were looking for and told us, “Your website is well written, easy-to-understand, and gives honest examples of what to anticipate. Thank you for sharing your knowledge to all of us confused by legal proceedings.”
In addition to user feedback, our team met with countless partners across the state to learn more about our users’ needs. Our partners know firsthand the difficulties many Ohioans face with legal issues impacting their daily lives. They help guide the content and tools on our website so that we can deliver the best experience for our users.
Through these partnerships and the guidance of our Advisory Committee and Board, we learned that there were several areas of need that we could expand on our website. First, we worked with the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Franklin County Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court to create information and an action plan for kinship caregivers. Kinship care involves placing kids with grandparents, extended family members or close family friends, which can minimize trauma, provide more stability, and facilitate connections with siblings and other family members.
Next, we worked with a team of experts at BroadStreet Partners to expand our content on employment law. This information on the website will help employees and employers navigate their relationship and understand Ohio law.
Later in the year, the work requirements for SNAP benefits (also known as food stamps) underwent changes that affected many Ohioans. Working with the team at the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, we created a SNAP work requirements screening tool that helps Ohioans understand which requirements they may have to meet or if they meet an exemption. Navigating this system can be complicated, so creating a user-friendly tool like this can provide accurate information at the right time.
In 2021, guided by the direction of our Advisory Committee, we conducted a survey of Black Ohioans to learn their views about and knowledge of the civil justice system. Debt collection was the legal issue most respondents had dealt with. Yet while 52% of respondents reported direct experience with debt collections, only 17% sought help from a lawyer. We considered how this information could be used to help Ohioans, with a focus on empowering Black Ohioans to access the court system and avoid the detrimental collateral impacts of inaction involving debt collection lawsuits.
Through generous funding provided by the Columbus Bar Foundation, we worked with the Franklin County Municipal Court Self Help Center this past year to add legal information, court forms and tools on our website to help Franklin County residents deal with civil legal issues related to debt collection.
One of our users wrote to us after visiting our page on fighting a debt collection lawsuit and told us, “I wanted to know more about what might happen with my debt collection now that it is with an attorney's office. I was scared but I feel better now that I have some idea what to expect and know what to do when I receive the letters.”
More than 90% of low-income people facing legal issues receive no or inadequate legal help and often have no choice but to navigate complex legal issues on their own. Our users not only need up-to-date information, but they also need innovative tools to help them take action when it comes to their legal issues.
Using a generous grant from the Dayton Legal Heritage Foundation, a component fund of The Dayton Foundation, we spent the past couple of years designing, building, testing and evaluating a Virtual Self-Help Center in partnership with the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court. The free, online tool is available 24/7 and provides critical court information and allows users to fill out, edit, save and complete court forms on their mobile phones when it’s most convenient for them, whether it’s in the middle of the day or the middle of the night. In 2024, we will launch similar virtual self-help tools in both Cuyahoga County and Lorain County.
In keeping with our belief in continuous improvement to our website, we also added chatbot technology thanks to a grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation. One of the pillars of accessible design is understanding that users interface with technology in different ways and want real-time support. In order to address our users’ need for real-time support while using OhioLegalHelp.org, Ohio Legal Help now provides a chatbot powered by AI, and in 2024 will have an interactive LiveChat staffed by law student volunteers from Ohio’s law schools during business hours. We hope that tools like these will remove many of the barriers to justice that people face when they’re navigating the civil legal system on their own.
This year we were thrilled to receive the Outstanding Organization Award from the Ohio State Bar Foundation during the All Rise Annual Awards Celebration. The ceremony honored “the outstanding attorneys and organizations that have exemplified an unwavering dedication to building a better justice system, broadening access to justice, and advancing our collective understanding of the law.” We are grateful for the continued support from all of our funders and partners of our mission and are committed to keeping our users at the forefront of our work.
Our users’ voices guide our work every day, and I often think of a user from Butler County who was being evicted from their mobile home, who wrote to us to say “[The website] answered many questions about this stressful situation and helped me understand the process to navigate through it.”
As we go forward into 2024, my team and I will continue to listen to our users and work everyday to help Ohioans navigate the justice system, by providing accurate and up-to-date information, court forms and legal self-help tools. This holiday season and beyond, we are calling upon you to help us serve more families who need relief. Share our posts on social media; forward our email updates to your colleagues; donate to us to help us create more content, add new website features, and continue outreach to the most vulnerable populations in Ohio.
Together we can continue to take a personal approach to innovation and empower Ohioans resolve their legal issues.