Amid the storm of riots, Covid, rising domestic violence and eviction threats, a newly revised website and app are aimed at giving more Minnesotans access to free legal help.
The effort, launched this month by St. Paul-based Legal Services State Support and the California-based digital design firm Y Media Labs, created a bigger and better LawHelpMN.org website to respond to a host of rising needs in Minnesota.
The website and mobile app launched in 2019 right before the pandemic hit. But last year's explosion of health crises and social unrest forced the project back to the drawing board.
While the website initially reached 670,000 Minnesotans, the app proved clunky to use and prevented many users from completing forms, reaching free legal information, or being linked to pro bono legal help.
Only about 50,000 Minnesotans successfully used the app, said Legal Services State Support Executive Director J. Singleton.
That number should rise significantly now that changes made the site much easier to use, she said. YML donated its services.
"In the first two weeks since we launched the new design, we've already seen a 40% increase in the number of people who get resources from the LawHelpMN Guide. Y Media Labs has been amazing to work with," Singleton said.
In the legal field, most people think volunteering is limited to attorneys providing free legal advice. They ignore the huge technology side, she said. "YML has expanded that [volunteer] definition to show that a tech company can have a real impact on expanding access to justice."
A sizeable population in Minnesota can't afford a lawyer and don't know how to tap free services. It's why unresolved legal issues often span years, said Mitchell Hamline Law Professor Leanne Fuith.
"From the standpoint of getting information about legal issues and legal services to the general public, tools like this one are extraordinarily useful," Fuith said. "There is a significant amount of legal need, and more so, as people come out of COVID and try to navigate housing issues and unemployment and other things that became an increased struggle for people."
Singleton agreed, noting that Legal Services saw a burst of need last year, ranging from individuals craving legal information or pro bono help with child custody cases, domestic abuse, evictions, unemployment aid, and medical bills as well as by small business owners who needed legal advice after rioters upended livelihoods.
To speed up help, seven YML designers spent weeks streamlining the old LawHelpMN.org website and app, so it stopped having trouble matching Minnesotans' needs with available legal resources, said YML Creative Director Joe Johnston.
"The process to create this was a very emotional one for us, driven [by us wanting] to get into the shoes of the people using this technology," Johnston said. "At the end of this, there were definitely some tears going on."
Twelve-year-old YML is based in Redwood City, Calif. and boasts 400 digital design employees in California, New York City, Atlanta, Annapolis, and Bangalore, India.
Its work in Minnesota came about because of YML's connection to Singleton. It has not gone unnoticed.
"They absolutely did just a really great job of accessing what needed to change and made it more user friendly," said Minneapolis-based LegalCORPS Executive Director Sally Nankivell.
LegalCORPS, which works with pro bono attorneys statewide, gave feedback to YML and Legal Services on ways LawHelpMN.org could work better to help its small business clients.
With the new improvements, LegalCORPS imbedded the LawHelpMN.org website into many of the 250 "Legal Kiosks" it has scattered around the state.
Last year LegalCORPS was swamped with clients needing legal help with evictions, leases, contracts and insurance matters. The new LawHelpMN.org website will help going forward, Nankivell said.
"We don't want people to have to be problem solvers or jump through hoops just to get through a form. They abandon it if they run into trouble. So we are grateful for the changes made," she said.
LegalCORPS' kiosks have computers featuring the new LawHelpMN website at the Global Market on Lake Street, All Square Restaurant on Minnehaha Avenue, and the African Development Center on Riverside Avenue and 5th St. in Minneapolis. Others are in the Latino Economic Development Center on the Eastside of St. Paul and inside several sites in Grand Marais and Marshall, Minn.