Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services Celebrates 110th Anniversary

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) is excited to announce its 110th anniversary this year. SMRLS has experienced incredible growth since its humble beginnings in 1909. In the early days, SMRLS (then known as Legal Assistance of Ramsey County) typically only handled family law, social security, and landlord-tenant cases for clients in Ramsey County. Today, SMRLS is the largest provider of legal aid in Minnesota, closing more than 9,000 cases annually and serving an additional twenty thousand low-income residents through community outreach and training opportunities.

Former executive director Bruce Beneke has seen many changes In his four decades with SMRLS, but many important things have remained consistent.

“I’m most proud of the people who’ve been a part of SMRLS,” Bruce says. “The courage and strength of our clients; the dedication, compassion and outstanding work of our staff, board, pro bono, and Campaign lawyers; and the critical support of bar, judicial, corporate, community, legislative and local public and private funding leaders have, together, created a wonderful equal justice village and brought hope, empowerment and opportunity to persons in great need.”

SMRLS is commemorating this milestone anniversary by sharing the memories of some of SMRLS' longest-serving volunteers and staff on its website. Stories will be posted throughout the year at smrls.org/anniversary. Supporters and community partners are encouraged to visit the page each month to learn about SMRLS’ history, as told by the people who know it best. If you wish to share your story, please send an email to cla@smrls.org.

In addition, SMRLS’ celebration of “110 Years of Providing Access to Justice” will take on a festive note at its June 6th fundraiser Social Justice Uncorked. Tickets are available here.

Content Governance Policy Guides Decisions for the New LawHelpMN.org

The recently completed redesign of the LawHelpMN website required transferring all existing content from the previous platform to the new site. This was an opportunity to clean house on content that was out of date or inconsistent with the new site’s goals. One goal of the rebuild was to simplify the design and streamline content choices to avoid duplication and present the best possible resources. State Support created a content governance policy to guide decisions about what to include in the Self Help Library and the LawHelpMN Guide.

The content governance policy expresses a continuous balancing act in the management of user experience and expectation on LawHelpMN, with the general availability and quality of resources. In many subject areas, like consumer protection, there is an abundance of useful resources to help clients. The challenge for us is to determine which to include and which to exclude. Research shows that users take longer to make decisions when there are more choices, and can easily become frustrated or overwhelmed. We want users to easily find relevant, helpful and understandable content to answer their legal question.

With the establishment of guiding principles for LawHelpMN content, we are better able to make these decisions. State Support’s Education for Justice (E4J) fact sheets and booklets—written by legal aid staff and reviewed and updated annually—are our primary content. If E4J resources address a topic in a relevant, helpful and understandable way, we will decide not to link to another resource that says the same thing in a different way.

Because civil legal issues are our core area of expertise, they comprise the topics we focus on. For example, LawHelpMN includes some general criminal law information, but we do not include or link to numerous criminal topics. We also prioritize information that is written in a clear and accessible way and that helps people understand and resolve their legal problems. Resources that are complex or written in legalese don’t meet this standard and are therefore not included.

We additionally strive to link out to content that is authored and maintained by our partner organizations, as opposed to directly posting PDF or Word documents. A document authored by someone else may become out of date without our knowledge, leading to additional frustrations and potential problems for our users.  Our best practice is to link out to the source of the information so that any updates are naturally included. Finally, we do not link to for-profit websites.

State Support welcomes suggestions of content you think should be included on LawHelpMN. We review suggestions on a monthly basis, using our content governance policy to decide whether or not to add a resource. If you have a suggestion, contact us at statesupport@mnlegalservices.org.

LawHelpMN.org Featured in Attorney at Law Magazine

This month’s edition of Attorney at Law magazine includes a concise and instructive overview of the recently relaunched statewide legal website: LawHelpMN: Information and Referral Breakthrough.

The article also offers insights and background on the site’s newest and most innovative tool: the LawHelpMN Guide. The Guide provides users with targeted legal information and referrals based on their answers to guided questions.

“Our goal in developing the Guide was to be flexible, nimble, and responsive,” says Technology Projects Manager Jennifer Singleton. “For example, someone in a family dispute over an estate may think they have a family law problem, but the Guide will jump information strings and direct them to probate law.” Read more in Attorney at Law Magazine.

LawHelpMN Community Outreach Needs You

With the official launch of the freshly re-designed LawHelpMN.org on February 19, State Support staff have been reaching out to justice partners, legal aid and pro bono attorneys and the community at large to educate users about the new statewide website.

On February 22, over 80 people attended a free webinar demonstrating site features and use of the new LawHelpMN Guide navigational assistance tool. The webinar led Congressional staff to request a training for constituent services staff on using LawHelpMN as a referral tool in early April. In-person presentations have been held for 2nd Judicial District Self-Help Center and United Way 2-1-1 staffs. A presentation for Public Library Day is also scheduled for April 12.

State Support welcomes opportunities to talk with staff, pro bono coordinators, partners in social services and court self-help staff who seek a better understanding of how to utilize LawHelpMN.org in their work. We can also provide printed brochures for your own community outreach efforts. Thousands of brochures have already gone out to legal services programs and library and self-help partners. To schedule a training or presentation for your group, or request brochures, contact Emily Good at egood@mnlegalservices.org.

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