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The Judge rules: lawyer websites — little more than worthy vanity publishing

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A recent rash of online efforts from the legal profession should be praised for effort, but they won’t reach their supposed target audiences

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They are bright, breezy, colourful and chock-a-block with state-of-the-art design tropes. They are a rash of lawyer-generated “project” and other websites — with the latest to hit the cyber streets being Rightsinfo.org.

It is the brainchild of Adam Wagner, an eight-year-call barrister at London’s One Crown Office Row. According to the public law specialist, the site will “use social media to improve public understanding of human rights. Our brilliant new website provides clear, reliable and beautiful human rights information to share”.

Wagner’s well-meaning site comes on the heels of The Transparency Project, a curiously-named site from fellow barrister Lucy Reed, a family law specialist at St John’s Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn.

The “concept” behind Reed’s site “is to shed some light on the workings of the family courts, to make the process and the cases understandable for people without law degrees”.

In a slightly different game is Mootis, a lawyer-specific social media site launched by Bill Braithwaite QC of north of England set Exchange Chambers. His site comes with high ambitions, setting out to be the Twitter of the legal profession, without that site’s key element of a 140-character limit.

All of these efforts are interesting. But are they anything more than lawyers talking to themselves? Indeed, are they anything more than vanity publishing?

No.

Everyone loves human rights in principle, just as everyone in philosophical mode recognises that family law proceedings should be a lot more collaborative and less stressful, not least for the children involved.

But in the real world of tabloid newspapers and radio shock-jocks, human rights is little more than shorthand for paedophiles, prisoners, benefit scroungers and illegal immigrants.

That is a grim fact of life that few if any in the human rights campaigning community appreciate.

Of course they are fully aware that evil Fleet Street reptiles and commercial radio chat merchants cravenly misrepresent human rights issues for the sole purpose of inflaming their readers and listeners. But what they don’t appear to understand is that many of those readers and listeners are themselves keen to be inflamed.

And unfortunately, those poor bedraggled members of the public that actually might be keen to benefit from their human rights are too focused on living hard and stressful lives to search the internet for a jolly and beautiful website that will explain the concepts.

Harsh reality

The harsh reality is this: immigrants facing deportation, prisoners trying to access information, parents or grandparents struggling to win access to their children or grandchildren don’t have the time — and sadly in many cases, the intellectual capacity — to trawl through a website.

Likewise, a woman suffering regular beatings from her husband or partner is not going to be hugely impressed by a 40-minute podcast meandering through the finer points of family law issues.

What those people need is a fully-funded legal aid system that pays specialists lawyers to explain the issues face-to-face and then to do all the heavy lifting that accessing justice requires. And that system needs to be promoted and advertised in simple language in places the masses see — railway stations, the sides of buses, even on commercial television. And the message would need to be easily digestible, probably avoiding the metro-elite term “human rights”.

It’s simple. If Britain wants a national legal service — and there are hugely strong economic as well as moral arguments in favour of one — then as a society the country has to pay for the whole shooting match.

The fact that the most recent coalition government–– and to be fair, its New Labour predecessor — viewed legal aid as a nuisance at best and hindrance at worst, doesn’t make the simplicity of the argument any less stark. And indeed, any deflection from that core could be viewed as a diversion helpful to the very politicians aiming to slash budgets and ditch the Human Rights Act.

Politicians view legal aid as an easy target because they are convinced that access to justice is a high concept to which most voters don’t wish to allocate brain time.

The sad point is that the politicians might well be right. Many socially progressive lawyers are convinced that the public would rally behind the access to justice cause if it were just made clear to them in language they can understand.

As worthy as the recent rash of websites is, the public isn’t going to find them and the sites probably wouldn’t mean much to them if they did. Lawyers are beautifully and colourfully talking to themselves.

Oh, and what of Mootis? The last time Legal Cheek checked the site was down.

27 Comments

37th Earl of Dublin

Is the Jaflas website simply a vanity project ?

(8)(1)

sirwaltdisknie

Stop it Blacker! You know I’ve beaten you hands down with my membership of 20 royal colleges, four honorary fellowships, a knighthood and directorship of Twitter.

(5)(0)

ace frehly

I shared Rights Info on my facebook page and a lot of non-lawyers were interested.

In any case – what can you do? Sit and survey the carnage or dry and build it back up again, fight for something to believe in? I’ll take the latter any day.

(13)(0)

ace frehly

*try

(0)(1)

TJB

Okay, Mr Hack – you are the expert on what will wash with ‘the masses’ – what is your solution to the situation we find ourselves in? Not what you want – I assume most readers here want to restore dignity and funds to publicly funded access to justice – but how to proceed from where we are today – practical suggestions please, oh guru of the masses.

(3)(3)

Jezhop

Some well-made points but I think the Judge completely misses the mark here. Online is the first place many people look to challenge what they read in the mainstream press or hear from politicians. Easy-to-digest material from authoritative sources is exactly what’s needed to do the public a service and to properly inform people otherwise lost in a sea of political misinformation.

But legal-specific social media sites ? Hmmm …

(8)(2)

kris

online is indeed the first place people look but the issue is how can they apply what they read online to their case.

The Justice Gap started with a similar ambition in that it would be an online resource for people not eligible for legal aid but unable to afford professional representation.

What I’ve learned is that people in a legal crisis may be able to read about their issue – but translating that into adequately representing themselves is a big ask – even for a lawyer.

Next time my car blows up, I’m not going to buy a diy manual. When I’ve had potential clients approach me about Family matters, I steer them to Lucy Reed’s clerk, not her blog.

(2)(0)

agreed

There is actually a good point lurking behind this article and it should drive Adam to improve and further his (very good) website. It’s very easy for legal academics and/or lawyers to misjudge the general population in normal towns, without having experienced either higher education or the legal system. This article shouldn’t therefore be dismissed out of hand just because it’s written by an anonymous. Instead ways of increasing Adam’s site’s viewings should be thought of -how about engaging with schools to make sure politics and PHSE know about it and use it in lessons?

(4)(0)

Not Amused

I couldn’t agree more.

I get fed up with people capitalising out of the current situation. Bet you a tenner that half of these people will be standing for a safe Labour seat in 5 years – while the situation just gets worse. You may say “i hate the Tories for this latest cut” but can I not say “i hate Labour more, they cut too, they won’t reverse this one, yet they are trying to profit out of pretending to care”.

This is broadly why normal citizens should campaign to make sure that no political party ‘weaponises’ a public service. We need these services. They are not toys for you to use to win power.

I think the Tories need to wake up to this issue. I think someone needs to break down the fucking budget and show how cuts could be made to the back office and not to actual lawyers pay. But above all I think Labour need to shut their smug and thoroughly disingenuous mouth on this – self righteous, hypocritical and selfish.

(6)(2)

Juan Pertayta

I couldn’t agree more.

People are generally not interested in law or the legal process at all. They’re interested in the outcomes, certainly, whether these affect them or someone close to them – in which case the interest is immediate – or whether they affect a famous person or are the conclusion of an otherwise notorious case. The second category is usually about crime, of course.

Outside the con or the courtroom lawyers really need to curb the urge to be heard on their specialisms. People aren’t interested. And proselytising lawyers do neither the public nor the profession any favours.

(4)(0)

Sarah Phillimore

I couldn’t agree more! its so easy just to pontificate on the web and act all holier than thou but never get off your arse and do anything… o wait…

(4)(0)

Sarah Phillimore

Juan, I don’t agree that people aren’t interested. The conference that the Transparency Project is organising for 1st June about the child protection system has got people very interested – we are fully booked. And not just with lawyers either! with real people! who would have thought it?

to criticise is easy. to do better, may be difficult.

(4)(4)

Juan Pertayta

Good for you. Just out of interest, are the real people mostly those who already have a particular interest in the subject, perhaps because they’re affected by it personally or work in the field, or are they members of the public who are new to it?

As for getting off your arse and doing good, that’s quite an assumption to make about others. ‘Good’ isn’t defined by having a website and an opinion.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Of course not. But neither is it defined by those who carp from the sidelines and don’t seem to be doing anything else.

Most of the people coming to the conference have direct experience of the system as either professional or parent. But we have two journalists attending who I hope will use what we discuss at the conference to raise awareness of and anger about some of the aspects of the system which are not simply failing to work, but which are causing harm.

It’s a rock and a hard place. If I don’t identify myself, people question my qualifications or abilities. If I do identify myself I am accused of bigging myself up and trying to gain some professional advantage.

Of course I shouldn’t respond to this kind of lazy and spiteful click bait Internet fodder, which is designed to rile people up and get a response rather than engage with any real issue. I let my annoyance get the better of me.

(1)(2)

Sarah phillimore

ooops, that was my comment. Don’t want to be anonymous, look at me, look at me, follow me on Twitter, etc, etc, etc.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

There’s something to be said for riling people up and getting a response. If LC had run a puff piece on Wagner’s website, I doubt I’d have read past the first paragraph. The project now has my attention. And I really like it.

(5)(0)

Tim Turner

Other people’s hard work isn’t worth it because you’ve decided that people who might not be the target audience won’t look at it? The above comment is correct. It is much easier to criticise than create. To demonstrate, watch this: your article is bollocks. That was easy enough.

(9)(4)

Adam Wagner

“As worthy as the recent rash of websites is, the public isn’t going to find them”

A quick stat bomb

UK Human Rights Blog
Number of hits in 5 years: 4,206,383
Number of followers (FB, Twitter, Email): 26,220
Paid marketing: £Nil
Set up cost: £200

I’m coming for you, Lord Hack of Snarksville Upon Snipe – my full response will be up on Monday!

(37)(2)

Colin Yeo

What a sad, contrary little article. The websites criticised are as much about changing the terms of debate. The material on rightsinfo looks perfect for an educational context, for example, and is obviously not aimed at direct assistance to members of the public.

(14)(2)

Nick Holmes

The judge kinda misses the point of open justice.

(3)(3)

Mango Weed

has anyone used mootis?

(2)(1)

Anonymous

I’d be interested to read the Judge’s economic case for a National Legal Service.

(1)(0)

Not Amused

Anyone who uses the phrase “to raise awareness” self identifies as vain, self obsessed and idiotic.

Competent people talk of “solving the problem” and do not need to have their own name branded on everything they do.

(3)(5)

Sarah phillimore

How can one person ‘solve the problem’? We need to get others interested who may be able to help, get others involved. Ergo ‘raising awareness’. However vain and idiotic I may be I am not stupid enough to think I can solve a problem that is caused by systemic failures of many years.

(1)(1)

VTESI

All we need is some bright spark, in 2 sentences, to explain to the public why legal aid matters. THEN a PR company to turn it into an advert. Then if needs be, repeat constantly, everywhere until the public get so bored they accept that legal aid is a necessity. If anyone’s got a better idea…. .

(2)(1)

Adam Wagner

I have decided not to respond in any detail to this. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I’m going to make sure RightsInfo is a stonking success, and a cycnicism-free zone. Laters!

(7)(6)

Anonymous

What a mean spirited, nasty article.
It is easy to criticise.
Good luck with RightsInfo Adam. The link to Mootis works fine and the site looks good too.
It’s early days for both of course and who knows whether they will be a success. Let’s hope they are as a lot of hard work and thinking has obviously gone in to both.

(4)(0)

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