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Nov. 19, 2009, 9 a.m.

Need a lawyer? New network gives web publishers a line of defense

If you’ve gone the entrepreneurial route you know that first flush of enthusiasm often dampens when nitty-gritty decisions need to be made. There’s accounting, taxes, incorporation, insurance — and that’s the clear stuff. Toss in murky issues around trademark and branding and it’s easy to see how dreams of independence get squelched.

The Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center doesn’t want those entrepreneurial instincts to wither on the vine. It’s just launched an ambitious collection of free legal resources called the Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), the centerpiece of which is a matchmaking service that connects online publishers with attorneys who can address their specific needs. It’s a full-service effort, covering everything from basic business structure to contracts to representation in court.

OMLN is open to any online publisher that meets the network’s requirements. Organizations must be independent, journalism-minded, and have an eye toward sustainability either as for-profit businesses or nonprofits. If that describes your outfit, you can start the application process here.

The really good news is that pro bono assistance is available and the thresholds are generous. For-profit organizations that make less than $100,000 gross annual revenue qualify, as do nonprofits with operating budgets under $250,000. The high ceiling should cover the growing legion of bootstrapped web publishers.

“As long as their work is in the public interest, as long as it involves adherence to journalistic standards, then they’re going to be able to get help through the network until they’ve grown to the point where they are no longer entitled to free services,” said our friend David Ardia, the Project’s director.

Deeper-pocketed clients who don’t fall within the pro bono requirements are encouraged to apply, for free, as well. They’ll just have to arrange payment terms with a matched attorney.

More than a directory

Machine intelligence and algorithms can’t encompass all the variations in client needs and attorney specialties. That’s why four OMLN lawyers drive the process through extensive client screenings. These screenings need to capture a lot of nuance because applicants aren’t judged against any quantitative criteria, like page views or posting frequency.

Here’s how the matching process works: A lawyer in the network logs in to the site and is presented with client requests matching the lawyer’s pre-defined criteria (“nonprofits in California” or “clients who want to incorporate,” that sort of thing). Client names are not revealed at this point. The lawyer selects a specific request, and an OMLN staffer determines if the pairing is a good fit. If it is, the lawyer receives detailed information so he/she can check for conflicts with existing clients. The lawyer and the new OMLN client then get in touch directly and OMLN fades into the background. Either side can opt out if the match doesn’t feel right. Once the client’s legal issue is resolved, OMLN gathers feedback through private surveys with both parties.

OMLN needs to maintain balance if it’s going to be useful, Ardia said. Too many clients and online publishers won’t receive timely help. Too many lawyers and frustration mounts over lack of opportunities. Equilibrium is struck through a “slow as you go” approach that was honed while the site was being built. OMLN’s initial batch of clients was limited to past winners of the Knight News Challenge, and lawyers were invited to join based on their skill sets. Some amount of calibration will continue now that site is officially open, with the aim of matching clients and lawyers within three to four weeks of a request for assistance. That’s pretty quick considering the effort and issues at play.

OMLN itself is a 2007 News Challenge winner. It used an initial $250,000 grant to get the ball rolling, and it’s now running on two subsequent years of Knight funding. The goal is to make OMLN sustainable by the time funding runs out next October. Ardia hopes that since OLMN doesn’t bring in any money through the service, law firms and others will donate to support its continued operation.

POSTED     Nov. 19, 2009, 9 a.m.
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