A new clinical collaboration may be the answer

An online investigative journalist, working on a shoestring budget, is sued for libel. Where can he turn for legal help?

To a huge network of law school clinics and experienced private lawyers across the country, thanks to the Online Media Legal Network, a project launched in 2009 by the Citizen Media Law Project at HLS’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

The network is designed to connect online journalists and digital media creators with lawyers and law students nationwide willing to assist them for free or reduced rates. Two lawyers at CMLP work full time to screen the potential clients (making sure they adhere to journalistic standards, for example) and match them with lawyers who provide legal help on everything from business formation to copyright and fair use, from freelancer and other employment questions to access to government information.

In just a few months, the network has already grown to include 40 law firms with 7,000 lawyers willing to provide free or reduced-rate legal services to these new media clients. More than a dozen law school clinics are participating so far, including a number of Harvard Law School clinics, such as the Berkman’s Cyberlaw and Intellectual Property Clinic and the Transactional Law Clinics. More than 40 clients have been assisted since the project launched, ranging from very small and local online news sites to documentary producers, says David Ardia LL.M. ’07, director and co-founder of the project.

“One of our goals was to build up expertise among clinics and law students all over the country in working for these clients,” says Ardia.

This April, the Berkman Center CMLP and the Cyberlaw Clinic hosted a conference titled “Journalism’s Digital Transition: Unique Legal Challenges and Opportunities” to mark the launching of the Online Media Legal Network. It brought together panels of academics, legal practitioners and journalists to discuss just the sort of issues raised by the Online Media collaboration, including how the legal profession can assist rather than hinder journalism’s digital transition.