Vincent Morris: All for the Needy
Posted Sep 4, 2012 9:04 AM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky
Vincent Morris loses his job every year. As director of the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, it’s up to him to pitch innovative, effective programs to secure the annual grant money vital to the support of the more than 17,000 clients—both under and just over the poverty line—whom Arkansas’ legal aid organizations serve.
“I joke, but it’s true: I lose my job every year,” laughs Morris. But if there is one thing he does well, it’s making things happen.
A self-described military brat, Morris lost his father to cancer from exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the Vietnam War. By Morris’ own account, he barely graduated from high school and skipped college to build houses. In his late 20s he returned to school, and after a stint working on archaeology digs he pursued a law degree. While a night student, he applied for a technology grant to fix legal aid websites, despite having little prior experience.
Although he made the move to avoid “banging nails again,” Morris says his ability to implement and maintain a wide range of programs—even if that means teaching himself how to code for the Web—“all goes back to carpentry.” As Morris, 39, puts it: “If I can build a house, I can build this project. I know I can put project ideas out there, and I can get them funded.”
Morris has received funding for 14 grants during his tenure, which started with an eight-week internship and evolved into a nine-year career at the nonprofit organization based in Little Rock. Every project approved is still going strong and is sustainable for the future. The Arkansas Legal Services Partnership website averages 2 million page views annually, the highest traffic in the state (which has only 2.9 million residents) for a legal site.
“Whatever the project, Vince is always thinking ahead to the next thing,” says Jean Carter, executive director of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. “He has a tremendous amount of passion, but he’s also able to convert that passion into a doable project and bring it into reality.”
As the gulf between those seeking assistance and the services available continues to widen, one of the backbones of the organization has become the website’s automated documents feature. It assembles information packets, which include suggested testimony to assist clients through the court process. An online wiki is available to answer commonly asked questions and provide direction.
Morris develops most of the content for the website and documents himself, and he is careful to draft everything in plain language.
The site also connects users with attorneys via a live chat window so simple questions can be answered on the spot. Advising lawyers are able to log on to the site when they’re free, and in the last year Morris’ team and volunteer attorneys responded to 1,227 brief inquiries. In addition, Morris created LegalTube, a free video library that addresses a wide range of topics, including consumer protection laws and guides to help Spanish-speaking users navigate the legal aid website. “These projects are vessels to get that information to the low-income person who needs legal help, not just in Arkansas but nationally,” Morris says.
He is on constant lookout for ways to streamline delivery of services by legal aid and pro bono attorneys. From offering free CLEs to organizing one-stop document preparation fairs to generating a text-message program that alerts volunteer lawyers when there is a client in legal need in their county, Morris leverages every possible advantage.
“We’re trying to hit the problem from every angle,” Morris says, “so people can use the tools I create to make access to justice an actual meaningful statement.”