I. Why Mobile Technology Matters for Legal Aid

Why should legal aid offices pay attention to mobile technology? There are two major reasons:

  1. The overwhelming majority of American adults use mobile technology, including a significant amount of legal aid clients.
  2. Mobile use will only continue to increase over the next few years as the technology and user experiences improve and becomes more accessible.

The mobile web will play a very significant role in Americans' lives going forward. The challenge for the legal aid community is to create mobile user experiences that effectively connect low-income individuals to new or existing delivery systems.  

Mobile is already a transformative technology as 84% of American adults now have a cell phone. The emergence of basic cell phones and feature phones has changed the way we make calls and exchange messages. Furthermore, smart phone technology is becoming more and more prevalent with 35% of American adults owning a smart phone, a percentage that grows by leaps and bounds every year. Not only are smart phones becoming more accessible, they are also growing more powerful and capable. In the future, it is expected that the majority of Americans will carry phones with Internet capabilities and run a large library of applications. This means that people will have access to the information they need whenever they need it and wherever they go.
Follow along the guide to learn about the unique benefits of the mobile web, about how the mobile web can ease the digital divide, and how mobile technology continues to expand.

The Mobile Web's Unique Benefits

Mobile provides several benefits for users and developers.

  • Mobility: Mobile devices allow individuals to access the information they need from essentially any location at anytime. Phones are the most portable Internet-capable devices available, and most users are already comfortable and accustomed to carrying their phones wherever they go. Although laptops and tablets offer significantly more portability than desktop computers, most users do not carry them at all times (nor would they want to) as they do not comfortably fit in one’s pocket. Also, most laptops and tablets demand that the user be connected to the Internet through either a LAN or Wi-Fi connection, which is not always an option, especially when one is on the go.  
  • Fast, targeted access: Because most phones users always keep their phones on, access to the web on mobile devices is nearly instantaneous. Users do not have to wait through a long boot-up process, and the impact of immediate web access from almost any location is significant. For legal aid programs, this means that clients will be able access an organization's website at critical moments. Users can simply enter a URL into their phone's browsers as their legal issue emerges or as they take steps to try and resolve it.  Mobile also provides more opportunities for legal aid offices to engage in "preventative legal help," where users receive important legal information that helps prevent a legal problem before it fully emerges. The new Statewide Lawhelp mobile sites, for instance, will include mobile adapted content specific to the most commonly asked legal questions in their area. The idea is that potential clients will use their mobile devices in case of emergencies or in situations in which they are unable to call a legal helpline or look up content via a computer.  Mobile provides many other opportunities to assist clients. Important appointment reminders can be sent directly to users' mobile devices, and more sophisticated phones allow users to access resources such as consumer legal aid instructional videos while they are on the go. Also, providers may be able to use location-based information to provide important resources to communities that have a high occurrence of a particular legal issue. For example, CitizenWorks has a SMS based initiative that customizes legal resources based on the zip code that the user texts their database.
  • Privacy: Although portability and instantaneous access are probably the most significant mobile benefits, phones also provide a more personal user experience than other Internet-enabled devices. Many people share desktop computers with family members or co-workers, which may make these individuals reluctant to access information they feel is private or embarrassing, such as websites dedicated to solving legal problems. Mobile devices, however, are often only used by the owner and might provide a better solution for accessing more personal information. 

  • GPS and phone-specific features: Mobile also offers features that are generally not available through the desktop web. For instance, many mobile sites include a directory that allows users to locate a particular phone number and then automatically call it using their phone. More sophisticated devices might also allow sites to tap into the phone's geolocation system and provide detailed directions to a specific destination, such as a courthouse or legal aid office.  

  • Technological momentum: The mobile web has the advantage of being an innovative, emerging field that is attracting talented developers. The last few years saw a huge influx of talent into mobile development and mobile apps are playing an ever-growing role in mobile usage. Illinois Legal Aid Online has gone so far to release their own mobile app in 2011 that is now available for the iPhone and Droid.

Reaching Clients: How the Mobile Web Reduces the Digital Divide

The latest research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that more and more Americans are using cell phones. In 2011, 84% of U.S. adults have a cell phone compared to 55% of the same demographic who own a laptop. Additionally, the percentage of cell phone users who are turning to their mobile devices to access the Internet is on the rise. As it stands, 44% of adult cell phone users use their phone to access the Internet and 76% use their phone to send and receive e-mails.

According to a 2009 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, nearly half of all African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics are using mobile phones or other hand-held devices to surf the Web and send e-mail.  There are several reasons why mobile adoption among Blacks and Latinos is higher. Perhaps most relevant to the legal aid community, some lower-income individuals are turning to the mobile web because they perceive it as a cheaper alternative to home broadband internet access, which requires both a wire-line connection and a personal computer. When users compare the costs of home broadband to a new mobile device and data plan, the mobile web appears to be winning out as the latest 2011 statistic shows that 22% of low-income people have a smart phone (<$30k household income). Blacks and Latinos also start to use mobile devices much younger than whites, and young people have been one of the key demographics driving adoption of the mobile web.  These adoption statistics have very important implications for the legal aid community. Programs must consider increased mobile web adoption when developing strategies for reaching clients through the web. Some early mobile web adopters use the mobile web as their primary (and sometimes only) means of connecting to the Internet. 5% of all cell phone users say they use their cell phone for most of their Internet browsing and 32% of these users lack high-speed Internet access at home. Developing a mobile-optimized page helps ensure that this growing group of mobile-only Internet users is able to effectively access an organization's web-based services.

Our Mobile Future: Expanding Usage and Improved Technology

The mobile web will only become more important over the next few years. Tens of millions of Americans already access the mobile web, and adoption rates are expected increase exponentially faster in upcoming years. One simple explanation for near-term growth is that many current users of more basic phones are tied into two-year device upgrade cycles because of their carrier contracts. Many of these users already know they will upgrade to an advanced phone and are just waiting for their current contract to expire.

More importantly though, mobile is exploding because significant technology improvements are driving Americans to the mobile web. Phones are being released with more sophisticated hardware and software. Over the past few years, technology commentators have made a habit of comparing the hardware found in advanced smartphones to that of desktop computers from a decade earlier. Their point was that powerful hardware, sufficient to accomplish all the tasks of a desktop computer from 10 years ago, could now fit into a small mobile phone. As a point of reference, an iPhone today has more computing power than all of NASA at the time of the first moon landing.
At the start of 2010, however, these "ten years behind" comparisons are no longer as apt. The most advanced mobile devices are now less than eight years behind desktop computers. Right now the most powerful touch phone available, the iPhone 4S, contains hardware more powerful than a 2002 iMac G4. Below is a breakdown of the two devices' basic specifications: 



Phone 4S (released 2011)

iMac G4 (released 2002)

Processor Speed


700 MHz


512 MB

256 MB


32 GB

40 GB

Many are predicting that as mobile devices will soon become our primary computing device. Steve Rubel, a prominent technology commenter, outlines this vision for the future of mobile and computing:
"As processor speeds increase and full graphics systems get embedded onto single chips, the phones will soon be able to embody a PC experience as soon as they get near a flat screen TV and a keyboard. Some data will be locally stored but the rest will be in clouds - either your personal cloud or your employers. Want a clamshell keyboard and screen like a laptop? No problem, soon we'll see "dumb shells" that encase phones so they can do more on the go. And as we see more and more data being stored on the cloud, more and more apps are being released that allow mobile devices to access cloud storage via smart phones."

In addition to hardware, software in mobile devices (especially web browsers) has improved significantly. Mobile browsers have long had a reputation for poor support of web standards and overall poor user experiences; however, newer devices now use the powerful WebKit engine to support web page rendering that is much closer to the desktop web.

Improved software and hardware are to creating better mobile user experiences, but mobile devices also require robust Internet connections. Fortunately, mobile carriers in the U.S. are beginning to deal with the large number of users that are adding mobile web data plans to their phone service and Internet speeds are improving for mobile devices across the country.