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Pro Bono Net

Lawyers serving the public good.

Oct. 28 - Necessity is the Mother of Innovation, Tony Lu, Pro Bono Net

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences.

Legal professionals are pretty good at making do with the tools at hand. The practice of law is, after all, "knowledge work" through and through. Outside of word-processing software and legal research databases, the tools we use haven't changed all that much - and even still there are lawyers out there who hand-write their drafts, dictate letters (and emails) for others to type, and prefer to flip through volumes and volumes of reported cases bound in books rather than learn what a Boolean search is. And yes, they're still effective lawyers.

Whatever our individual tastes and comfort zones, the tools and workflows we choose to adopt as individual attorneys are rarely the best tools to support an entire system of service delivery. And it's only natural that we in the legal profession, left to our own devices, individually and collectively tend to gravitate towards our comfort zones.

I submit to you that our models of service delivery in the poverty law world are broken. Sure, our methods are tried and true, and with them we've delivered services to countless individuals who couldn't afford a lawyer. But what about the countless individuals who never got to that clinic, or never got through the intake process, or whose pro bono case was never picked up?

When ninety-nine percent of the mostly low-income defendants facing consumer debt collection actions in New York State courts are unrepresented (In New York City alone that's 297,000 of the estimated 300,000 cases clogging the City's Civil Courts each year), something is broken. When The Legal Aid Society, the largest not-for-profit in the country providing free legal services - in a year which saw a 20% increase in the valuation of pro bono services provided to their clients - is still having to turn away 8 out of 9 eligible applicants for its services because the demand for services is simply too high, something is broken.

We as a profession need to figure out how get more out of the resources we are using, and we need to figure out how to do it fast. The answer isn't going to simply be to secure more funding, expand staffing, and find more pro bono volunteers. Those are all critical objectives, but if we don't also look at ways to change the way we deliver services to maximize the outcomes generated by those resources, we're always going to be looking at a negative number in the needs-versus-services-delivered ledger.

That's not to say there aren't innovators in the legal services or pro bono world. This past week, the ABA convened a gathering of some of the most engaged thinkers in the field of pro bono service delivery (including Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O'Brien) at a summit to discuss pro bono innovations and best practices. The emergence of medico-legal partnerships are a radical and exciting example of how lawyers can work with other service providers - in this case doctors - to serve those in need, and the benefit of the holistic services these partnerships provide is much greater than the sum of its parts. Law firms, legal services providers and corporate legal departments are partnering together to develop ways to effectively get in-house lawyers into the pro bono game. And many law firms have already taken up the challenge Tiela Chalmers put forth to have a greater impact in an area of poverty law by offering a focused pro bono program, rather than the smorgasbord of choices that many attorneys face when considering pro bono. All of these are welcome innovations.

There are also programs that are proving that technological innovations can provide new, more effective ways to deliver legal services and encourage pro bono. One such innovation Pro Bono Net has been supporting is a project of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, the Volunteer Lawyers Network and the Council on Crime and Justice, which uses interactive interviews and document assembly technology to create a start-to-finish guide to assembling an expungement petition. This tool makes it possible for a lawyer with no prior experience to help a low-income Minnesotan expunge their criminal records. This project doesn't just make this type of pro bono work more accessible (and by extension more attractive), it also builds in quality control by providing structured templates developed by experts. More importantly, because the expertise and essential knowledge is captured in technology that is available at any time, anywhere, the project can scale to any size.

As the legal profession continues to grapple with the problem of providing access to justice for all, and as we continue to think up new projects to deliver services or engage pro bono attorneys, we need to start asking ourselves a threshold question: "Have we really explored all the possible ways to maximize the impact of these resources?" For us at Pro Bono Net, that means constantly challenging ourselves to explore all the possible ways technology can improve delivery of services. If we aren't asking this threshold question every time we address an emergent need or think about new programs, then can we really say that we're doing our best to ensure access to justice?

The good news is we're not alone. Organizations like Illinois Legal Aid Online and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services lead by example with their innovative technology-driven pro bono programs. And we're fortunate to have thinkers and leaders like Richard Zorza in our community - if only we think to call on them.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then why haven't the needs of those denied access to justice given birth to more innovation in our world? Why aren't we innovating every step of the way? Surely it's not because the need isn't there. As Mike Monahan puts it, we pro bono folks have been left behind in the "technology rapture". It's not just a question of limited resources; we set priorities and decide how we're going to allocate those limited resources. We - collectively - share some of the responsibility for allowing ourselves to get left behind. Maybe we need Mike to create his Monahan Scale of Behindedness and apply it ruthlessly to all of us, to help point us in the right direction.

Tony Lu is Pro Bono Net's Pro Bono and Special Initiatives Coordinator. To learn more about Tony and the Rest of Pro Bono Net's staff, click here.

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Neil Steinkamp

Rebecca Berlow, a corporate attorney, has worked as a volunteer with The Legal Aid Society's Immigration Unit Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ("DACA") clinics and has assisted the Society with disaster relief efforts, greatly improving their Access to Benefits hotline by developing a new intake system. Learn more

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