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Pro Bono Digest: How Pro Bono Net Serves Lawyers and Pro Bono in Latin America

Thursday, June 30, 2005

  • By: William J. Dean
  • Organization: Volunteers of Legal Services
For the lawyer undertaking a pro bono case, Pro Bono Net (www.probono.net/ny) serves as an invaluable resource through its volunteer clearinghouse, pro bono training calender and practice areas.

Volunteer Clearinghouse

Lawyers looking to undertake pro bono work will benefit from consulting the New York State Pro Bono Opportunities Guide, an online project of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York State Bar Association, Pro Bono Net and Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS).

The guide lists pro bono programs of bar associations, legal services and public interest organizations and court and government programs. It enables users to identify pro bono opportunities in areas of interest to them and identifies pro bono opportunities for both litigators and transactional attorneys.

The guide can be found on the Web sites of the four collaborating organizations as well as at the pro bono resource center on the New York Law Journal Web site located at http://www.nylawyer.com and at http://www.nylj.com/probono.jsp.

Pro Bono Net also provides links to descriptions of specific pro bono cases posted by 14 New York City public interest organizations seeking volunteer lawyers for these cases.

Training Calender

New York City Pro Bono and Legal Services Training Calender. This monthly online calender of training programs has been developed by Pro Bono Net in collaboration with the Legal Aid Society, Legal Services for New York City and Volunteers of Legal Service. Its purpose is to inform the pro bono and legal services community in New York City of training events on subjects relating to the provision of legal services to poor people. Legal areas covered by the June 2005 calender, for example, include trainings on disability, employment, family, housing, immigration, nonprofit/community development and public benefits.

Practice Areas

Pro Bono Net has national and state practice areas providing online tools to support both pro bono attorneys and full-time poverty law advocates. Password-protected practice areas organized by legal topics allow users to share information online. Other available tools are online libraries of training materials, model pleadings and links to a current news page.

National practice areas include asylum law, death penalty law, health law and law on human rights and prisoners' rights.

New York State practice areas are community development/nonprofit law, criminal appeals, disability rights, family justice/domestic violence, HIV advocacy, housing and Sept. 11-related matters.

Prisoners' rights is the newest practice area available on Pro Bono Net. This practice area was developed through collaboration among Prisoners' Legal Services, the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, and the Illinois Institute for Community Law. Input and assistance in compiling library resources for the site have been provided by Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Stroock & Stroock & Lavan; and Sullivan & Cromwell.

The practice area is designed to provide support to pro bono lawyers working on prisoners' rights cases in federal court relating to conditions of confinement. The practice area's library includes sample motions and affidavits. Members of the practice area are able to exchange information. Also available through the practice area are video trainings for pro bono attorneys. Video topics include, "Failure to Provide Medical Treatment of a Prisoner" and "Taking the Deposition of a Prison Correctional Officer."

Michael Hertz, co-founder of Pro Bono Net, has served as executive director. This fall, Mr. Hertz will join Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer as chief knowledge officer. He will remain as a board member of Pro Bono Net. During the past seven years, he has done much to achieve the organization's goal, in his words, "of building a powerful new tool for increasing access to justice."

On September 1, Mark O'Brien, also a cofounder of Pro Bono Net, who has served as deputy executive director, will assume the position of executive director. Prior to joining the organization, Mr. O'Brien served as the founding pro bono coordinator at Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Allison McDermott, the manager of program and evaluation, will become deputy director, overseeing the organization's work with the network of nonprofit, legal aid, pro bono, law school and court-based programs in almost 30 states that are using Pro Bono Net's online technology.

Mr. O'Brien comments on future challenges for the organization:

"The unmet need for legal services in New York State is huge. Pro Bono Net makes it easy for private lawyers who want to do pro bono work to find public interest legal organizations, be matched with worthy cases and get the training they need, as well as support and mentoring, to help them be effective advocates. More than 8,000 New York lawyers are currently registered on Pro Bono Net. If we can increase that number to 10,000, 20,000, even 30,000 lawyers, this becomes an ever more powerful network for meeting the needs of low-income New Yorkers."

Pro Bono in Latin America

Earlier this year, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice Initiatives held a conference, "A Profession Supportive of Democracy, Strategy Summit for the Americas," at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Presentations were made on model pro bono projects in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Argentina. A brief description of each of these four projects follows:

Brazil. The Legal Rights Desk (Balcão de Directos) provides legal services to residents of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Poor people, many of whom are migrants from rural areas, live in favelas located on the steep hillsides of the city. (The first such settlement was on Morro da Favela, hence the origin of the term.)

Legal teams are made up of a lawyer, law students and a citizen agent from the favela. The project includes the provision of free legal counseling and a "democratization of rights" program where information is provided on issues of civil and human rights. Conflict mediation is provided. Sixteen thousand legal consultations took place in 2004.

Community education is provided concerning basic rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws relating to domestic violence, police abuse and consumer protection.

The project works with law schools to make law students more aware of the difficult reality facing the inhabitants of favelas.

Chile. The Consultorio Juridico is a legal services center serving residents of Poblacin Los Nogales in the Estacin Central District, one of the poorest areas of Santiago.

The clinic was started by law students who identified the urgent legal needs of poor people in their city. The students were able to enlist members of the faculty at Diego Portales University School of Law as direct participants in the project, with faculty members taking formal responsibility for the cases.

After the founders' graduation from law school, they assumed full responsibility for the cases. Faculty members remain available for consultation on especially complex legal matters.

Legal assistance is provided on a range of civil matters by teams of lawyers and law students. The majority of cases involve domestic violence, child support and tuition, alimony and inheritance issues. About 80 cases are being worked on at any given time. Assisting the lawyers and students are two social workers and two psychologists, making the undertaking a multi-professional project.

Colombia. The Non-Remunerated Legal Services Program offers free legal services to nonprofit groups that are dedicated to humanitarian assistance, especially in the areas of health, education, infancy, environment and the disabled.

The project's case selection committee is comprised of a representative from the University of Los Andes Law School, three representatives of law firms and the program coordinator.

Currently, there are 28 law firms offering services in this project. Twenty-four of the firms are in Bogotá, three in Barranquilla and one in Cali. The firms make it possible to offer the services of more than 300 specialized lawyers of the highest professional qualifications working in these diverse areas of law: commercial, labor, penal, civil, administrative, constitutional, financial, foreign investment, family and intellectual property.

Argentina. The Community Legal Support Center operates in Moreno, a poor community located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The center is designed to unite community members, grassroots organizations, social workers and pro bono lawyers to select and collectively address the problems most relevant to the community.

Issues now being dealt with relate to transportation, education, health, potable water and the sewage system. The work of the center is proactive, approaching organizations and local residents on these issues. The center conducts legal literacy programs for community leaders.

The first problem identified by community residents related to public transportation. A hundred local organizations met to coordinate different tasks. Last summer, a march took place with 1,500 Moreno residents participating. About 15,000 signatures were collected requesting public transportation changes. The local authorities agreed to hold meetings on these issues. In the fall, the local government ordered the public transportation company to change certain of its practices, including eliminating the collection of an illegal tariff.

The center's agenda for 2005 will focus on access to education and public health care.

Joan Vermeulen, executive director of the Vance Center, comments on these projects:

Pro bono initiatives are growing in Latin America, with a new generation of private and public interest lawyers and legal academics working together to develop innovative approaches to addressing the legal problems of the poor. Although they have drawn on the pro bono traditions and experience in the United States, these four projects reflect approaches that are tailored to respond to local circumstances. Though grounded in specific situations, they provide new ideas for all of us in the Americas who are concerned at the level on unmet legal need.

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service. Pro Bono Digest is a column which appears regularly in the New York Law Journal.
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