Mission and History of Probono.net
Statement of Mission and Principles
The mission of probono.net is simple. First, use information technology to increase the amount and quality of legal services provided to low-income individuals and communities by the public interest/pro bono lawyers. Second, create a virtual community of public interest lawyers that bridges private, legal services, and academic sectors of the profession and that serves as a model for similar networks in other legal communities.
Think about these numbers! In July 1998, Volunteers of Legal Service of New York City ("VOLS") reported the following results. 28 law firms in New York City met the VOLS Challenge -- to dedicate more than 30 hours per lawyer to pro bono work. Though these 28 firms represent only a small number of the lawyers practicing in New York, they contributed nearly 400,000 hours of volunteer legal services during 1997. Even using an hourly rate of $150 per hour, that represents nearly $60 million in legal services.
These are striking numbers. Yet, the many volunteer lawyers doing this work are not networked by computer. Nor are these valuable legal services coordinated across organizations or firms. Nor is their tremendous amount of work product (e.g. memos, training materials, pleadings) captured in any systematic manner so that others can retrieve and benefit from the significant work that has already been done. Public interest, legal services, and volunteer lawyers across the country are expending significant resources without being able to reach out (through email, discussion groups or chat rooms) for advice and assistance to other attorneys who are working on often similar cases with similar issues.
Imagine if all of these volunteer lawyers could share ideas, materials and strategy! Imagine if the work product of all of these lawyers could be captured and retrieved by other volunteer and public interest lawyers! Imagine if public interest organizations could easily deliver news and information to these lawyers via the Web and email! Imagine if the stories of the clients being represented by this large community of public interest lawyers could be publicized and shared more broadly! The potential benefits are enormous. The mission of probono.net is to make technology work for the public interest legal community.
A Unique Collaboration
Launched in late 1998, probono.net initially focused on the legal communities within New York City. Probono.net/NY now has eight distinct online legal communities -- Family Justice/Domestic Violence, Disability Rights, Community Development & Nonprofit Law, Criminal Appeals, Housing, and September 11th. In the fall of 2000, probono.net/NY expanded upstate to Rochester, New York. Public interest organizations and a matched law firm host each of these practice areas and perform tasks such as updating the news and calendar pages, listing new cases that need attorneys, and screening area members.
In July 2000, probono.net partnered with the Minnesota State Bar Association to create our first statewide initiative -- probono.net/mn. This area serves the state's entire pro bono legal community. Probono.net/mn is a particularly useful tool for rural pro bono attorneys and legal service providers to connect and share information and materials with other providers across Minnesota. In addition, in collaboration with Minnesota Justice Foundation, probono.net/mn included our first practice area dedicated to law students.
Later in 2000, probono.net partnered with the Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services Program. Probono.net/sf, launched in November of 2000, provides support for pro bono attorneys in four practice areas: Eviction Defense, Family Justice, Homelessness/Immigration, and Business Law. In addition, the San Francisco site contains extensive social service referral information, to allow practitioners to help clients with related social service referrals and provide more holistic assistance.
Michael Hertz is the founder and Executive Director of probono.net. He began developing probono.net in 1998, under an Individual Project Fellowship from the Open Society Institute and is now on an indefinite leave of absence from his law firm, Latham & Watkins. He still serves as a member of Latham's national pro bono committee. Mark O'Brien is the co-founder and Deputy Executive Director of probono.net. He is currently on leave from Davis Polk & Wardwell where he has been the Pro Bono Coordinator since 1993.
George Soros' Open Society Institute provided the initial funding for the development and start-up phase of probono.net. OSI sees probono.net as a model program that can be replicated by other legal communities across the country. Other foundations since 1998 have supported the development of this site, including New York Community Trust and IOLA.
Finally, the original probono.net site was designed by Oven Digital, which donated considerable resources to the project.
Because probono.net is an innovative attempt to use information technology to better connect and organize the public interest legal community in an online environment, we recognize that the principles governing the operation and use of this site will evolve as this online community develops. Here, however, are our initial set of principles:
(i) The principle orientation of probono.net is client-centered. While probono.net is principally a lawyer-to-lawyer network, the ulitmate goal of the network is always to deliver the best legal services possible to the clients served by this online community.
(ii) The organization of this community will be as decentralized as possible. For example, the practice areas of this web site are largely created and maintained by the public interest legal groups that are experts in these areas and their volunteer lawyers. Likewise, the content of this Web site is contributed primarily by the lawyers who are members of each practice area. The staff of probono.net assists the different practice areas in organizing, consulting with the practice area leaders to make the areas active and fresh, and ensuring that the information contained on the Web site is accessible.
(iii) Collaboration is key. The practice areas promise to lead to new and interesting collaborations between the various sectors of the legal community that are providing pro bono services, including legal service and legal aid advocates, participants in law school clinics and pro bono programs, volunteers lawyers in firms of all sizes, law students, in-house counsel and bar associations.