This year’s Pro Bono Week Celebration theme is “Moving Forward in a Post-Pandemic World,” and American Bar Association President Reginald M. Turner is calling on attorneys across the country to provide pro bono assistance to individuals and families living through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 legal need study by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, anticipates a sharp increase in legal needs arising from the pandemic in areas such as eviction, foreclosures, consumer debt, and income maintenance. At a moment when millions are facing eviction, seeking safety and protection, and recovering from climate-driven disasters without access to a lawyer, a renewed commitment to pro bono can play a key role in national recovery efforts.
While the pandemic initially disrupted in-person pro bono services, many legal nonprofits and firms have since adapted these models to online services in creative and powerful ways. Other programs have launched new technology-enabled pro bono initiatives to respond to pressing needs and engage new cadres of volunteers to help. The pandemic brought new and unexpected challenges across these areas, but we have learned five things along the way that illustrate how the sector can maximize technology for good moving forward.
1. Remote Pro Bono Works
This unprecedented surge in legal needs has prompted the pro bono mobilization of attorneys nationwide and opened the door to innovative ways to provide legal services remotely. With the right strategies and tools, remote legal help programs can mobilize and provide relief to thousands of individuals and families disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
For example, one of Pro Bono Net’s programs, Remote Legal Connect, enables legal services organizations to rapidly build and manage remote pro bono programs. During the pandemic, it has been used by pro bono initiatives in five states to provide remote legal assistance on issues such as eviction, consumer debt, child custody and visitation, and name changes. Through the system, coordinators can match clients with attorneys for a brief legal consultation. Attorneys and clients can opt to share their video cameras, screen share, and upload, review and prepare legal documents together. Pro bono attorneys and clients can easily access in-context training materials, sample forms, and legal rights guides.
This program offers flexibility for clients and attorneys to collaborate from the comfort and safety of their homes. Remote Legal Connect also incorporates learning about where technology can present barriers for clients and attorneys to participate in remote pro bono services. For example, the platform is mobile-friendly, users can log in through a web browser (avoiding the need to download or install special software), and clients can create accounts using a cell phone number if they don’t have an email address.
2. Design for wraparound services and workflows
Early in the pandemic, many pro bono efforts focused on quickly moving volunteer trainings, in-person consultations and clinics to phone-based and videoconferencing platforms. More recently, many organizations have started to use the successes and hard-won lessons of this period to reimagine how pro bono services are designed, with an emphasis on incorporating wraparound services that fundamentally expand the legal support offered. These models consider the overall service design, technology, and support needed to successfully provide end-to-end services to a client.
Longstanding remote legal support initiatives offer promising practices in this area. For example, the New Americans Campaign (NAC), a national nonpartisan network of organizations modernizing natural assistance celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, was an early pioneer in leveraging technology to help legal permanent residents apply for US citizenship. Through Citizenshipworks.org, individuals can learn about their eligibility, complete the naturalization application, and obtain an in-person or remote legal review of their completed application from a trusted nonprofit partner. Project partners have closely analyzed each step a user needs to take to successfully complete their application, and where staff, volunteers, technology, “backstage actions,” and support processes can enable a successful experience. These practices were carefully adapted during the pandemic to address special barriers applicants may face in accessing Citizenshipworks.org, including engaging volunteers to help clients create accounts over the phone and answer basic questions about using the platform. In 2020, NAC codified this learning in a Best Practices Toolkit that outlines practices that can be adapted by other groups to optimize client services in remote settings.
3. Connecting with Intention and Care
Although engaging with clients via technology is different than in person, pro bono organizations can ensure that remote services are a positive experience for the client and volunteer alike in many ways. Many pro bono programs couple substantive legal training for volunteers with training on how to use remote technology to assist clients. Many programs also take strides to help ensure clients are prepared to engage in remote services in advance. For example, clients who have a virtual consultation scheduled with an attorney via Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Legal Aid Connect program can enter a “waiting room,” where they can chat with a staff person to get answers to questions about using the technology before beginning the consultation. Intake processes can include questions to gauge a client’s comfort level with technology and their preferred way of getting help. Training volunteers on cultural competence, empathy, and language justice are additional examples of using technology in a purposeful way to build trust and rapport when assisting clients remotely.
4. Attorneys Don’t Have to be Tech Pros to do Remote Pro Bono
Although the pandemic called for innovation and creativity, many people had to learn new systems and technology quickly. Over time, we have found that understanding and learning how to use new technologies or digital strategies requires an investment of time, but the effort can be rewarding when you see both increased efficiencies and benefits for a client. A client who used Remote Legal Connect through Legal Information for Families Today’s pro bono program in New York said, “After I talked to the attorney, I left like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
In addition, when attorneys test and use technology, they ask insightful questions and provide useful feedback. That feedback is fundamental to developing programs like ours designed for use by attorneys doing pro bono work. Adopting new technologies doesn’t have to be scary or complicated; it just requires curiosity and a willingness to learn. As one of the attorneys we worked with said, “I went to law school, so I should be able to figure this [technology]out!” Many organizations also provide training and one-on-one technical support to pro bono attorneys.
5. The Future is Now
A recent survey of experts conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicts that our reliance on digital tools will grow in the coming years as “tele-everything is embraced,” and calls for a focus on human well-being in technology design. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen creative and resilient ways many pro bono initiatives, firms, and legal professionals leveraged technology to maintain and even expand access to timely, safe, and quality legal assistance for impacted communities. Our hope is that in the coming years, technology continues to fuel positive action and person-centered innovation for the pro bono sector to emerge stronger, more mobilized, and more impactful than ever before.
About the Authors
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz (left) is the pro bono & strategic initiatives manager, and Liz Keith (right) is program director at Pro Bono Net, where they work with attorneys and other advocates to develop digital initiatives that help low-income income individuals with their civil legal matters.