December 12, 2015 Dialogue

Pro Bono: Looking Back at 2014 and Forward to What's Coming in 2015

The year 2014 has come and gone. As usual, myriad year–end retrospectives focus on myriad things: legalized pot, same–sex marriage, a thaw in Cuban relations, a chill in Russian relations, racial (in)justice, immigration reform, torture, an Ebola epidemic, mobile phones the size of flat-screen TVs, and a preposterous if well-intentioned phenomenon called the Ice Bucket Challenge.

But the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service will narrow the focus – to pro bono – and explore the many signs of increasing evolution and sophistication in how lawyers answer the call to serve those on society's margins. We focus in particular on those developments which are likely to carry through into 2015. So let's go:

  1. Technology's ever–increasing importance
  2. A rush of volunteers to ensure justice in the U.S. immigration system
  3. The Legal Services Corporation's pro bono emphasis
  4. Selected Odds & Ends

Pro Bono Is a Technophile

Pro bono advocates and other innovators continue employing technology to better engage and serve clients.  Indeed, the Shriver Center noted last March that tech solutions were already woven into the fabric of pro bono culture. "Innovative Technology Projects Are Connecting Pro Bono Lawyers with Clients" reminds us that Pro Bono Net – a pioneer in pro bono tech – continues providing an array of resources to advocates and clients alike. The article also reviews the Legal Services Corporation's embrace of tech solutions (more on that below), and how pro bono advocates and clients from certain practice arenas – e.g. immigration and military veterans issues – have built useful tech platforms.

In the fall, the ABA Center for Pro Bono's tech guru Bill Jones highlighted how a technology platform from, fittingly, the Volunteer State, was being replicated elsewhere: "Online TN Justice is a website that allows qualified users to post legal questions to their passworded account on the website and receive free legal advice from an anonymous, volunteer attorney. This is usually not a real–time exchange but, rather, an asynchronous one. The client logs back in to view their answer and to post any follow–up questions. Online TN Justice…was developed by IT staff in the Baker Donelson Memphis office and has been described as a 'virtual walk–in clinic'…."   Tennessee has been generous with the software, and other states have customized their own platforms (with several more states exploring the idea):

Finally, the Daily Report reported on the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta rolling out an iPhone app "that allows prospective volunteers to check current volunteer opportunities at the touch of a button." The app, called VolOps is aimed at transactional attorneys searching for opportunities to match their skill sets. Here's the app for download.

Unaccompanied Minors Get Pro Bono Support

During the summer months of 2014, the U.S. media focused attention on the plight of unaccompanied children from Central America who were streaming across the U.S. border, fleeing from gang and cartel violence, abuse and poverty. These children were turning themselves over to U.S. officials seeking safety, protection and the ability to reunify with family members already living in the United States. The numbers of children entering the United States increased ten–fold from an average of 7,000 in 2011 to almost 70,000 in Fiscal Year 2014.

In response, law firms and nonprofit entities increased their efforts to represent unaccompanied minors facing deportation proceedings on their own. Let's note that no less a figure than the Veep urged pro bono lawyers into action: "U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made an impassioned plea to U.S. law firms…to free up attorneys to help deal with the surge of Central American children who have entered the country illegally by providing more pro bono representation." (Reuters) And that wasn't the first time in 2014 that V.P. Biden voiced support for pro bono.

July: "Lawyers from the biggest U.S. firms are stepping up to help the tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing violence of Central America. Their work has ranged from assisting individual children in navigating the immigration system to lobbying state and federal governments." (Bloomberg News)

August: ABA President William Hubbard, with the approval of the Board of Governors, established the Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants. The Working Group is supported by staff of the Commission on Immigration, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, and the Governmental Affairs Office.

The Working Group's mission is to develop and implement an immediate response to the critical need for pro bono representation of children in removal proceedings. Working Group members are building an infrastructure and process through which effective recruitment, training, placement of pro bono attorneys will happen. This infrastructure includes websites with relevant and updated training material (visit www.ambar.org/ican) and a procedure for referring attorneys to legal services providers who are willing and able to place cases of children with identified claims for relief.

September: "Efforts are underway from White Plains, N.Y., to New Orleans to train attorneys at private law firms on the country's byzantine immigration laws and how to work with traumatized, Spanish–speaking children, many of whom are fleeing violence…." (Reno Gazette–Journal).

October: The Association of Pro Bono Counsel met with Dep't. of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ali Mayorkas, and followed up with suggestions to facilitate representation for unaccompanied minors, including adequate legal aid and immigration court funding, as well as changing detention policies that "impede access to counsel."

We've collected some other 2014 stories about private and public sector efforts to aid unaccompanied minors right on this here blog.

The Legal Services Corporation Assists in Stimulating Pro Bono

Both through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program, and most directly through its new Pro Bono Innovation Fund program, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has strongly encouraged its grantee programs to maximize pro bono's value in their service delivery models.

For example in 2013–14, Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut used a TIG grant to develop eLearning technology platform that would, among other offerings, deliver a series of online trainings for pro bono attorneys. [A]ttorneys who have volunteered to accept consumer cases can view the class, Debt Collection and Consumer Claims, in chapters at their convenience. The course includes sample letters and discovery requests. (More here from New Haven Legal Assistance director Susan Nofi.)

As to the Pro Bono Innovation Fund, in September LSC awarded its first round of grant funding to 11 grantee organizations: "Many of the projects use emerging legal aid technology to reach rural populations. Others create extensive pro bono partnerships with local law schools, community organizations, and corporate attorneys. All the projects seek to engage and recruit pro bono lawyers and other volunteers to leverage LSC's federal funding and increase the resources available to low–income clients." And the federal government's Fiscal Year 2015 budget boosts by 60% the Pro Bono Innovation Fund's line appropriation – from $2.5m to $4m.

 

Odds & Ends: What Else Are We Watching in 2015?

  • Medical Legal Partnerships. The National Center for Medical Legal Partnership, which in 2013 moved from its grass–roots beginnings in Boston to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, continues to grow. Indeed, the National Center was nominated for the "Innovating Justice Award from the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL).  The ABA Center for Pro Bono continues to work with the National Center on building strong pro bono components into medical–legal partnerships.
  • Legal aid for military vets. For instance, in August the ABA launched the Veterans' Claims Assistance Network (VCAN). Created under an agreement between the ABA and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the VCAN's goal is to connect unrepresented veterans having pending and backlogged VA disability compensation claims with pro bono attorneys. Under the agreement with the VA, veterans represented by VCAN attorneys will receive expedited adjudication and award of benefits. Currently operating in a pilot phase, VCAN will ultimately reach out to 3,300 eligible veterans in three VA Regional Office areas (Chicago, IL; St. Petersburg, FL; and Roanoke, VA) to offer its pro bono services. The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) administers the VCAN project.
  • Niche projects with unique legal matters.  "Implementation of a pro bono pilot in Maryland for attorneys interested in being a representative payee for a Social Security beneficiary was announced today by Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. Representative payees, she said, provide crucial help to the most vulnerable individuals in our community with their Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments." (SeniorJournal.com)
  • Access to Justice Commissions.  In year 2000, there were three state–based ATJ Commissions. Today there are 38. Commissions can play a key role not just in promoting pro bono work, but in launching new projects and engaging new partners.  We keep track of ATJ Commission pro bono developments right here.
  • Corporate Pro Bono. Brad Smith and Laura Stein, general counsels of Microsoft and Clorox respectively, highlight the rise of corporate pro bono: "This year, the Corporate Pro Bono project released 'CPBO Challenge® Report: 2007–2012, The Development of In–House Pro Bono.' This publication analyzes data reported by CPBO Challenge signatories from 2007–2012 and paints a detailed picture of the evolution of in–house pro bono over that time. The report quantifies many of the developments in in–house pro bono that we have witnessed firsthand." (Corporate Counsel)
  • The "pro bono gap" – a new framework to analyze pro bono.  An insightful, yet sobering, look at the amount of pro bono done in Virginia, and how much more of an impact it could be having in narrowing the state's justice gap. An analysis of available data suggests that "less than nine per cent of Virginia's active lawyers rendered any pro bono legal services through an organized pro bono program, whether sponsored by a legal aid society or another organization [over a recent one–year period]." The article, "Is there a Pro Bono Gap in Virginia?", ran in the Virginia Lawyer.

We at the ABA Standing Committee for Pro Bono & Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono are heartened and energized by so many actors, from so many different parts of the legal world, bringing creativity and collaborative spirit to pro bono. Let's all keep it going in 2015. Much remains to be done but you can join the effort by attending the 2015 ABA/NLADA Equal Justice Conference, submitting nominations for the ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards and participating in the National Celebration of Pro Bono. Most importantly, stay in touch! Sharing your pro bono innovations with the ABA, by email to abaprobono@americanbar.org, will help us spread the word to others.