There is a new paradigm in town, creating unique pro bono programs and leveraging, as never before, a coordinated affirmative initiative by major American law firms to advance the work of their local legal aid organizations. Perhaps even more interesting than the approach itself is its birthplace . . . the White House.
In 2012 the legal community marked the 50th anniversary of groundbreaking meetings, called by President Kennedy in the White House, to rally the nation’s attorneys in support of civil rights workers in the South. With appreciation of that historic moment, Vice President Joe Biden invited leaders of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) to his office to discuss current access to justice issues. Along with the chairs or managing partners of their firms, a dozen APBCo board members and the Vice President engaged in a freewheeling, well-informed review of the role, power, and potential of professionally-managed pro bono programs. The discussion focused on working alongside legal aid organizations to enhance the delivery of legal services to the poor and marginalized. Under the Vice President’s watchful eye, and with his great enthusiasm for its purposes, APBCo laid out a pilot program to utilize coordinated, premier law firm pro bono expertise as had never been done before.
Out of that historic meeting came the APBCo “IMPACT Project” ("Involving More Pro Bono Attorneys in our Communities Together"). The IMPACT Project turned the traditional model of creating new programs upside down to address the ever-changing and growing legal needs of the underserved.
Traditionally, the charge to legal aid organizations, with their ears to the ground and lawyers in the field, has been to respond to the most egregious gaps in services by crafting responsive programs, raising funds, hiring staff, creating training materials, garnering support, and recruiting pro bono volunteers. The IMPACT program, in an unprecedented and collaborative way, takes the opposite approach. Recognizing that the recession and its aftermath severely hampered the ability of legal aid programs to expand services at a time when the need for those services was growing, APBCo proposed that its member firms would go into their communities, assemble legal aid organizations and other key stakeholders, identify the most serious unmet or under-met legal needs, assess the ability of pro bono attorneys to provide assistance, and then find the resources to launch the efforts themselves. The Vice President enthusiastically encouraged the APBCo initiative.
In ten cities across the country, APBCo members and their law firm leaders held meetings, worked with their legal aid friends, crafted programs, raised and contributed funds, created trainings and materials, hired staff where possible, and launched pro bono-driven clinics. In some instances, legal aid organizations were handed turn-key opportunities to come in and provide expert oversight and supervision as part of a newly launched initiative. The traditional model had been turned upside down. With law firm-generated leverage, legal services organizations were freed from the burden of raising new capital, and new projects were launched to serve those most in need. Many IMPACT projects have now been operating for nearly two years. A number have become self-sustaining fixtures in the panoply of programs that weave together a safety net of services that bolster our democracy and provide legal representation in the most critical situations where no help was available before. Consider:
After discussions with legal services providers and bar leaders in Boston, the IMPACT effort engaged a number of APBCo member firms in temporarily helping to staff a legal aid intake and hotline entity, whose operations seemed to be flagging as the volume of calls increased and the nature of legal issues broadened. In addition, a new project—in conjunction with a legal services program and the courts—has APBCo firm attorneys providing legal assistance to pro se litigants in the appellate process.
In Chicago, a series of “second chance” clinics were launched by APBCo and a major legal services organization. These clinics assist prisoners on release from incarceration in overcoming barriers to their ability to secure employment. In Los Angeles, APBCo and several legal aid programs launched a monthly clinic at a local domestic violence ("DV") shelter. The clinic provides “wrap around” legal services to women and children who access the legal system because of an immediate and dire threat to their safety, but whose other issues of vulnerability are often not addressed. Assistance is provided in the areas of public benefits, housing, and immigration, enabling DV survivors to take care of other serious problems standing in the way of their long-term safety and resilience.
In New York, an APBCo small business legal academy (SBLA") was created in conjunction with a number of legal services programs, which was first held in Harlem and later in Brooklyn. More than 250 small businesses and non-profits received instruction and counseling from 150 lawyers at these clinics. Legal clinics have also been established in New York at local homeless youth shelters, giving many young people a previously unavailable chance to work with attorneys to overcome the hurdles of homelessness and begin to build meaningful self-sufficiency.
The NYC small business legal academy project was replicated, with great acclaim, in Houston. The mayor of that city embraced the program and, with APBCo help and expertise, is setting up a permanent, virtual expansion of the project.
Philadelphia launched an APBCo project in conjunction with two legal services programs, providing immigration clinics both in the heart of the city and in a remote rural region where no such legal help was available.
San Francisco's APBCo Impact Project, created with a number of legal services programs, has so far held more than 100 clinics in the farthest reaches of the Bay Area where no legal aid assistance has been accessible for many years.
Seattle's APBCO IMPACT Project, through collaboration with several legal services programs, focuses on domestic violence against women—an area in which sheer numbers and the seriousness of the issue had overwhelmed existing community resources. APBCo firms in and around Detroit have similarly targeted domestic violence. Working with a key legal services program in the city, the APBCo IMPACT Project focuses on courtroom sessions where women and children otherwise would have been unrepresented in efforts to secure orders of protection.
Finally, in Washington, DC—for the first time in the city’s history—applicants for Social Security disability programs are getting help that results not just in subsistence funding for the neediest, but also in much-needed medical care. In collaboration with several legal aid providers, this APBCo IMPACT Project is expanding access for the poor to the benefits of the Social Security disability program.
All of these projects share a common thread. As IMPACT programs, they were conceived, crafted, staffed, funded, and promoted by the private bar, in a switch of roles that was unprecedented. Local legal aid organizations are sending their clients and assigning expert staff attorneys to provide training and oversight of the hundreds of pro bono volunteers. Many of the volunteers end up handling follow-up matters that the agencies might not otherwise have had the capacity to absorb and handle.
In a subsequent meeting, Vice President Biden told APBCo leaders how proud he was of the effort, the concept, and the results. He urged APBCo to continue deploying this unique service-delivery model in more circumstances where he believed it could make a difference to those most in need. He foreshadowed the influx of children coming into the United States across the Mexican border, citing it as possibly the next great area of legal need. And, indeed, when that occurred, APBCo and the private bar, although wildly overwhelmed by the volume of need, responded to the White House call for help with approaches informed by the success of the APBCo IMPACT paradigm.
In the end, the IMPACT model represents law firms and the private bar, acting assertively to fulfill a lawyer’s highest calling. The IMPACT model is a vehicle that only major law firms, inspired by full-time, in-house pro bono directors, could initiate and pursue in these times of economic difficulties and realities. The leverage it creates helps serve thousands of people who rely on our judicial system to protect their access to the promises of democracy and the basic necessities of life. Its application can continue to develop new programs to meet new needs, limited only by the legal community’s imagination. However, despite the effectiveness of reversing the traditional project creation model, there is no true replacement for the work of our full-time legal aid organizations and staff attorneys. The expertise of professional poverty law lawyers is the foundation on which effective pro bono work must be built. There is no turning that fact upside down.