May 19, 2016 Dialogue

Innovations in Technology-Enabled Pro Bono

By Liz Keith

Pro bono participation makes an enormous difference in meeting the legal needs of low income and vulnerable individuals, and many attorneys and other legal professional can and do volunteer. But many attorneys aren’t sure how to get involved or whether they have the right skills to help people in need, or they simply face an everyday hurdle familiar to many of us:  lack of time.

Across the country, nonprofit legal aid programs, bar associations, courts, and other groups are lowering barriers to pro bono participation—and expanding their pool of volunteers—through innovative uses of technology. These technology-enabled models are helping to connect prospective volunteers with pro bono opportunities, create new pathways to pro bono participation through unbundled and remote service models, and provide new supportive resources to assist volunteers in their pro bono work. As in private firms, smart applications of technology in the nonprofit legal sector are also creating new efficiencies that can result in higher quality legal services to an increased number of clients. And while there are still lingering gaps in technology access and adoption among certain client communities, online strategies combined with community partnerships are helping to increase services to rural and other underserved areas.

Interactive, online document assembly programs have been incorporated into many pro bono initiatives to support the provision of unbundled legal services, provide additional support for volunteer attorneys, and make service delivery more efficient. In New York, for example, the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO) offers weekly walk-in clinics to low-income individuals being sued by debt collectors. In New York City, 91% of people being sued for debt collection live in low or moderate income areas. Less than 3% have an attorney, while virtually 100% of the companies suing them are represented by counsel.[1] In addition, 95% of people with default judgments reside in low income areas.[2] The CLARO clinics are very popular, and pro bono attorneys and law students assisting litigants face an overwhelming demand for assistance in a limited window of time. In addition, some essential documents are too complex to be drafted during brief services, particularly Oppositions to Motions for Summary Judgment. Three years ago, CLARO used LawHelp Interactive (LHI) to automate the key advocacy forms used in the clinics to help pro bono attorneys more quickly and efficiently generate high quality documents for litigants. The Opposition to a Motion for Summary Judgment, a form which previously required hours to prepare, can now be done in minutes. The online templates provide built-guidance for less experienced volunteers working outside of their area of expertise, and clinic volunteers can now serve clients more quickly—and thus serve many more people.

Several programs are combining online document assembly with tools to help volunteer attorneys review those documents remotely. The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York is piloting Closing the Gap, a new initiative funded by an LSC Pro Bono Innovation grant, to increase pro bono service delivery in housing and consumer cases in rural upstate New York through the use of remote assistance technology and client collaboration tools—including real-time video sessions, remote review of online forms, and generation of pro se answers. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma (LASO) recently launched an innovative pro bono effort to help expand the availability of pro bono assistance in expungement matters, which affects one of every 12 adults in Oklahoma.[3] Individuals seeking an expungement can complete a guided online interview on LawHelp Interactive to help determine if they qualify for expungement. Using a new suite of tools called LHI Connect, LASO pro bono coordinators can then share information collected online from qualifying individuals with volunteer attorneys, who can remotely review the client information documents and create the necessary forms and instructions from within the LawHelp Interactive platform. The technology facilitates the screening and intake process, makes it possible to generate high-quality pro forms, and supports the provision of remote and limited scope services to individuals seeking expungement who otherwise might not be reached.

Technology is also helping to expand the geographic reach of traditional, brick and mortar pro bono programs. Traditional “lawyer in the library” pro bono programs in California, Colorado, and several other regions have expanded into remote services to connect volunteer attorneys concentrated in metropolitan corridors with community members in underserved areas. The scope of services varies in these models, but using lightweight, user-friendly video conferencing solutions such as Zoom, volunteers can answer questions, help fill out forms and explain court process and procedures. Libraries assist with local outreach and facilitating access to the technology used in the clinics.

In addition to innovations in traditional pro bono services, technology is enabling new modes of volunteering. The New York LawHelp program offers a chat-based “LiveHelp” service that provides information and referral-finding assistance for low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers in English and Spanish. The service is staffed each semester by a cohort of trained law student volunteers, who can participate from anywhere and take shifts convenient to their class and work schedules. LiveHelp serves more than 5,500 people a year, and many students say the experience has helped to cement their commitment to doing pro bono work later in their careers. Individuals using LiveHelp consistently report high levels of satisfaction with the assistance received, and that the information and resources provided help to increase their understanding of their legal issue and what steps can be taken to resolve it. Legal Aid of Western Ohio developed a chat-based initiative to expand the availability of pro bono services for eligible clients in rural counties in northwest and west central Ohio on housing and consumer matters LAWO would otherwise not be able to serve. Building on the success of OnlineTNJustice.org, the ABA has launched a national initiative, ABA Legal Answers, to offer a web-based platform for low income individuals with civil legal needs to post questions and receive basic legal information and advice asynchronously from pro bono attorneys. These and similar approaches reduce barriers to pro bono participation and provide an accessible, time-limited way for attorneys to help out. They also expand the support available for litigants, particularly in rural areas, and provide an alternative option for those whose work schedules make it difficult to seek legal advice during normal office hours.

Technology innovations are also facilitating new pro bono partnerships between nonprofit legal aid groups and non-legal community organizations, particularly in the immigration arena. CitizenshipWorks.org provides online tools and resources to assist permanent residents seeking U.S. citizenship. Individuals can use the site to assess their eligibility for citizenship and complete their naturalization application. If there are any potential problems with the application, the system will guide the individual to legal assistance, either from qualified nonprofit organizations and pro bono attorneys offering virtual consultations through the platform, or to in-person services available through Citizenshipworks partner programs. In New York City, Los Angeles and several other regions, public libraries and local community groups that lack in-house legal capacity are using CitizenshipWorks to help effectively assess and triage the needs of naturalization-eligible individuals seeking their assistance and connect them with in-person or virtual assistance from nonprofit immigration legal services providers. The platform’s comprehensive tools can help to effectively and efficiently scale both staff and volunteer capacity to provide secure, high quality services to more applicants, regardless of geographic location, income level or language.

What is the field learning from these and other initiatives? While not every innovation will be a success, technology is clearly creating new opportunities to unlock, and effectively support, a much larger pool of volunteers than ever before. Some of these changes may be disruptive to traditional service models, but if harnessed well, we can make great strides in addressing one our country’s fundamental dilemmas—closing the justice gap for the millions of low income individuals in need of accessible and affordable legal assistance. So, where will you plug in?


[1] Studies vary, but most estimate that between 1-3% of borrowers in New York are represented by counsel, while 100% of the entities bringing the collection cases are represented. For statistics and more information, see The Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York: Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York, 2010 and Due Process and Consumer Debt: Eliminating Barriers to Justice in Consumer Credit Cases, by Appleseed, 2010

[2] In New York City, 91% of people being sued for debt collection live in low or moderate income areas. In addition, 95% of people with default judgments reside in low income areas. Statistics from Debt Deception: How Debt Buyers Abuse the Legal System to Prey on Lower-Income New Yorkers, by the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, MFY Legal Services and the Urban Justice Center Community Development Project, 2010

[3] Statistic from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, 2015

Liz Keith

Program Director, Pro Bono Net

Liz Keith is Program Director at Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit leader in developing innovative technology and forging collaborations to increase access to justice, where she has worked since 2004. Previously, she managed initiatives at the Maine Women's Policy Center focusing on women’s health, economic security, and freedom from violence. Liz has a self-tailored master’s degree in community informatics from the University of Michigan and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.