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Public Service

Using Technology to Eliminate Barriers in Providing Pro Bono Services

Jillian Theil

Using Technology to Eliminate Barriers in Providing Pro Bono Services
Marco VDM

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The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects across the United States have made it clear: many grave challenges face American families as the nation recovers. Recent developments in pro bono technology are helping to more efficiently match attorneys to volunteer opportunities and deliver legal services to those in need. Moving forward, we can draw on the work and momentum born out of the ongoing efforts in this space and effectuate further change.

Matching Legal Volunteers to Pro Bono Opportunities

The pro bono tech community eliminates friction points for attorneys willing to volunteer their time to those in need. For example, the State Bar of Wisconsin recently launched the Wisconsin Pro Bono Portal on the Paladin platform to aggregate volunteer opportunities on a user-friendly, accessible online portal. Legal professionals in the state can find tailored information, categorized by area of law, people helped, time commitment, CLE credits offered, and more. Efforts in other states include programs like the Florida Pro Bono Law School Challenge, designed by The Florida Bar Foundation with SaavySuit. This program facilitates the pairing of law students with lawyer mentors on pro bono cases hosted by legal aid organizations. The website utilizes competition to encourage engagement with pro bono casework via a ranked leaderboard of volunteer stats for firms and law schools, along with awards and recognition at the Florida Bar Annual Convention. Models like these could be implemented nationwide to help match volunteers with the right opportunity, demonstrating how to leverage technology to reduce a significant barrier in finding attorneys to provide pro bono representation.

Connecting with Clients Remotely

The pandemic has greatly reduced in-person delivery of legal services, making remote service delivery more essential. Pro Bono Net’s Remote Legal Connect platform, originally developed to help rural communities, is being used in partnership with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. for Georgia Legal Connect and has been integral over the past year. This program allows volunteers to meet with clients virtually while simultaneously sharing and editing legal documents via LawHelp Interactive. Platforms like this have limitless potential to address legal needs in rural areas desperate for legal services.

Efficiently Leveraging Existing Tools

While no single technology will solve every problem, we must make sure the different solutions that are developed can be done as a community and are interoperable where possible. A powerful way to do this is through application programming interfaces (APIs), which are commonly used to set up standards between different applications for seamless and on-demand data sharing and updates. One example is the Pro Bono Opportunities API developed by LegalServer. This API is used to pass specific data points from agencies using its case management software to other outreach formats like text messages, emails, and websites that pro bono attorneys use to engage with volunteer opportunities.

API tools can be used in projects like the recently launched Texas Disaster Legal Help online tool. Through the support of the Legal Services Corporation and in partnership with several aid organizations in the state, the portal advances pro bono mobilization in disaster and emergency situations and creates efficiencies in information sharing. This type of collaboration is vital in providing pro bono services, especially in providing emergent disaster relief even outside of COVID-19 responses.

Getting Involved

For attorneys eager to learn more about national and regional pro bono opportunities and to stay updated on developments in the field, check out the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant Program, which encourages the creation and use of technology to meet the legal needs of low-income Americans.

Magnifying Impact

While work remains in developing and evolving the legal technology landscape for pro bono services, the legal technology community has an incredible foundation on which to build. One can imagine a world in which volunteers engage with pro bono opportunities through many compatible pathways like legal aid, court, and bar websites. Effective and proactive volunteer outreach and service can occur via different technologies, encouraging and facilitating pro bono representation despite current issues in matching opportunities and volunteers.

ABA Free Legal Answers is an online version of the walk-in clinic model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer. Lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation. The purpose of the website is to increase access to advice and information about non-criminal legal matters to those who cannot afford it. Read more about ABA Free Legal Answers or volunteer for ABA Free Legal Answers in your state