PBI President’s Advice for Lawyers in the Midst of the COVID-19 Crisis: Dig in. It’s Doable Remotely. The Underserved Need You
Now More than Ever.
Eve Runyon, President & CEO, Pro Bono Institute
Pro Bono Institute (PBI) entered 2020 on a high note, ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® initiative marking tremendous growth in the quantity and quality of pro bono service provided by law firms over the past quarter-century. PBI was also looking forward to an outstanding Annual Conference in March that would convene pro bono leaders from law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal services organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that.
Yes, the past progress made by legal professionals in the area of pro bono remains truly remarkable. And, yes, PBI staff quickly regrouped to remote operations and will proceed with a first-quality virtual conference in June. However, COVID-19 poses unprecedented challenges (in both scope and scale) to meet the demand for legal assistance from both those in need of service and those providing services that are now facing constrained resources. Helping the pro bono and legal aid community respond to the pandemic is now a key focus for PBI and its Law Firm Pro Bono Project® and Corporate Pro Bono® initiatives, as it is for the entire legal community as the crisis deepens.
COVID-19’s challenges are many, beyond the devastating public health crisis and loss of life. There are more people than ever who simply cannot afford to pay for legal assistance as a result of layoffs, wage cuts, and reductions in paid hours. At the same time, there are growing demands for help with filing for various forms of public assistance, such as unemployment and health insurance claims, debt relief, and fighting evictions, foreclosures and repossessions. There also is a need to assist victims of domestic violence, for whom shelter in place orders, while protecting them from the coronavirus, may expose them to other harm. And, of course, there is the challenge of working with those in need, when we are locked down and practicing social distancing.
At PBI, we are well connected with legal practitioners from law firms and corporations rising to this challenge, as well as stakeholders in the legal aid industry seeking to supply the needed help. What we see is heartening. Cooperation and collaboration are overcoming chaos.
So many organizations and individuals are leading the way that it is impossible to recognize all the worthy efforts being made, but to list a few:
- The American Bar Association Coronavirus Task Force, which is identifying legal needs arising from the pandemic, making recommendations to address those needs, and helping mobilize volunteer lawyers and legal professionals;
- The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its 132 fantastic legal aid grantees, which are working together to address the challenges of those in need, including ensuring the grantees have telework capacity essential to their ability to function;
- The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), which is working to improve coordination of the volunteer efforts of lawyers from more than 100 of the world’s largest law firms; and,
- Individual law firms and corporations, thankfully too many too name, all stepping up in so many ways.
Time and time again, legal professionals have risen to the challenge. Indeed, PBI’s records show that during the Great Recession total pro bono hours actually rose. So, I am confident that we will rally again, even in the face of a global crisis without precedent in modern times.
Thankfully, we are starting to see some reports providing hope that the number of new COVID-19 cases has peaked, or at least will peak very soon. So, there are reasons to be optimistic.
But, legal needs will lag the health crisis. Moreover, some relief now provided by governments and organizations, such as moratoriums on mortgage foreclosures, will exacerbate the situation later, even as they provide a welcome respite now.
Ironically, the legal sector should see our current circumstances, though urgent, as the calm before the real storm that is building and use this time to prepare. All the more so because many more people will suffer from the economic and other indirect impacts of COVID-19. Now is the time for legal professionals everywhere to join in, so that the world can recover, not just from this health crisis, but from the economic and legal service crisis the pandemic has spawned.
Many organizations and individuals are doing great work; many more are needed. I urge every legal professional to seek out opportunities to help. If there was ever a time for legal professionals to meet their professional obligations to participate in providing pro bono services, and for law firms and corporations to meet the aspirations embodied in PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® and Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiatives, this is it. With everyone working together, we can reach new heights, while providing meaningful support to those in great need.
Wondering what the legal community is doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or how you can help? Find out more through PBI’s special podcast series: The Challenge of COVID-19: Legal Community in Action. The series is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, and other podcast hosting sites. Additional episodes will be released regularly as warranted by developments.
- The ABA Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force Web Site is a national source of information about the coronavirus and the delivery of legal services. It includes resources on remote service delivery, court access and rules changes, legal needs, public benefits programs, and pro bono mobilization.
- Bloomberg Law is providing free access to comprehensive legal resources relating to COVID-19. The links below include information on judicial operations, state agency announcements and emergency rules, state-by-state unemployment insurance benefits, labor protections, checklists and toolkits, and state legislative activity.
- The Paul | Weiss Coronavirus Resource Center
- The TrustLaw COVID-19 Response is a repository of legal resources produced by law firms and others around the globe to support NGOs and social enterprises in response to the pandemic.
PBI’s blog, The PBEye, brings you updates, developments, and thought leadership on the latest in the pro bono legal community. Two blogs we posted recently might help you through our trying times.
The New Not-So-Normal for Pro Bono Legal Services
In recent weeks, our world has been turned upside down. Around the globe, we have been asked to redefine normalcy, while the term “social distancing” has found itself in our day-to-day vocabulary. Understandably, many people are feeling helpless right now. Feelings of frustration arise, because we have a desire to go out and help our communities. However, we know that the best way to do that during this time is to stay inside. Pro bono and legal professionals, especially, may feel constricted at this time, as we know assistance is needed, but it is difficult to know how to assist clients when we are confined to our homes. READ MORE
Secondary Trauma Stress: Sustaining Pro Bono Volunteers
Many pro bono attorneys volunteer in high stress matters, such as domestic violence, child abuse, immigration, and death penalty advocacy. While the mental health and trauma of the clients in these matters is paramount, these high-stakes, high-stress matters also impact the clients’ legal services providers. Just as doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can face psychological trauma in performing their jobs, many attorneys suffer from the mental health hazards of caring for others, such as burnout, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma. READ MORE
Announcing the PBI Virtual Conference
Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, PBI could not hold its 2020 Annual Conference in March. As so many other organizations have done, we have pivoted to virtual in order to bring you the impressive and useful content, sessions, and speakers you’ve come to expect from a PBI Annual Conference. This June PBI is offering its first-ever Virtual Conference. Plus, we are continually developing new conference sessions and more resources to support efforts during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Responding to the rising need for legal aid and pro bono services, and meeting the challenges to function effectively while respecting the need for social distancing, the PBI Virtual Conference will take place over four weeks. During this time there will be pre-recorded webinars and live sessions for the pro bono law community as a whole, and tracked sessions specifically designed to develop and strengthen law firms, in-house law departments, and public interest organizations. Typically there will be one session a day, to allow you minimal distraction from your work while providing maximum access-to-justice content for your pro bono program. And, sessions will be recorded so that you can view them at any time at your convenience.
PBI’s Virtual Conference will provide unparalleled educational opportunities to help law firms, in-house law departments, and legal aid organizations achieve their pro bono mission. Registration for the Virtual Conference opens April 30th!
On April 23, PBI celebrates what would have been the 73rd birthday of Esther Lardent, our late founder, and her lifelong work to achieve equal justice. On her birthday in previous years, many PBI supporters demonstrated their generosity by contributing to the Esther F. Lardent Fund for Innovation in Pro Bono (“Esther’s Fund”), created by PBI’s Board of Directors as a tribute to her outstanding career, passion, and tireless dedication to fighting for justice. We greatly appreciate their support!
This year, we ask that you consider making a personal donation to Esther’s Fund to support PBI’s work related to the coronavirus pandemic. These are unprecedented times, and PBI continues to develop resources and provide consulting assistance to law firms and in-house law departments as they respond to the increasing need for pro bono legal services. As a designated liaison of the ABA Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, PBI is helping to ensure access to justice during the pandemic.
With your support, we can ensure that the organization that Esther built stays strong and carries on her legacy of transforming the pro bono efforts of law firms, in-house law departments, and public interest organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Please donate today.
We have circulated a letter to CLOs and GCs calling for the continued funding of LSC in FY2021. Last year, as a result of a similar effort, over 260 general counsel and chief legal officers joined a letter to Congress to encourage the continued funding of LSC when the proposed budget sought to eliminate all funding. The FY2020 spending package that was approved allocated $440 million for LSC, the highest amount in LSC’s history.
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has postponed the regular appropriations process without setting new dates. After signing on an initial group of legal leaders in the business community, CPBO and NLADA look forward to engaging the broader general counsel community after the appropriation process restarts. Support will be especially important this year, as the pandemic has contributed to devastating critical legal issues that face low-income people across the U.S.
Prior to joining PBI, Swenson was a Partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP* since 2017, where he represented clients in energy regulatory and commercial matters. At Orrick, he also led large multi-office pro bono initiatives, such as analyzing and providing recommendations on the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur for a pro bono client.
Prior to Orrick, Swenson was a Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP* from 2008 to 2017, where he served as lead counsel on energy regulatory and commercial matters as well as chair of the DC Office Pro Bono Committee. As committee chair, Swenson collaborated with 10 other of the firms’ pro bono committees to develop strategies and tactics to increase pro bono participation, gathering support from both management and grass roots levels. He also was a Partner at King & Spalding LLP*, and he began his law career as an Associate at Chadbourne & Parke LLP.
Swenson received a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a B.A., cum laude, from Columbia College, Columbia University.
This year is much more than a year of celebration to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® initiative. In keeping with PBI’s mission of exploring and identifying new approaches to and resources for the provision of pro bono services, 2020 is a year of introspection and strategic planning for PBI’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project. In March, the Project reached out to its Advisory Committee, law firm contacts, and PBI’s Board of Directors to solicit input through an on-line survey.
This summer, the Project intends to convene a Deloitte GreenhouseTM session with a cross-section of the legal industry to directly engage PBI’s stakeholders in this process. Deloitte** Greenhouses apply a tested set of principles that combine behavioral science, analytics, technology, and facilitation to breakthrough traditional methods of problem solving and strategic thinking. These steps will contribute to the creation of a strategic plan setting PBI’s future direction for supporting and enhancing law firm pro bono through both tried-and-true means and new innovation. Thanks to all of the committed law firms that are collaborating with PBI to ensure that the next 25 years of the Challenge will surpass the last.
In 2006, at the urging of chief legal officers, CPBO launched an initiative enabling legal departments to identify, benchmark, and communicate their support for pro bono service. The Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® statement is now the standard for in-house pro bono. It is a simple, voluntary statement of commitment to pro bono service by legal departments, their lawyers, and staff.
In 2019, CPBO published Corporate Pro Bono’s 2019 Challenge® Report (reporting on the year 2018) on the Expansion of In-House Pro Bono. In the report, CPBO provided data on in-house pro bono participation by CPBO Challenge® signatories. The Report helps in-house legal departments benchmark their pro bono efforts against their peers. In the U.S., 74 percent of respondents met or exceeded the goal of 50 percent participation by attorneys, and 30 percent of the respondents met or exceeded the goal of 50 percent participation by other legal department staff. Globally, 38 percent of responding signatories with lawyers outside of the U.S. engaged in pro bono outside of the U.S.
In March 2020, CPBO sent its annual survey to Corporate Pro Bono Challenge signatories requesting their January 1 – December 31, 2019 pro bono data. Later this year, the Project will issue a report on signatories’ progress toward meeting the Challenge goal of 50 percent participation annually by both lawyers and staff.
Additionally, in March 2020, CPBO sent its biennial Benchmarking survey to Corporate Pro Bono Challenge signatories and other CPBO stakeholders, requesting information about their pro bono programs. CPBO asks its key constituents to complete this survey to assist CPBO and others with understanding the current state of in-house pro bono, including program structure, the types of pro bono matters handled, metrics, partnerships, and more.
The deadline to submit survey responses is May 22, 2020. CPBO looks forward to receiving your responses!
* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member