“Disruptive” Pro Bono?

With Independence Day behind us, we are officially on to the second half of 2014. The long summer days provide the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on our accomplishments, our shortcomings, and our plans for the future. Recently, the notion of “disruption” has caught our eye, here at The PBEye.

Clayton Christenson defines “disruptive innovations” as “innovations that transform products which . . . are complicated and expensive into things that are so affordable and accessible that a larger population of people has access to them.” Industry by industry (Uber! Twitter!), these disruptive innovations have flipped the status quo upside down, redirecting scarce resources, rearranging management systems, and applying technology in new ways. Even the traditionally risk-adverse legal industry is ripe for “disruption.”

Access to legal services is both “complicated and expensive.” With 80-90 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans currently going unmet, we have a mind-bogglingly large number of people who are being denied access to justice. How could the potentially transformative ideas of “disruption” apply to ameliorate our justice gap? Can we identify and correct inefficiencies, incorporate new technologies, and restructure delivery systems to make pro bono more efficient, accessible, meaningful, and impactful? It’s time to shake up the status quo.

Let’s question conventional wisdom and our assumptions about technology, strategy, administration, and structure, with the goal that new and unexpected pro bono opportunities and solutions will come to light. Here are some of the questions we are asking:

• How can we design and test new, creative pro bono delivery systems? Are we still spending an inordinate amount of time vetting and placing individual matters and recruiting individual volunteers? Can we adopt different operating assumptions and alternate structures to better serve more pro bono clients?

• How can we tap into the current “do-it-yourself” ethos? What resources and tools can we provide to allow pro se litigants to better help themselves? What resources in what formats (video tutorials, FAQ’s of court processes, form legal documents, manuals, etc.) can be made more widely available? How can these resources best be made available to the public, including individuals who lack easy access to technology? Are we being sufficiently sensitive to all of the potential obstacles and barriers facing the underrepresented?

• How can we develop and employ robust “triage” systems that diagnose legal problems and determine the most effective intervention? Are we distinguishing between people who need brief service and advice, education about legal issues and rights, pro se representation, mediation and negotiation assistance, unbundled legal services, or full representation with zealous advocacy by a lawyer?

• Are we listening to our pro bono clients and volunteers? Are we gathering and analyzing meaningful feedback from them and using that information to improve the pro bono services we deliver?

• Are we studying, experimenting, testing, analyzing, adapting, and replicating successful innovations? How can we facilitate open communication so that good – and workable – ideas and solutions are shared and widely disseminated?

As we step out of our comfort zone, these are just a few of the uncomfortable questions we are asking ourselves and assumptions that we are challenging. We hope you take some time this summer to reflect on the structure and efficacy of your pro bono program and brainstorm opportunities for creative and productive “disruption.”

Hat tip to PBI intern Samantha Fry for her help with this post.