Pro Bono Innovation and Evaluation

We are constantly amazed and inspired by the brilliant pro bono work being done every day to improve and save lives. Despite the passion and generosity of pro bono lawyers, we continue to confront a persistent access to justice crisis. In response, the legal community has been experimenting with innovative approaches to close the justice gap. A key component of innovation, however, must be evaluation.

Our friend Jonathan Asher of Colorado Legal Services once said that the problem with legal assistance is that it has “too many uncritical lovers and too many unloving critics.” Now more than ever, pro bono needs critical lovers: people who are sufficiently committed to pro bono and access to justice to ask hard questions about the efficacy of our efforts. We must be prepared to take an open and honest look at what impact our pro bono efforts are having with rigorous and unbiased assessment and a profound willingness to change anything that isn’t working well.

Limited-scope programs are innovations that have been accompanied by evaluations, which provide insight on the many facets of pro bono programs and the legal system. Evaluative studies have involved feedback from clients, participating attorneys, program coordinators, and judges. They have used a variety of methodologies, including paper surveys, phone calls, in-person interviews, focus groups, and case file reviews. While studies have evaluated various services and utilized different methodologies, they are unanimous on the value of feedback and evaluation.

One example of an innovative limited-scope initiative that has incorporated meaningful evaluation is New York City’s Volunteer Lawyer for the Day program (VLFD). Pro bono lawyers provide a single day of assistance to litigants, helping them navigate court appearances and settlement conferences. The program began with a pilot of fifty cases in a single housing court, and incorporated extensive feedback from clients, participating attorneys, and the presiding judge. This feedback revealed some of the common stumbling blocks unrepresented litigants face in housing court. For example, most of the VLFD clients did not know that disrepair was a defense in eviction hearings, nor were they aware that the court could order a landlord to make necessary repairs. Once the pro bono lawyers presented these options, many tenants avoided eviction and had their homes repaired to a habitable standard. After such a successful pilot, the program was expanded and made permanent. Today, VLFD attorneys assist litigants in housing and consumer debt cases throughout the City.

Another study evaluated the effectiveness of legal advice hotlines. Hotlines provide callers with legal advice and sometimes brief services. Clients of several different hotlines were surveyed by phone, and had their case files reviewed by lawyers to determine whether they achieved a “favorable” outcome. The results were positive: when clients understood and acted upon the hotlines’ advice, they almost always prevailed. A caller’s comprehension and subsequent actions are critical predicates for positive results. The study found that hotlines could enhance client understanding, which is often lacking, by engaging in a single follow-up communication – either placing a second phone call or mailing an information sheet. By adopting this strategy, hotlines could significantly improve their efficacy without making large investments of time or resources.

As pro bono leaders innovate to close the justice gap, evaluation of efforts is crucial. Every pro bono program could and should benefit from continuous improvement, retooling, and rethinking. Assessments spur further innovation by revealing cost-effective strategies and other ideas to improve the delivery of legal services. Also, positive feedback demonstrates and confirms the value of pro bono efforts and builds support among stakeholders and decision-makers. We cannot afford to be complacent or rest on our laurels. As pro bono fans, we must also critically examine our initiatives. The clients who desperately need our help deserve no less.

Hat tip to PBI intern Madeline B. Jenks for her help with this post.