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 they know their assistance is needed, but it is difficult to know how to assist clients when we are confined to our homes.

Fortunately, this is happening in a time where we have technological advancements that allow us to work remotely, have face to face meetings over video chat, and keep in touch with our friends and family. Technology also makes it possible to continue to do pro bono work. The ability to engage in various types of remote pro bono work gives legal professionals a chance to help those who really need it, without having to leave their home offices.

There are many opportunities for remote pro bono during this time. The American Bar Association (ABA) Covid-19 task force recently launched a webpage detailing the delivery of legal services in relation to Covid-19. On this site, ABA links a Remote Legal Support Guide: A Best Practices Manual for Nonprofit and Pro Bono Innovation, published by Pro Bono Net. The manual is a fifty page document with information pooled from ten legal service organizations. It contains information about the logistics and lessons learned of successful remote legal support programs, and is based on a survey conducted prior to the current pandemic.

Although it is extremely pertinent to the current state of the world, remote pro bono is not a new concept by any means. Many law firms, companies, and organizations have developed online platforms to assist in facilitating remote pro bono over the past few years. The ABA’s Free Legal Answers, a virtual pro bono clinic, launched in 2016 and has allowed attorneys in many jurisdictions across the U.S. to provide free brief legal to thousands of low- to moderate-income people.

We dug into the PBI archives for more project ideas and lessons learned about remote pro bono. Research projects can be incredibly impactful while also being convenient for participating volunteers.  For example, at a session on desktop pro bono at PBI’s 2017 Annual Conference, BNY Mellon** discussed a large-scale research project that volunteers from their legal department, White & Case*, and the National LGBT Bar Association took on after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) jn 2013. The volunteers conducted a 50-state survey of the state laws regarding joint filing of taxes by same-sex couples, which grew into the LGBT Online Tax Resource.  The key to success for this remote pro bono partnership was frequent check-ins between the partners, and setting clear deadlines.

At PBI’s 2013 Annual Conference, Mike Monahan, the Pro Bono Director at the Georgia State Bar, explained that several Georgia legal services organizations use a statewide volunteer website to conduct pro bono work. This enabled lawyers to video chat in order to meet face to face with clients in clinics. It also allowed clients to share their desktops so that documents could be viewed and worked on by the volunteer lawyers. Georgia’s use of rule 6.5, which allows volunteers to provide brief advice without conducting a full conflict check, also allowed for the website to offer live help from pro bono volunteers.

Some pro bono clients may not be able to access the technology needed for online platforms or video conferencing. However, there are additional ways to facilitate remote pro bono outside of online platforms. Doing consultations with clients over the phone is a low-tech but effective   solution that many legal services organizations and pro bono volunteers have adopted.

At PBI’s 2014 Annual Conference, Christie Searls, the former Senior Associate General Counsel at CenturyLink, Inc., explained how the company partnered with law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner* to set up a pro bono hotline. Pro bono volunteers were able to go online and select a time that they would like to volunteer, and the hotline number would be routed to their office phone. Training was provided by CenturyLink and Bryan Cave to the volunteers, and they were given a resource booklet to assist them with the calls.

It is important to note that although providing pro bono legal assistance over the phone is a more accessible option for many clients, limitation may exist, including cell phone plans that restrict the number of minutes of talk time that a client has or that are discontinued as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Some best practices for successful remote pro bono projects include:

  • Ensure each volunteer has clear instructions about their task.
  • Divide tasks into bite-size components to allow more volunteers to participate and to accomplish the task more quickly.
  • Have volunteers work in teams or in a structure where they can provide support to one another if they get hit with a heavy workload.
  • For multi-partner projects, draft communication plans to facilitate frequent and efficient communications, and use secure technology platforms to share research and documents.
  • For large-scale research projects, such as comparative law surveys, create templates for each volunteer to fill in, to ensure consistency and facilitate compilation of the research.

Although this is a difficult time, thanks to technology there are more ways than ever to continue to serve people, organizations, and businesses in need of pro bono legal services. There are many platforms to discover pro bono work that can be done from your home, and there are various ways to provide that assistance, whether it be through instant messaging, video chatting, or over the phone. Technology and great minds have provided us with plenty of opportunities for doing good at this time. So, stay on your couch, at your home office, or at your kitchen table, and start delivering some remote pro bono legal services today!

*  denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory