Looking Back While Looking Forward

Revisiting the PBI 2021 Annual Conference

The cicadas are chirping and the humid, hot days have arrived here in D.C., yet it doesn’t feel so long ago that PBI hosted its springtime Annual Conference. From March 23 – 26, 2021, PBI virtually welcomed hundreds of pro bono leaders from the in-house, law firm, and public interest sectors. Here are a few takeaways that reflect back on the Conference while also speaking to the future of pro bono:

Pro bono lawyers are innovating and collaborating to address the crises of our time. During a year that changed the way we practice law, pro bono leaders and volunteers stepped up to start new programs necessitated by the pandemic. For instance, back when “social distance” was still a new phrase in our lexicon, a coalition of nonprofits — recognizing that social distance is impossible in prison — efficiently organized a robust Compassionate Release Clearinghouse to represent prisoners seeking compassionate release from incarceration. The project, which went from inception to securing the release of its first two clients in just forty days, drew strength from many participating firms, allowing it to serve more clients, at a time when every delay meant the increased spread of Covid-19 through the facility.As we confront societal crises in the future, consider how coalitions across the nonprofit and private sectors can magnify their impact by working together. (To learn more, check out How We Raised An Army: The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse COVID-19 Project.)


The future is (not only) virtual. Many session speakers and attendees discussed how their program transitioned to remote pro bono over the past year. This change had some benefits, such as eliminating transportation and childcare barriers for clients seeking to attend a clinic. Attorneys can also deliver services far across the state in which they are licensed, particularly in rural communities and other neighborhoods that have fewer local legal aid and pro bono attorneys. However, a significant problem is that clients who lack access to the requisite technology – be it a computer, a data plan or Wifi to use Zoom, or minutes on a prepaid phone – are not being served. (Many volunteers missed the opportunity to get to know their client in person, too.)In the coming months, we expect to see organizations developing a mix of in-person and virtual pro bono programs, retaining remote delivery for clients who benefit while ensuring that clients who require in-person services do not fall through the cracks. (For more best practices and lessons learned, check out Pro Bono Zooms Into the Future: An Interactive Workshop.)


Check in with your colleagues – and yourself – to curb compassion fatigue. During a session with expert Dr. Tracey Meyers, Psy.D. of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Massachusetts, attendees learned to recognize the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, a condition that can afflict those in the helping professions who serve an at-risk population. Attorneys experience anxiety and stress at higher rates than the general population already; the onset of compassion fatigue can harm their professional and personal lives.Even with the hopeful reduction of pandemic-exacerbated anxiety and stress, pro bono volunteers serving vulnerable populations — and pro bono program leaders who support them — benefit from the tools and support systems to address compassion fatigue. (To learn more about causes and symptoms of, and solutions to, compassion fatigue, check out Running on Empty: How to Reduce Compassion Fatigue for Legal Professionals.)


Companies and firms are making actionable their commitment to advance racial equity – including through pro bono. Over the past year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many companies and firms made public commitments to work toward racial equity. PBI worked with many law firm and in-house pro bono programs seeking to implement a racial equity lens to their pro bono program. During a Conference session, several expert panelists discussed how a system of discriminatory housing policies over many decades laid the groundwork for ongoing racial disparities in housing today. These inequities include: Black households are at far greater risk of eviction; Black people and other people of color are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness; Black families are more likely to live in low-opportunity areas (lacking equal access to quality housing, schooling, job opportunities, health care, and nutritious food); and Black people are less likely to own a home.There is a pressing need for pro bono attorneys to help not only with dismantling racist policies, but also serving individual clients who are harmed by these policies. For example, we expect to see pro bono attorneys getting trained to volunteer for eviction defense, as the pandemic-related eviction moratoria come to an end. (To learn more, check out Housing and Racial Justice.)


In turbulent times, PBI continues to forge meaningful connections among in-house, law firm, and public interest pro bono leaders. Though we missed gathering in person in Washington, D.C., Annual Conference attendees took advantage of the many virtual networking and roundtable sessions to share triumphs, empathize over common challenges, crowdsource solutions, brainstorm innovations, and create new partnerships. Attendees also visited virtually with legal services and public interest organizations from across the country, to learn about pro bono opportunities and how they can serve.If you’d like PBI to help facilitate an introduction within the pro bono community, or if you’d like to reconnect with a fellow Conference attendee or PBI staff, please drop us a line. We look forward to seeing friends old and new at the 2022 PBI Annual Conference.

Did you miss any of the programs from the 2021 PBI Annual Conference? Many sessions can be accessed on demand on West LegalEdcenter. Search for programming by Pro Bono Institute under “Content Provider.” Paid 2021 Annual Conference registrants should contact PBI for more information about how to revisit the Conference programs at no additional charge.