2023 PBI Annual Conference Takeaways

At the end of February, PBI hosted the 2023 Annual Conference in Washington, DC. For the first time since 2019, the Annual Conference was held entirely in-person in Washington, DC. With over 200 attendees from law firms, in-house departments, and public interest organizations, the 2023 Annual Conference sparked passionate and insightful discussions surrounding many pro bono topics. Here are a few takeaways from the Conference:

The number of lawyers doing pro bono in the U.S. is increasing, but so is the number of individuals without access to justice. During their plenary presentation, Jim Sandman, Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the Honorable Bridget McCormack, President and CEO of the American Arbitration Association, discussed the rising number of individuals lacking access to legal representation. In 2022, the Legal Services Corporation reported that 92 percent of low-income Americans do not receive the civil legal help needed in disputes where losing their job, livelihood, home, or children, or securing a restraining order against an abuser were at risk.

Sandman and Chief Justice McCormack shared potential ways to address this growing need. Since an attorney’s reach can only go so far, we need to go beyond reliance upon individual licensed attorneys to assist in serving underserved clients. One way that this can be accomplished includes employing technology to enable clients to complete forms and find information without a lawyer for simple civil cases. Both Sandman and McCormack also agreed that the legal system as it stands is too complicated for individuals that do not have counsel and that there should be more relaxed regulations that would allow paraprofessionals to assist more freely those who cannot afford a lawyer.

As our society progresses, it is important that the legal profession progresses as well, especially to assist those that experience barriers to access to justice.

We are still living in a (semi)-virtual world. While many firms, companies, and organizations have returned to in-person work, there are still a large number operating in both hybrid and remote environments. Additionally, pro bono clients often prefer to meet virtually with their attorneys. In the past few years, we have seen both in-person and virtual pro bono opportunities being offered.

At the conference, attendees expressed mixed reviews from pro bono volunteers about their preferences toward virtual versus in-person pro bono opportunities. Some feel that in-person opportunities are more appealing to attorneys, because it brings a sense of community and provides a social aspect to the work; while others feel that remote opportunities allow more pro bono volunteers to participate from across different regions and offices.

Providing a range of opportunities, both in-person and virtual, is often the best way to cater to the variety of volunteers’ preferences. However, it is important to note that depending on the nature of the project a certain project may not be suitable for a virtual platform, whereas other projects, such as the Wills and Estates Signature Project discussed in “A Blueprint for Addressing Legal Deserts,” very successfully relied on remote legal assistance to reach clients in rural Georgia counties. So, when choosing between a virtual or in-person project, make sure that all parties are comfortable with the format.

Mentorship is an essential way to maintain a pro bono program driven by passionate leaders. Discussion of best practices for increasing engagement is ever-present among pro bono leaders.  Throughout the conference, the topic of mentorship within programs was raised many times. Mentorship programs are a great way for a new generation of pro bono leaders to be prepared to take over once their senior pro bono champions retire or move on from the program.

Cheryl Naja, Director of Pro Bono and Community Engagement at Alston & Bird, Tali Albukerk, National Administrator for Free Legal Answers, and Matt Ellis, Chief Counsel – Commercial & Pro Bono at Koch Industries discussed in their session, “Those Were the Best Days of My Summer,” the importance of involving summer associates and interns in pro bono. Beginning pro bono mentorship early in a law student’s career exposes them to the pro bono world and can begin to shape a future pro bono leader.

Pro bono collaborations are effective in creating manageable and bite-sized pro bono projects for attorneys and legal professionals. Sessions like “Remote & Bite-Size Immigration Pro Bono” explored how clinics and bite-sized opportunities remain an effective way to engage a large group of volunteers, and serve multiple clients. Especially in this post-covid world, attorneys are feeling busier than ever, and often cannot commit to lengthy pro bono representation projects. Projects that require volunteers to be available for only a few hours or a day can be a great way for volunteers who want to do pro bono, but don’t necessarily have much time, to get involved.

Partnerships between law firms, in-house departments, and legal services organizations are one of the most effective ways to create these bite-sized opportunities. Each group is able to bring something different to the table to produce a successful project. And, as the session on “Deepening the Impact of In-House Pro Bono Programs” explored, these bite-sized projects can also lay the foundation for deeper and longer-term partnerships as well, as volunteers become more comfortable with and passionate about their work.

These were just a few of many highlights from the 2023 PBI Annual Conference. What would you like to learn about at the 2024 PBI Annual Conference on March 6-8, 2024 in Washington, DC?  Let us know at pbi@probonoinst.org.