Whether they work in private practice, for nonprofits, or for state or local governments, lawyers have many demands on their time. For lawyers at private companies and law firms interested in pro bono work, the time and effort involved in locating an appropriate pro bono client can be enough to discourage them from doing any pro bono work at all. Fortunately, innovative technology projects, supported by the Legal Services Corporation and others, are making it easier for lawyers to find pro bono clients and for clients to find legal help.
At the national level, Pro Bono Net has been connecting private attorneys with pro bono opportunities since 1999. Now a national nonprofit powerhouse, when Pro Bono Net started, it focused on two practice areas in New York City. Pro Bono Net not only connects lawyers with pro bono clients, it also provides constant support in the form of training events, mentors, and searchable libraries of practice resources. Pro Bono Net’s model has been adopted in 30 states, and many state-specific websites can be reached through the “Regional Sites” button in the top left-hand corner of the Pro Bono Net site.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) also recognizes that technological innovation can improve access to justice. LSC supports the use of technology to help low-income litigants through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program. In 2013, the TIG program gave almost $3.4 million to 33 different projects providing a wide variety of services, including “‘legal triage’ tools to guide self-represented individuals through complex legal procedures, online support for pro bono attorneys, and improved access to legal assistance for people in remote areas.” LSC also holds an annual conference focusing on the use of technology in the legal aid community and releases reports on the use of technology to expand access to justice.
Most states have a statewide website for legal aid attorneys, a statewide site for clients, and a statewide site for pro bono attorneys. But attorneys who do not have a connection to a legal aid organization may encounter difficulty learning about pro bono opportunities that match their skills and interests. To make pro bono opportunities more accessible, IllinoisProBono.org, the site for pro bono legal professionals in Illinois, maintains a searchable system of pro bono opportunities throughout the state. This newly updated volunteer opportunity search and internship application system maintained by Illinois Legal Aid Online makes it easier for attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals to find pro bono opportunities, internships, and fellowships online. Volunteers can then apply for the opportunities in which they are interested with one click of the mouse. They can also sign up for upcoming trainings and access free legal resources and continuing legal education videos to support their pro bono work.
Some web sites that offer ways for attorneys to find pro bono clients with cases in specific practice areas. Immigration Advocates Network maintains an online Pro Bono Resource Center for pro bono attorneys representing low-income immigrants.
Technology not only helps lawyers find pro bono clients, however—the reverse is also true. The internet also helps low-income people find legal help. First, Pro Bono Net also maintains LawHelp.org, which “helps low and moderate-income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights, court information, links to social service agencies, and more.” Many state-specific pro bono resource sites also contain information for low-income people seeking legal help. There are also topic-specific sites that provide people with legal guidance in specific areas of the law. Stateside Legal, for example, provides veterans with legal information on a range of topics, including but not limited to benefits, consumer law, and family law. Veterans can also use the site to find legal help in their hometowns. (Stateside Legal was launched with a 2009 TIG grant.) Immigration Advocates Network also maintains a citizenship page that helps people determine their eligibility for citizenship online and answers questions about the naturalization process.
The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services has put a new spin on providing pro bono services online. The alliance has created a new program, OnlineTNJustice.org, which allows low-income Tennesseans to email lawyers directly with questions about civil legal issues. Before people can participate, they have to answer some screening questions about their age, family composition, income, and the kind of legal problem they are trying solve. People who qualify for the program can post then post their civil legal questions and a volunteer attorney will answer them.
As the president of the Tennessee Bar Association observes on the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services’ website, “nearly 70% of Tennesseans living in poverty had a civil legal need in the past year.” Tennessee’s legal aid and legal services attorneys are simply not able to reach every person in need, particularly those people living in rural areas. OnlineTNJustice.org allows Tennessee’s attorneys to close the justice gap and help more people solve their civil legal problems.
Have you had a good experience using technology to find a pro bono opportunity or an answer to a thorny legal problem? We would love to hear about it. Please contact Clearinghouse Review Senior Attorney Editor Michele Host.