This year, Pro Bono Net celebrated our 15th Anniversary. As we reflect back on the past 15 years, we caught up with a few individuals who were critical to our early growth and development. Below is an interview with Michael Cooper, Pro Bono Net Founding Board Chair. His understanding of the justice gap and support for new ideas were critical during Pro Bono Net’s early years. Mr. Cooper continues to sit on the Pro Bono Net board, and we are very grateful for his continued passion for our mission.
Pro Bono Net: How did you first become involved with Pro Bono Net?
Michael Cooper: My recollection is that, as I was finishing up a term as President of the New York City Bar Association around May of 2000, Mark and Michael just asked to meet with me. I didn’t know either one of them— I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know anything about them. But they just asked to meet with me and I said sure.
They described their concept of facilitating the connection between the users of legal services and the providers of those services, whether they be lawyers in private practice or the Legal Aid Society or any other organization. And I’m a luddite, I do use the laptop, but I don’t have an iPhone, I don’t have an iPad – I’m really not technology-oriented. But I have devoted a lot of thought, for a long time, to the justice gap.
I guess it was just before I became President of the City Bar in the late 90s, Chief Judge Judith Kaye asked me to chair a task force to try and find permanent funding for legal services. I don’t remember the names of many of the people from the task force, but we got this idea, which I thought was brilliant, to tap the Abandoned Property Fund. In New York, because there are lots of bank accounts, insurance policies, and dividends that don’t get claimed, this fund is $300 million a year. So we said okay, let’s assign $25 million a year to legal services, and we drafted a statute. I went up to Albany with this idea, and I went to see the Governor’s Secretary and he said, “That’s a really good idea why don’t you go to see the Senate Majority leader.” So I went to see his Chief of Staff, and he said, “Well that’s a very good idea, see how it strikes the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver.” So I went to see Sheldon Silver and he said, “That’s a very good idea, why don’t you run it by the governor.” And then I realized I was never going to get anywhere.
So I had this awareness of the gap and frustration with efforts to fill it. Although I’m not technology-savvy, I intuited that Pro Bono Net had an idea that was potentially invaluable. If you can’t diminish the needs, and they never seem to diminish, and you can’t increase the resources, then you have to make them connect more effectively. So intuitively, I said this is a great idea and I signed up. They asked me if I would be the Board Chair, I signed on, and then it just grew. I looked away and then looked back and all of a sudden there were two new national sites, and other great leaps.
PBN: How was Pro Bono Net different from the other legal services organizations you had been involved with?
MC: The other legal services organizations that I knew, they all gathered lawyers together, but they basically were providing or arranging for the provision of the service – they were only one part of the equation. The genius of Pro Bono Net was that it connected both parts, originally through probono.net and LawHelp, and then we had this dramatic incident – the World Trade Center attack. Pro Bono Net created a site for volunteer lawyers, there were more than 2,000 of them at the City Bar, who were willing to help but didn’t know how to find people in need. Then it has gone on to create sites for Katrina, the tornadoes, and Sandy. That was a very dramatic example of this new concept of using technology to bring together the consumers and the providers.
PBN: How has Pro Bono Net evolved over the years?
MC: It seems like it grew up without my being aware of it. Gradually it accumulated more and more state sites, and two sites in Canada. I have been very interested the relationships that Pro Bono Net has established with the courts, in New York and elsewhere. There’s a huge potential for having a simple work station in a court house where somebody can get help.
PBN: As someone who is not a big technology user, could you discuss how you knew technology could have a powerful effect?
MC: I intuited it. I sensed that there was immeasurable potential there. But I didn’t really understand what it could do.
PBN: What role has PBN played in the broader access to justice movement, especially in terms of bringing technology to the movement?
MC: Well, I don’t know of anybody that was promoting the use of technology to bridge the justice gap – it’s really a very apt phrase – before Pro Bono Net. There was growing interest and capability in getting lawyers to volunteer their services, but there was some connector missing. It’s like having a power station in one place and 100,000 consumers with no electricity in another place and no wires between them. There was no connection, and that’s what Pro Bono Net has provided.
PBN: What has motivated you to stay involved over the past 15 years?
MC: It’s the only organization where I wasn’t present at the birth, but I saw it in the nursery. I just watched it grow and it has been such a joy to be there from day one and I want to continue.
PBN: Is there any part of the growth that has surprised you?
MC: The connection with the courts – that may be the one thing that I didn’t see, or didn’t see it happening as fast, but it didn’t surprise me.
PBN: Where do you see Pro Bono Net going in the future?
MC: I think it’s going to be doing more of what it’s doing. I’m sure that there will be development of additional national sites – take an example of something that’s been recognized fairly recently, so called human trafficking, there will be additional sites as additional needs arise. I suspect that there are still going to be additional states that will want to work with Pro Bono Net as well. Where else it’s going, I just don’t know, but I sure as hell would like to be along for the ride.