This blog post was originally created and published by UniCourt on their blog. Thank you to UniCourt for granting us permission to repost. You can find the original blog post, here: https://unicourt.com/blog/qa-with-claudia-johnson/ 


Claudia Johnson is an inspiring example of how taking calculated risks and setting audacious goals can lead to a fulfilling life and an impactful career. When she eventually landed in the United States after living in several different countries, Claudia committed her career to serving the neediest legal consumers, working hard to devise tech solutions that scale lawyers’ services and allow them to reach exponentially more people than one-to-one legal services ever could.

We loved talking with Claudia about her dynamic career, inspiring backstory, and big dreams for the changes she hopes to make in the legal industry. We hope you enjoy our interview as much as we did!

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?

Claudia Johnson: I have lived a wonderful, non-linear life. In total, I’ve lived in 5 countries and 17 cities. Right now, I live in Columbia, Maryland, and Eastern Washington. I grew up in El Salvador, and when the civil war drowned our country, my family moved out. We moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In El Salvador, I grew up speaking German, Spanish, and English in that order—I benefited from a German school education, which taught me discipline and independent thinking. When I got to Puerto Rico, I was enrolled in a Catholic school, and that was quite a change. That, added with the fact that we went from well-to-do with social status and privilege to poor, and then immigrants on top of that, made that transition hard and  painful, but it was really good to see the world from a different vantage point.

We were discriminated against for our accent, hair, and features, and for being “extranjeros” (foreigners) and poor. That was hard. But without all those experiences of going from privilege and social standing to nothing and being the butt of jokes, I would not be who I am today. I am thankful for the risks and opportunities my parents took to keep us together and safe, and for the opportunities and new perspectives we encountered and learned from.

In Puerto Rico, we were able to go out at night, to read any book, and there was even political comedy on TV. In El Salvador, there was no 1st Amendment and we were under martial law. The awareness and realization that free speech and freedom of thought and association existed in the US, and was protected by law, was sweet and beautiful. I was so thankful to experience that for the first time in my life. No fear, no fear of thinking, reading, or speaking. It was worth losing everything to gain that kind of freedom.

From high school, I went to UC Berkeley to study nuclear engineering. When I got to Berkeley, I felt I had found my place. I loved the intellectual curiosity and drive of my peers, the diversity, the ability to have access to all kinds of books and journals, the library, etc. Being the only Latina to enroll as a freshman in nuclear engineering was hard for the department. They felt awkward around me—to them I was a novelty. I felt a distance and a lot of stares when I was in the College of Engineering. I had no idea what was going on and did not pay much attention to that. In my second year, I decided to transfer to another department so I could pursue a more self-directed area of study. I switched to Ethnic Studies/Chicano Studies, and focused on health care systems.

I ended up winning an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and I had the pleasure of spending two summers at policy schools, one at Carnegie and the other one at Harvard. I went on to get an MPP/MPH from UC Berkeley Goldman and the School of Public Health.

I then worked with the US Senate doing policy analysis on Medicare payment policy. That was a great experience for me and I learned how policy is made from the ground up. I saw my work published in the Federal Register. I also  learned to work  with huge databases and do analysis that continues to be policy in action.

While doing policy analysis, I decided to go to law school. I wanted to know the outcomes of my work faster and more directly. With policy, there is a 3-10 year period before you really find out if something worked or not. In law, you know right away, and your relationship with your clients is direct and they can give you input right away.  So I went to the best law school I got into, Penn Law in Philadelphia.

I loved Penn and Philly. I felt right at home and felt so lucky to commit myself full time to the study of American Law. It was the first time in my life I did not work while in school—I had put myself through all my prior education, including washing dishes when my English was blossoming in my first year of college. After working almost full time through graduate school,  being able to be 100% focused on studying at Penn was an incredible privilege and I resolved to make the most of it. Penn did not disappoint—and I had the chance to surround myself with hard working and extremely bright minds. I loved learning the law this way.

Eventually I decided to apply for competitive postgraduate school fellowships, and I joined the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, Class of 97. I worked on Medicaid’s implementation of HMOs in Pennsylvania and learned a lot at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project. When my fellowship ended in 1999, I went to Community Legal Services to work on public benefits, and I was lucky to work with Cathy Carr in creating the LAL Language Access Project, which became a model project for the country. We worked on using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as an advocacy tool. In 1999, I was able to see the City of Philadelphia require that all agencies track the needs of Limited English Proficient communities and services provided. By 1999, we had already formed the National Language Advocacy Network to advocate for accommodations under Title VI of the Civil Rights act of 1964. NLAAN is a network of lawyer working together to end national origin discrimination and is still active and making huge strides.

My husband by then had moved from the University of Chicago back to the San Francisco Bay Area to work the dot com period with HealthCentral.com. So being far away (Philadelphia/Emeryville) — along with the long hours on both ends—made it hard to be long distance, so I moved to the Bay Area, where we had met and lived 6 years before. It was going back home.

I joined the Bar Association of San Francisco, and worked with their Volunteer Legal Services Program, training and recruiting pro bono family law, eviction, and consumer lawyers. My focus was on evictions and preserving affordable housing units. In that process, with San Mateo Legal Aid and the Homeless Advocacy Project we started the “Lawyer of the Day” project. We brought pro bono lawyers to help do the settlement conferences.

At first, the lawyer bar was not happy, but we did provide pro bono landlord counsel also, and over time the outcomes of the representation were positive. The project lasted almost 20 years and was replicated in other states. It only ended because San Francisco created civil guideon for evictions in the early 2000s, basically expanding the project to the full city, not just those who qualified for pro bono services.

After VLSP, the opportunity came to work with Ramon Arias at Bay Area Legal Aid to centralize the intake and case acceptance guidelines for Bay Area. In effect, it required taking 7 different organization practices and merging them into one. A full description of that project for its 20 year anniversary can be found here.

When my husband joined Bridgewater Associates in Connecticut, we moved back to the East Coast, now to Westport, Connecticut. I joined Pro Bono Net to work on beginning an online form project. I was a circuit rider and focused on partnerships with courts and legal aid to use forms. It was 2008, the country was in a major recession, and the self-represented population in courts was finally being acknowledged. I was able to promote and have LHI forms adopted and used as a solution for SRLs in 25 states by 2010.

In 2008, when I started, people did not trust forms or technology as a tool that those without  lawyers could use. By 2014, we had 40 states using online forms through LHI. Online forms became a go-to tool to end and close the Justice Gap.

Part of doing online forms requires making the last mile to court filing easy. In 2012, we did the first XML to XML efiling project in Minnesota—a project solely focused on SRLs. This had never been done before. Out of that project, we wrote this guide that still brings a lot of value to those planning or starting on efiling for those without lawyers, a majority in dockets of limited jurisdiction. We continue to do efiling with partner courts, always focusing on the needs of the person without  a lawyer, to lower the barriers to justice.

UC: What is Pro Bono Net? What is its mission?

CJ: Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit founded in 1999, based in New York, with offices in San Francisco, that looks to increase access to justice. Through innovative technology solutions and expertise, it builds and mobilizes social justice networks. It has multiple product lines, and LawHelp Interactive is one of them. The company has been and was one of the first groups that brought the power of the internet when it was starting to pro bono services and civil legal aid.

LawHelp Interactive is a platform and a training and best practice engine. In LHI we bring together a HotDocs document assembly software owned by AbacusNext, as well as A2J Author 6 owned by CALI at Chicago Kent. We maintain a robust, secure technical platform that has over 1 Million visitors per year and creates more than 700,000 free legal documents a year.

UC: What are some of your top pieces of advice for future lawyers heading into law school and practicing lawyers who want to get involved in helping close the access to justice gap?

CJ: 1. Be curious. Read a lot—and read in areas where you don’t necessarily have exposure, like outside of law, outside of your community/history/background. Ask questions. Be engaged.

2. Be humble. Even though law is an excellent education and gives you great analytical tools, be humble. In your teams you will have people with backgrounds in other fields. Learn from them. Don’t assume you know everything. Listen. Be kind to your co-workers. Include others and give them credit. Often, the work of women and people of color is not recognized, or is minimized—don’t be that person. Be inclusive. Be an ally. Lift up.

If you look at my path, I pursued what interested me and I feel very happy about my career and the impact I have had in the past 25 years. And I am excited about what else we can do to make our great country better. Being open to change and opportunity is hard for those of us who want to plan out a career. Be ok if plans change. In that change there will be a great opportunity.

UC: What role does automation play in improving access to justice? How can document automation in particular make interacting with the courts much easier for consumers and pro se litigants?

CJ: We will never be able to serve everyone who needs legal help one-on-one, not now, and not while civil litigation is on the rise, with consumer, eviction, and family law cases on the rise.

We will not meet the need to have one lawyer for one client in the US—not at current funding levels and not with the current federal restrictions to civil legal aid. No amount of pro bono hours can meet that need, either.  Pro bono hours help, but the need for 47 million low income people facing 5 or more legal problems a year needs more than volunteers and funding.

In my heart, I believe technology is the one tool that can help us start bringing scalable solutions to a big problem of national importance. With technology we leverage expertise and move to enterprise legal services. I am inspired by the work of Richard Granat who has been a pioneer. But technology alone is also not enough. You need practitioners who have handled the cases and know the communities that are not empowered in the legal system. They need to be part of the teams creating the tools. You can’t build tech tools without experience, compassion, and kindness.

Online forms can handle a lot of complexity—and they don’t replace the judgement of a lawyer. So they are great tools to help a lot of people in need, efficiently and effectively. Instead of having a 1:1 lawyer to client relationship, you can scale up. And you can have new skills in your team, so you can support enterprise models like 2 lawyers, 3 paralegals and 1400 people helped, with 200 represented in contested cases. In our system, some forms are used over 100,000 per year. That is an outstanding investment. A non tech supported project would never do that.

Instead of spending 4 hours doing a complex pleading for divorce, you can have your clerk or paralegal spend 30-45 minutes, and then you can review in 10—because everything is standard.

And hundreds of thousands of people can use your forms, 24/7, on weekends, and be empowered to be part of the solution to their legal problem.

As a person alone with a legal problem, you can create your own document, letter, or pleading and you know it is complete. It is typed, you don’t have to worry about missing a section, and you can spend more time getting ready for court, getting organized, and getting support as you move through the case. For the courts—they can issue better orders, with more complete and legible forms, and the litigant can be more present because the form contains guidance and support.

Forms let you serve 10,000 people or more with one form that can handle multiple factual scenarios. In this access to justice crisis, the best  things to do are:

1) simplify the process

2) put it in plain language and then put a form on- it

3) work in partnership with courts,  advocates, and nonprofits that work with those areas of need (housing, child support, credit collection, benefits, etc.)

That is the LawHelp Interactive model: free online forms for end-users, always centered in partnership and the belief that a person has the right to clearly present their petition and raise their concerns directly to a decision making forum.

UC: Why are technology integrations important for legal aid organizations? How can they streamline providing legal services and help break down traditional data silos?

CJ: More and more, you can’t practice legal nonprofit civil law, in fact any type of law, without understanding technology and using technology. If you are a person coming into law to not have to understand technology, you need to reconsider your profession. Tech and law go together hand-in-hand. We can’t put the genie back into the bottle. So now, we have to understand tech, maximize it, and use it in the best interest of our clients and to fulfill our missions.

From case management, to training your interns and new hires, to work process, technology is now embedded or should be in your practice. With 1.7 lawyers per 10,000 people in need, if your mission is to serve those in need, technology is a must. Otherwise, to not use it to make your services scalable and high quality, it is unethical and inefficient.

The new “Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid” by the ABA SCLAID elevate technology and empower legal aid boards, executive directors, and staff to become friends with technology, to do their due diligence, to protect their client’s data and privacy, and to use it to be more efficient and effective. I was honored to be part of the tech drafting group. I think they are a big step forward and offer timely guidance as we grapple with the move to tech. 

One caveat, because unfortunately I see a lot of courts and nonprofits using tools that rely on machine translation to in theory close language gaps, using machine translation alone is not the answer. If you are going to use machine translation to close the language gap with your clients and communities, please use a professional translator to review the end product. It will save your trust with the community and your brand. If you are going to care about accurate meaningful communication, do it right. Otherwise you are putting your brand and credibility at risk.

UC: Who (and what) are some of your favorite resources for learning more about what’s happening in the access to justice space?

CJ: I value so many people, and I follow

@jtashea

@winkiepp n and her podcast Reimagine Justice

@ConnConnection

@inspiredcat

@ATJTechFellows (I sit on their Board of Advisors)

@eLizk (we have worked together for years)

@mhpob (same)

@laloalcaraz for some great Chicano cartoons and humor

And so many more. I tweet under @C2AJ as a personal project on things that interest me.

And so many others. I also read the Management Innovation Exchange Work and Journal. I serve as a reviewer for the National Center for State Courts Future Trends in State Courts, so I read the journal when published once a year. And I follow the Access to Justice Fellowship and the fellows and alumni as I sit on their Board of Advisors. I really believe in the idea of diversifying the pool of lawyers and law graduates using and developing technology for civil services.

I also read and follow all the blogs and interviews that the Future of the Profession Initiative shares and posts. I am honored to be one of six Penn alums serving in an advisory capacity. 

In terms of researchers, I am a fan of the work that Victor David Quintanilla is doing from the Maurer School of Law on issues around SRL bias and documenting how judges perceive litigants without lawyers by gender and some of his other work. 

There is no shortage of really talented and experienced people doing amazing work.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

CJ: “Tiempo perdido hasta los angeles lo lloran”—even angels cry over lost time. To me this is a reminder to be intentional about everything I do. Life is short, so make it real, now, fun, and do what makes it meaningful to you.

“The only constant in life is change”—Heraclitus. Change is scary for everyone. But in change there is great opportunity to learn—and everything is changing—no matter how we try to frame things as constant and linear. So embrace change, learn, grow, and adapt. Once you learn how to slow down to observe change and then speed up to embrace it, it can be so amazing where that takes you. Learning how to use time to your advantage in times of change is a very fun thing to master.

UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?

CJ: In the realm of online forms in the nonprofit sector here at LawHelp Interactive—we continue to work on efiling integrations—and we are about to go live with e-filing eviction answers in Southern California. In addition, we continue to e-file domestic violence petitions in New York,  partnering with nonprofits across the state, and that project keeps growing. We now have partnerships with 5 state courts and that is something we hope we can continue to expand.  We are now supporting Medical Legal Partnerships groups using LHI, and that is an area I am very interested in, since I have a public health masters, and really believe in the relationship between unmet legal needs and determinants for health and interdisciplinary approaches to meeting both types of needs.

The online forms our partners create in rural deserts continue to be a lifeline. In addition, we are working on sustainability and finding new ways to provide free forms to all who need them. Our LHI network is vast and robust and all of our partners are amazingly creative, resilient, and the forms are part of their long term strategies in delivering legal services as well as leveling the playing field for those that do not have attorneys.

This year has been busy and foundational for those of us who do tech and access to justice work. I was honored to be part of the drafting group for the ABA SCLAID Standards for Civil Legal Aid for the tech updates—not updated since 2006! That was an incredible opportunity to bring the Standards to date and update so that they reflect how technology is part of every aspect of civil legal aid nonprofits, from training, to Board support, to fundraising, to services, understanding needs, etc. These Standards will last hopefully from 5 to 10 years—and they hopefully will encourage legal civil legal aid providers to get “jiggy” with tech.

I am also getting ready to teach again at Penn Law in the Spring of 2022. The class is “Technology and Access to Justice” but with an intersectional lens. I am lucky to co-teach with Miguel Willis from the ATJ Tech Fellows. We are reviewing the course now, which we taught Spring 2021, to make it better. This course is unique in many aspects. It is taught by two people of color,  so it brings in other perspectives and from two different generational perspectives. When I graduated 25 years ago, I did not have any insight into legal tech. It did not exist. Then we created this movement with hotlines in the early 2000s and document assembly in the late 2000s with support from LSC and many other national and regional leaders, so sharing the lived history on how this field was created, where we started and how we need to move forwards is something that anchors the class. My co-instructor came into law at a different time, and has been involved in bringing legal tech skills to law students since his second year of law school—so we cover a wide perspective and that makes our class fun.

Being able to teach future law graduates from a top 5 law school how to think through law and tech and leverage it to increase access, avoid systemic biases, and recognize how to remove data and other biases that creep in through groupthink and lack of representation in design, risk evaluation and all aspects of tech creation and use, is an amazing opportunity for us and the students that join us.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

CJ: TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpgEceNtYlA

Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/reimagining-justice/id1449701070?i=1000477221545

Blog Law and Technology:

A Story of Diversity and Documents: Claudia Johnson

Blog: Connecting Justice Communities—blog posts about LawHelp Interactive

Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Provided Legal Lifeline During Covid-19

There are multiple posts here, including highlights of the NY DV efiling project, and highlights of our Partnership with DC Courts and more.

Blogs in Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog: example: https://accesstojustice.net/2011/12/30/claudia-johnson-blogs-on-legal-services-policy-research-and-the-elephant-in-the-room/

Leveraging Technology to Provide Legal Services at Scale

As Claudia points out, it is worth losing almost everything in order to gain the unprecedented freedom our country promises. By working hard to leverage tech to serve the neediest in our society, Claudia – and other legal tech pioneers – are securing that promise for more and more of those in need of legal services every day. We loved speaking with Claudia and look forward to following her career for years to come.

Safaa Aly first started volunteering with LiveHelp in the fall of 2020, hoping to find a way to support those in her community with the legal skills that she acquired during her time at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. The COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in illuminating the importance of community for Safaa and motivated her to volunteer for LiveHelp. In her own words, Safaa explained that “The pandemic made me think a lot about community and how to help your community members in any way you can, and working pro bono is one way to do that.” This passion for supporting those within her community is what helped motivate Safaa throughout her time with LiveHelp, and her empathy and dedication to helping others was consistently felt by those who turned to her for support on legal issues.

Entering into the legal field was not something that Safaa had always been certain of. After graduating from Amherst College with a degree in English, Safaa spent two years teaching at a boarding school in Jordan — an experience she described as being extremely meaningful to her. It was during this time that Safaa made the decision to go to law school. After being exposed first hand to the refugee crisis and other humanitarian issues, Safaa was motivated to “get concrete skills to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves.” During her time at law school, Safaa volunteered with the International Refugee Assistance Project but wanted to find a pro bono opportunity that would allow her to more consistently help those in her immediate community. This led her to LiveHelp where she volunteered each Monday, starting her busy week off with volunteer work — a reminder as to why she started in the legal field in the first place.

When asked about the difficulties of working with LiveHelp, Safaa responded by describing how she felt overwhelmed with the amount of people that needed legal support at first. However, these fears were quelled as she experienced the immense gratitude of those that turned to LiveHelp for assistance with some saying “God bless you” and “you really really helped me so much.” The experience of working with so many kind, gracious people in need of assistance served as a reminder to Safaa of how inaccessible, complicated, and daunting the legal system can be for so many people. 

Regarding her future in the legal field, Safaa plans to move to New York and work at a law firm after completing the Bar exam, but doing pro bono work is still something that’s incredibly important to her. On the role that pro bono work will play in the future of her legal career, Safaa said “I hope to pursue it. I definitely make a conscious effort to do it, and it’s something that everyone should do. I 100% think it grounds you, not just with your work and career but personally too.” Her biggest takeaway from her time with LiveHelp has been an increased awareness “to the variety of real everyday legal issues that people in your community are facing that really tremendously impact their lives. Do they have a home to go home to everyday? Do they have a clean or habitable space to live in? Do they have rights to see their children or are they getting their spousal support from whoever is supposed to be paying for it?” This again highlights Safaa’s deep commitment to community support and helping those around you in whatever way you can. 

“I think that 100% everybody should volunteer for LiveHelp, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.” Volunteering with LiveHelp allowed Safaa to communicate directly with those that she was helping, an aspect of her work that allowed her to feel firsthand the incredible impact that pro bono work has. LawHelpNY and Pro Bono Net are extremely grateful for Safaa’s expertise and passion in supporting everyday people navigate the intricacies of the American legal system. Thank you, Safaa, and good luck!


LiveHelp is the bilingual chat component of  LawHelpNY.org. LiveHelp chat is available in English and Spanish and provides legal assistance, information and referrals to those who have urgent and complex legal needs. Trained volunteers staff LiveHelp from 9 AM-9 PM on weekdays, making this service readily accessible to low-income working clients, individuals in rural areas, or people who may be homebound, elderly or living with disabilities. LiveHelp is also available on other websites powered by Pro Bono Net, including New York Crime Victims Legal Help.

LiveHelp recruits volunteers throughout the year. In order to be considered for our program, please complete our volunteer application and send, along with a copy of your resume to Dennis Brink at dbrink@nylawhelp.org. The application as well as additional information about volunteering with us can be found here: LiveHelp Program information.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic and financial crisis exacerbated inequality and disproportionately affected people of color and low-income communities, it also increased the civil legal needs of many.  By using LawHelp Interactive’s easy-to-use online forms, courts and nonprofits were immediately able to expand access to critical legal documents and empower those who the American legal system has historically left to fend for themselves. 

LHI is designed with empathy for the needs of those without lawyers.  It minimizes barriers and unnecessary complications associated with creating legal documents by providing comprehensive assistance in the form of free online interviews that yield complex documents in a simple and fast way. In 2020, LHI served one million interviews resulting in 710,378 legal documents to help put the power of the law into the hands of the people. LHI was able to achieve such success in these unprecedented times by listening to the needs of partners who create forms and end users who reach out for technical support. 

In LHI’s 2020 independent evaluation by Komenge,  user satisfaction was rated very high by  those who turned to LHI for help. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a multitude of new challenges for users, with 75% of survey respondents saying it was harder to access courts as a result of the pandemic, and 46% of respondents saying it was harder to access legal advice and assistance. Further, 44% of respondents reported using LHI as a direct result of COVID-19 or the related economic crisis. In response to these difficult circumstances, LHI stepped up by improving email functionality in the LHI system, providing e-signature options, and supporting partners in creating clearer e-filing instructions to share with end users. 

The evaluation found that 96% of end users had their needs very or somewhat well met, and 96% would use LHI’s services again.  During a time when access to court systems, legal tools, and communication were fundamentally challenged, 93% of end users reported that it was very important for them to have access to LHI’s services. The effects of the pandemic were felt disproportionately by people of color and immigrants. LHI users were 26% Black and 12% Latino, highlighting that the tool is used in or above parity to national samples. The high levels of satisfaction are evidence of the role that LHI played as a lifeline of legal support during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

End user feedback for LHI was overwhelmingly positive. Describing their experience, one user said: 

It was my first time, and I feel the form was easy and comfortable to manage. It was not intimidating as I could go back and forth to different sections. I took a lot of time to revise everything but I do prefer to do this at the comfort of my home and not in an office or courtroom.”

By collaborating with partners, LHI was able to meet the needs and demands of its users and develop effective and necessary legal documents. As a result of the pandemic, 61% of partners saw an increased demand for their services and 55% saw an increased demand or need for online forms. After working with LHI to adjust to the needs of clients in these complex circumstances, 100% of partner respondents said LHI was easy to use and they were satisfied with the LHI platform overall. The COVID-19 crisis fundamentally changed the way many partners delivered services with 91% of respondents reporting a partial or complete shift to remote services. LHI provided the platform and assistance necessary to meet the unique demands of this global crisis, and collaboration with partners played a critical role in supporting equitable access to the power of the law.

Pro Bono Net is proud of the accomplishments achieved by LHI and its partners and the high levels of satisfaction reported by those who utilized this national resource throughout this challenging year. In times of economic downturn and national crisis, the importance of legal accessibility is most poignantly exemplified. As economic resource pressures continue to shape the legal landscape in America, LHI remains committed to its mission of supporting nonprofits and courts who prioritize forms as a key access to justice tool and developing a system that empowers the public to create their own forms for free in a safe and supportive way. 

In LHI’s 2020 independent evaluation by Komenge, this is what a partner had to say when asked how the COVID crisis impacted how they approached remote legal services, many of the answers highlighted what a significant learning experience it had been: 

“It makes sense to offer remote legal services as one of the ways that we help the public. Some people have difficulty traveling to receive help in person. Remote services are convenient for many people who cannot take time off work during the business day. Even after the Covid pandemic is over, we will continue to provide remote services as part of our overall service model.”

This blog post is authored by Lily Zheng. Lily is Immigration Advocates Network’s 2021 summer intern. She has spent the summer updating IAN’s nonprofit resource library. She is currently in her senior year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Public Policy with minors in Human Rights and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. Lily had a chance to interview Professor Michael Kagan, below is their conversation.


Last week, I spoke with Professor Michael Kagan, Joyce Mack Professor of Law and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2020, Kagan published his first book The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line.

Lily Zheng: What inspired you to write the book?

Michael Kagan: I intended to write a more scholarly book about the state of immigration law, but we were immersed in this crisis, and panic spread through the community. I also felt like many people who opposed what Trump was doing didn’t also understand why immigrants are so vulnerable. I wanted to respond to that, and so a much more personal book came out than what I had planned or had ever written before.

LZ: Who is your audience for this book? Because it is so personal, it reads almost like a memoir to me, so who do you hope will read this and learn from your experience?

MK: One of the things that happened under Trump is that I think a lot of white liberals had their eyes opened a little bit to the inherent cruelty of the immigration system, in a way that they were not aware of under previous presidents. And I am a white man, right? I’m not threatened, myself. My family’s not threatened directly, at least not by immigration. I and other white liberals had the privilege of not being aware. As I write about in the book, even I, supposedly as an expert in this field, was not really aware of what people were coping with.

When I wrote this book, I was really conscious that I was not writing to undocumented immigrants in Las Vegas. I very much would hope that they would respect what I wrote, but I was really writing to people like myself.

LZ: In reading the book, I was really struck by how willing you were to say, “I really didn’t know this, I had no idea this was going on right beside me.” I think that is part of what makes the book really special is just that you’re so willing to put your perspective and your errors forward.

MK: I do really believe, and this was something I decided consciously after the 2016 election, that you have to be willing to make mistakes. And I made some, which I tried to discuss in the book. I’ll make more. But I would rather try to do something and make a mistake, than not try to do anything for fear of making a mistake because that’s also a mistake. Especially when the community is under attack.

LZ: Previously, you were not as heavily involved in community organizing around immigration, and  your focus was working in this field as a lawyer. After 2016, what was it like to add that aspect of community and working with community organizations?

MK: First of all, I’m always aware that I’m working with an area of law that I myself think is basically deeply wrong and deeply cruel and deeply racist in its origins and its applications. Crossing a line in the dirt is illegal only because someone arbitrarily said it is. An aggressive enforcement apparatus that we’ve built in this country only exists because we as a country consciously decided to set it up.

My basic belief is that migration is fundamentally human. To tell people not to migrate is going to be about as effective as telling people not to fall in love. And it’s going to cause hardships in similar ways and cruelty in similar ways.

So I work within that system as a lawyer. And I guess what I came to understand is that to work within that system, and to really be an ally of my neighbors, I have specific skills that some of my partners don’t have. Most of the people I work with are community organizers, not lawyers. They wouldn’t know what to do at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or in the immigration court. I think that I do have a role in that because of legal expertise.

LZ: It seems like having that legal expertise is beneficial to your work in the community. However, as someone who’s working within a system you don’t really believe in, how would you imagine the field or practice of immigration law?

MK: If I was in charge… Generally, I think we ought to have a government policy that says migration is good. It’s good for us as a country. You want to be a country that people want to migrate to, and the kind of people who do migrate are often the people who live up to every individual trait that we say we value in the United States. And migration is human.

LZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned that a lot of immigrants fit the values that America holds. Yet, I think we also see that immigrants are still criminalized and vilified in a way that is often racialized as well. How do you think that manifests in a place like Las Vegas?

MK: It is highly racialized. I think the reasons that we, as a country, have resisted immigrants have always been racial. Going back to the Chinese Exclusion era—pretty obvious. They would say they’re too hard working. They save too much money. They buy too many farms when they save all the money. Basically, they said they were the perfect Americans, if you look at the actual traits that were being ascribed to them. But then that still became a reason to hate that and exclude them for some reason. It definitely is a “you can’t win” situation if you’re brown. And that continues, too, today.

You know, like the stories I tell in the book. In a place like Las Vegas, you don’t have to work hard to find an immigrant family that has lived up to and exceeded everything that American students have been taught in elementary school about the stuff that we value in this country. They work hard, they love their family, they build their community, they help others. They teach their children to try to exceed what they have done. And yet, still, there’s a whole political party that just wants to kick them out. Just because they’re Brown. I think Trump made that more clear.

LZ: At the same time, though, there’s often a dichotomy in the narrative presented about immigrants, dividing them into good and bad immigrants, or hard-working, law-abiding immigrants and people who are unemployed or have records. How do you navigate this as you approach your work, but also, as you try to tell stories from your community and your neighbors?

MK: We struggle in the immigrant rights movement to figure out what to do with the fact that immigrants also are not perfect. There are a lot of variations on that.

So, on the one hand, with 11 million undocumented immigrants, a couple of them are going to commit murder. And I don’t think we should pretend otherwise. Because if you take any randomly selected group of 11 million human beings, you’re going to find a range. The flip side of this, too, though, there’s a tendency in immigrant rights activism, not only to highlight people who don’t have a criminal record, but also to highlight people who exceed a level most of us can never dream of. I don’t want to expect every immigrant to win a Nobel Prize in Physics either. And it’s cool that it was an immigrant who invented the COVID vaccine, but I don’t want to have to live up to that myself.

So because I think migration is human, I want immigrants to have the privilege or the right or the respect to just be normal humans. It’s cool that some of them win Nobel prizes, but they shouldn’t all have to, to have some value. So I think we struggle with that in the immigrant rights movement because it is irresistible, often, in the politics of this, to put forward the most sympathetic person.

Again, in the interest of self-criticism, in my book, if you look at chapter two, I still put front and center this very real family—not making them up—real and typical. But nevertheless, highly sympathetic, no criminal record, hard-working and all that. That’s real. And like I said, it’s irresistible. And I failed to resist using that as the narrative. But I think we should be pushing to be able to look at immigrants much more as regular people, meaning as flawed as the rest of us.

LZ: So, going back to the book, and seeing it as a process of personal growth for you as you wrote it and even now looking back on it, how was the process different from your previous writing experience?

MK: Normally, I write a lot of law review articles as a law professor or briefs because I also practice law. Those tend to be more formulaic. This was a much more personal form of writing.

I was writing about people in a community I know. Someone I know who read my book, described it as a love letter to Las Vegas. And I think that’s probably accurate. I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was writing it, but that’s right. So I hope that there’s a kind of passion that comes through, like a love letter.

But it was painful at times. As I tried to capture in the book, I was working through and learning, myself, what my role as a white man, as a white and high-status law professor in a community with far too few resources, would be when my neighbors were under attack. In the book, I tried to capture my own misconceptions, errors of good intentions, errors of blindness, and work through what I really needed to be applying myself to do and what I was also understanding was not my role. I also was witness and part of an immigrant rights community locally in Las Vegas that I think also really matured in a lot of ways in response to this crisis. We wanted to capture that too. I mean, some of the people I admire most in the world I didn’t even know in 2016, but they have mobilized to respond. I was really glad to be able to tell that story.

LZ: It’s amazing that we can read, in your book, the maturing of your work and of the entire community in Las Vegas. What has been happening, for you and your community, since then?

MK: I’m happy to report since the book ended that we’ve made a lot of progress. You’ll know from the book that I was very, very frustrated and really depressed, actually, that we had not been able to do as much as I had hoped to expand legal defense for people facing deportation.

In 2021, we are making some huge steps forward in Las Vegas. We’ve gotten $500,000 from the state legislature, and we are in process of getting a matching amount of money from the Clark County Commission to build what we will call a Community Advocacy Center and expansion of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. It’ll be the first stand-alone deportation defense center in the state of Nevada. And I’m really proud of that. I think it’s a huge contribution.

Lately we have been working through some new designs for new partnerships as well as redesigning some existing sites. We’ve launched TenantHelpNY.org, a new resource that provides clear and easy guidance to tenants facing eviction. We also have a forthcoming redesign of LawHelpNY.org, a hub of legal aid information in NY state. This has been an exciting time to rethink how we represent legal aid information through accessible user experiences and interfaces. This required usability testing.

Usability testing simply tests how usable a product is. Can users easily navigate the site? Can they interpret cues and directions accurately and quickly? Do our assumptions stand up to real life users? This step is often skipped in fast-paced development environments where stakeholders often think “we cannot afford to slow down.” However, it’s far more costly to just run off of instinct and anecdotes. As Erika Hall notes in her book Just Enough Research, “the faster you are proven wrong, the less time you will spend being wrong.” 

I myself am newer to the legal aid space. When presenting my findings, my colleagues here at Pro Bono Net noted that a number of these insights might surprise those who have been in this space for many years. Here are our top 5 things you may not have known about legal information website users.

1. “I don’t know what ‘Know Your Rights’ means.”

Know Your Rights is a fundamental section of our sites. Users can surf different topics and find answers to their questions. Most users don’t come to the site thinking “I want to know my rights around [issue]” but rather show up thinking something like “I don’t want to be evicted.”

It surprised us that few users went to Know Your Rights but rather gravitated towards headers with the word “help” such as “Get Help” or “Self Help Tools.” However, topic-based navigation was successful once users finally got there. So it seems this is a good route but needs a better, more understandable hook.

This may be accomplished simply by changing the language of “Know Your Rights” or may require some kind of additional heading such as “Browse different topics” or “What are my rights?” Regardless, these changes should be tested with end users.

2. “Users are in an emotionally compromised state.”

When testing the TenantHelpNY.org website we just launched (a site to help people in New York state avoid eviction), one user made an excellent point. Having faced eviction themself before, they noted “users are in an emotionally compromised state” as they are searching for help. Last year our colleague Tim Baran shared LawHelpNY’s experience with this and the need to engage with empathy during the pandemic.

The point here is that usability and experience are of paramount importance on a personal level. If a user is stressed and cannot easily navigate through the site, they may give up or suffer further frustration and distress. 

This means the user experience (the feel or vibe the user has) needs to be calming and inviting while avoiding being dismissive of the situation. The visual design such as color, iconography, images, illustrations etc. should also strike the same tone. This design by Kristen Argenio at Ideal Design Co. struck just that tone with our users for our Tenant Help NY website.

3. “I wouldn’t think of that as a legal issue”

The sociologist Rebecca Sandefur writes about how users “do not understand these situations to be legal.” This is a fundamental point for legal aid organizations to absorb.

In one scenario, we asked users to see if they qualify for SNAP. Almost all of them gravitated to the search bar. When asked about this instinct, they mentioned something along the lines of “I wouldn’t have thought of SNAP as a legal issue. I wouldn’t even expect it to be on this site. I would probably Google it.” 

This indicates that legal aid information with its wide reach needs to be presented in ways that speak to real situations and not heavily emphasize legal language or framing. Here you can see the pathway we expected users to take. Instead they either used the search bar or opened a tab into a search engine.

4. “Wait there’s more information?”

When we tested the Legal Aid Directory, where users use their legal topic and location to find organizations that can help them, we had a shocking surprise. Users didn’t know they could click on the listing to see more information. On the other side of that link is a whole profile page with hand-curated information on that organization and their services. They didn’t know it was there!

As someone who has worked on search products for many years, I was floored to find out this one. To me, it’s a fundamental and obvious assumption that a search platform that lists information about services in your area (such as Yelp) offers a profile page of that business. But you know what they say about assuming.

The issue was a lack of interactive results. When you want to lead users to a destination, you should put in enough icons, colors, buttons, and hover-over animations to make the user think “I want to click on that.” Below you can see both the older card design and the improved design in contrast.

5. “Still, I would use the search bar”

Lastly, we were surprised at how often users preferred the search bar over our topic-based navigation. So many users are used to being able to just find their answer right away in search engines simply by typing in some keywords.

The complication is that search is never the best thing to rely on. Walking users through structures you’ve carefully crafted will help them reach their results more accurately. People just tend not to know how to use search engines properly which rely on keywords rather than sentences. So instead of “Eviction NYC” someone might search “I am being evicted, how do I stop this?” 

The solution here isn’t easy but a good route may be providing users with search results that point them to topics that match their results. This is a way of rerouting users through the method they gravitate towards. They get to use the route most natural to them and then they get gently pushed over to the more structured path. Here is a heatmap of our mobile prototype test.

With these insights, we are left with a call to action around the way site navigation is presented to users, some necessary terminology changes, and a need to consider the emotional experience of the user more closely. I cannot advocate enough for usability testing. Meeting with your users and seeing how they interact with the product seems like an obvious step in any design project,  but it’s commonplace practice to blow right past this.

The good news is you likely already have the skills on hand to study and improve your design! Your research methods don’t have to be perfectly scientific to surface some relevant issues. Often a good basic research question alongside free screen share software is enough. You may not even need high quality mockup tools. Putting some shapes and text together on Google Slides can be enough to convey to your developers and designers what you need. Get into the mindset of asking good questions and being open to being proven wrong and you’ll find you can make more incisive improvements more swiftly than you thought.


Ariadne Brazo is the Product Manager for LawHelp and probono.net, digital platforms that help thousands of people each year solve life-changing legal issues and that strengthen the work of advocates serving them. 

Created in 2011, each year the Fastcase 50 award honors a diverse group of lawyers, legal technologists, policymakers, judges, law librarians, bar association executives, and people from all walks of life. Fastcase “recognizes people who have made important, but unheralded contributions.”

Pro Bono Net’s Senior Product Manager, Jessica Stuart, has made this year’s Fastcase 50! Jessica joined the Pro Bono Net team in August 2008, working first as LawHelp Program Associate and now as Senior Product Manager for Pro Bono Manager. Prior to joining Pro Bono Net, Jessica lived in Los Angeles and worked in Digital Marketing at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Her interest in technology systems started while working on the rebuild of a B2B Asset Management application used by a number of different internal and external stakeholders. She now enjoys applying her interest in operations and product management to helping law firms use technology to make their pro bono programs run more efficiently. Jessica earned her B.A. in Communication Processes from the University of Connecticut, and now lives in Brooklyn.

Jessica is passionate about access to justice, and her motivation has fueled the development of Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono Manager. For over 10 years, Pro Bono Manager has helped law firms run their pro bono programs more efficiently. Pro Bono Manager’s web-based system has been invaluable to firms’ pro bono programs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With a centralized pro bono database at their fingertips, pro bono teams have easy access to the data they need no matter where they are, helping them support the attorneys who conduct valuable pro bono work for communities in need. 

Jessica has also helped lead the platform development and product strategy for Pro Bono Net’s Remote Legal Connect platform. Our Remote Legal Connect technology allows legal services providers, pro bono initiatives, courts, and community partners to rapidly build and manage a legal support program regardless of location. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the platform enabled legal services organizations to maintain operations during unprecedented shelter-in-place orders. Jessica has been crucial in implementing the development strategy for Remote Legal Connect adopted by partners: Atlanta Legal Aid which launched Georgia Legal Connect; and Legal Aid of Nebraska which launched  Nebraska Legal Aid Connect

“The past year has presented challenges that provided opportunities to advance the law, and even accelerated some innovations into the mainstream. We celebrate the diligence, discipline, passion, and creativity of these Fastcase 50 honorees. We are as proud as ever to spotlight the eleventh class of the Fastcase 50, highlighting now 550 people who have inspired our profession, since our first class in 2011.” says Pro Bono Net Board Member, Vice Chair and CEO of Fastcase, Ed Walters. 

Congratulations to Jessica and all of the other 2021 Fastcase 50 honorees. Check out the full list at: https://www.fastcase.com/fastcase50/?class=2021 


To learn about Pro Bono Manager, visit: https://www.probono.net/our-work/advocates/pbm/; or to learn more about other Pro Bono Net initiatives, visit: https://www.probono.net/programs/ 

Ready to Stay, a national coalition working to help immigrants and advocates prepare for immigration reform, held a press event on Tuesday, July 13th to announce the launch of ReadytoStay.org. Ready to Stay is a hub that immigrants can turn to for accurate and reliable support surrounding information relevant to their immigration status and changes in immigration processes. This online platform hosts critical information regarding immigration issues such as DACA renewals, Temporary Protected Status applications, Immigration Advocates Network’s directory of tens of thousands of trusted legal service providers, and more. Because undocumented immigrants are often cautious of reaching out for assistance with issues relevant to immigration status due to fear of bad faith actors, Ready to Stay is committed as a grassroots effort to support immigrants and community-based organizations. 

The launch event included speaker Daniela Alulema, from the Center for Migration Studies, who broke down the gap in eligibility among immigrants for increased legal protections and citizenship status. Today, there are over 10.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Undocumented immigrants are deeply embedded in their communities, with 58% of undocumented immigrants having been in the United States for more than 10 years. About one million of the undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States are already eligible for the existing DACA program, and another 500,000 undocumented immigrants are eligible for Temporary Protected Status. Abraham Paulos, a speaker at the event from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, highlighted the importance of Black immigrants having access to legal counsel. Out of the 10,000 Liberian immigrants who are eligible for Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness, a program that allows certain Liberian immigrants to adjust their immigration status and eventually become naturalized, only 3,000 have applied. As legal services have been historically less available to Black immigrants, Ready to Stay has committed to ensuring that immigration support is available to all communities in need.

Lack of accessibility to legal tools and advice is a major obstacle to legal immigration status. To ensure that undocumented immigrants who are eligible for legal protections can apply, there must be a coordinated effort to provide reliable information and comprehensive assistance. Ready to Stay is hosted on the Pro Bono Net platform and is available in 12 languages, reflecting its commitment to providing support to all those in need. Already, Ready to Stay has published a resource on fraud prevention available in 9 languages.

Creating a relationship based on trust and reliability is a crucial aspect of helping undocumented immigrants feel safe and confident accessing the tools and information on Ready to Stay’s website. That is why Ready to Stay has been working closely with faith based and other community organizations to support immigration efforts. Because faith based organizations are established cornerstones within some communities, working with faith leaders will help community members feel comfortable accessing Ready to Stay for assistance. 

The Ready to Stay team expressed bright hopes for the future of immigration to the United States. They are hopeful that the Biden administration will deliver on establishing a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and are ready to continue fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants no matter the political climate. The digital environment has presented many new opportunities for access to justice initiatives, and Ready to Stay serves as a shining example of how technology can be leveraged to support our most vulnerable communities. 


Visit ReadytoStay.org to learn more and subscribe to our Connecting Justice Communities blog to read more about access to justice.

The American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division recently announced its 2021 On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers honorees. The On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers award “provides national recognition for 40 ABA young lawyer members who exemplify a broad range of high achievement, innovation, vision, leadership and legal and community service.” You can read the ABA’s press release here.

Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, has made this year’s ABA’s On the Rise Top 40 Young Lawyers! Jeanne joined Pro Bono Net in 2018 in the aftermath of the major 2017 natural disasters to support Pro Bono Net’s disaster relief initiatives. She later transitioned to her current role to coordinate, develop and grow state and national digital initiatives that strengthen the work of legal advocates and pro bono attorneys helping communities with their legal problems. Among other initiatives, Jeanne helps drive the program strategy for Pro Bono Net’s Remote Legal Connect, a platform that enables legal services providers, pro bono initiatives, and community-based partners to build and manage remote legal support projects. 

Pro Bono Net also congratulates Linda Anderson Stanley, Senior Manager of Disaster Programming at Equal Justice Works for making this year’s On The Rise- Top 40 Young Lawyers! In her role at Equal Justice Works, Linda led the award-winning Disaster Recovery Legal Corp. and created and implemented the Disaster Resilience Program. Linda is also an adjunct professor and teaches a disaster law primer at Stetson University College of Law. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, Linda worked as a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Fla., assisting individuals with limited access to legal services with their civil legal needs. She focused primarily on disaster relief; housing law; consumer law; and veterans’ issues.

Congratulations to Jeanne, Linda and all of the other 2021 On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyer honorees. You can view the full list of honorees here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/projects/on-the-rise/2021-honorees/. For more information on Pro Bono Net initiatives, visit: https://www.probono.net/programs/ 

After filing to go public on June 4th, LegalZoom debuted on the market Wednesday, June 30th. Shares opened at 31% above offer price, highlighting the important role that the market can play in supporting initiatives to broaden access to legal services. LegalZoom’s success is cause for celebration, coming as a result of increasing interest by investors in technology that can help deliver affordable legal services to more Americans.

This growing interest in investing in legal support technologies was reflected in Village Capital’s “Justice Tech for All” report which found that over $77 million has been invested into over 100 startups focused on leveraging technology to provide legal assistance. Despite the progress shown by the increasing levels of investment in justice technologies, the access to justice gap will not be filled by for-profit organizations.

Joe Patrice, a reporter at Above The Law, explained the gap in access to justice by writing “As the cost of legal services continues to rise and tilt more in favor of deep pocketed clients, there’s a growing hole where middle class consumers used to be. That’s not a hole that LegalZoom will fill by itself…” Because it is financially disadvantaged individuals who face the brunt of the challenges posed by the legal system, the gap in accessibility can only be effectively filled through investment in technologies that provide free legal tools and assistance.

For more than 15 years, LawHelp Interactive has been working to bridge the gap in access to justice, ensuring that legal tools and guidance are available to all. LHI seeks to empower those that the for-profit market ignores by supporting courts and partners in the creation of free legal forms and online assistance. By providing a robust platform and working with a trusted network of partners, LHI aggregates high quality, plain language interviews that provide self-represented litigants with access to over 5,000 free and secure legal forms. The population of self-represented litigants that serve to benefit is significant, with an estimated 75% of cases regarding life-changing legal issues having at least one self-represented litigant. LHI provides assistance in the most crucial areas of legal disputes including family, domestic violence petitions, eviction, foreclosure, consumer debt, divorce, child custody, and child support, as well as public benefit forms. In a 2020 review of LHI, end users shared the profound impact that LHI’s legal assistance had on their lives:

“Means I can try and get my daughter back from [the] state’s custody a lot sooner.”

“This made the process simpler for us [who] have to work.”

“Such a blessing.”

LHI has become an indispensable tool for millions who cannot afford lawyers. In addition, LHI’s reach continues to grow with a 30.5% increase of new registered users in 2020 compared to 2019. This increase resulted in 11,834 new accounts being registered as Self Helpers every month of 2020 — an average of 16 new registered Self Helpers for every hour. Additionally, 658 new Court Employees, and 1,547 new Advocates registered with LHI per month. The sum of these accounts totalled 144,532 new registered user accounts in 2020. To close the gap in access to justice, the growth of nonprofit tech platforms and projects like LHI must be supported with the proper resources to bring the power of the law to all.

The American legal system is riddled with an endemic lack of resources to serve the millions of residents living in poverty who experience legal issues. The price of accessing lawyers and legal assistance continues to rise as people struggle to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic instability. High price tags, confusing processes, and an undersupply of free legal services make the legal system intimidating and inaccessible, leaving vulnerable individuals helpless in facing legal challenges. Though investors are starting to recognize some of these markets and are investing into for-profit legal technologies, needs won’t be met by market solutions alone. Initiatives such as LHI require resources and intellectual capital to continue supporting a growing user base each day. Nonprofit online form providers like LHI play an essential role in serving the needs of the people that the market does not, and these providers need public support. In the next few months, LHI will introduce a new feature that will allow users who have benefitted from LHI the option of “paying it forward”: making small donations to ensure that LHI can be used by others facing similar justice challenges. If you want to get a jump on that and help support equitable access to justice technologies, consider making a donation. Further, if you are interested in reading more about access to justice, sign up for Pro Bono Net, Connecting Justice Communities blog.


Timothy Steves is Pro Bono Net’s Communications Intern. Currently in his junior year at The George Washington University, he is majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Security Policy and Philosophy with a Public Affairs focus. 

Juneteenth’s origin dates back to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learning that they had been emancipated, close to two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had formally been put into place. While Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery, this holiday has not been recognized nationally until recent. Many may just be learning the significance of this holiday. Several work places and law firms plan on making Juneteenth a paid and permanent holiday, including: Latham & Watkins, Morrison & Foerster, and Debevoise & Plimpton; to name a few.  While this holiday becomes more mainstream it is important to recognize Juneteenth’s place in American history and to reflect on the long struggle for equal rights.

Pro Bono Net is grateful to Treshauxn Dennis-Brown, AmeriCorps Vista working with our Immigration Advocates Network program, for writing this important piece highlighting what Juneteenth means for him.


This upcoming Saturday marks the national observance of Juneteenth. Traditionally celebrated by African-Americans annually on June 19th and originating in Galveston, Texas, Juneteenth commemorates the very first celebration of emancipation, signifying the end of slavery in Texas, following General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger Although at first embraced solely by African American communities, Juneteenth has gained traction among mainstream outlets in recent years, garnering state and local recognition across the country, especially as the country comes to grips with a legacy of racial tension. But who is Juneteenth for? Juneteenth can be said to be a holiday celebrating Black liberation, but it is important to remember that many heritages simultaneously reside under the blanket term “Black.” 

I am a proud first generation American with heritage deeply entrenched in the Caribbean, boasting primarily Jamaican but also Trinidadian lineages. As such, I sometimes feel as though my plight is somewhat divorced from that of Black/African-Americans, as I cannot lay claim to the legacy of American Chattel Slavery in the same way. Instead, I hail from islands that were colonized by the Spanish and British, each nevertheless saturated with their own horrors, commensurate with the reputation of being sugar colonies in the Colonial Era. Is Juneteenth just for the African-American whose lineage could (or more realistically, could not) be traced back to American slaves who picked cotton in the South, or can other non American Black diasporic heritages be included as an act of solidarity with regards to the common tragic threads in their histories?

While this mainly materializes as an internal thought exercise, the reality remains that of course, despite identifying as a first generation Caribbean-American, son, nephew, grandson to family who immigrated here in the 90s, I and my family are easily welcomed to the fold of Juneteenth celebrations. The ease with which this happens is possible due to the shared connection of the pigmentation of our skin. The fact remains that despite ancestral differences, the plight of Black people, regardless of immigration or residency status,  in the United States is almost universally dismal: Black people retain the lowest median income, are currently enjoying the lowest rate of black homeownership since the 1960s, and are disproportionately stopped, arrested, or fatally killed by the police.²³⁴ The statistics prove that diasporic nuances mean nothing in the face of, well, a Black face.

While this might seem the grimmest of ways to endear oneself to a holiday, I am nevertheless excited to have my first day off in my professional career for Juneteenth. The intellectual divide over whom Juneteenth belongs to will hopefully fade over time as Juneteenth continues to attract interest in the mainstream. Soon the question will not be whether Juneteenth is just a “Black holiday,” as Americans as a whole continue to embrace it as a holiday along the stalwarts of Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and the like.


¹Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Is Juneteenth? African American History Blog,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, September 19, 2013), https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/.

²Valerie Wilson, “Racial Disparities in Income and Poverty Remain Largely Unchanged amid Strong Income Growth in 2019,” Economic Policy Institute, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.epi.org/blog/racial-disparities-in-income-and-poverty-remain-largely-unchanged-amid-strong-income-growth-in-2019/.

³Jacob Passy, “Black Homeownership Rate Hits Lowest Level since the 1960s – That’s Unlikely to Change in Pandemic Year 2,” MarketWatch (MarketWatch, March 11, 2021), https://www.marketwatch.com/story/most-black-americans-arent-homeowners-how-can-we-change-that-11615431459.

⁴“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP, May 24, 2021, https://naacp.org/resources/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.