May 2012

In honor of Memorial Day, we asked our partners at the ABA Military Pro Bono Project to contribute a guest post about their work.  You can learn more, and get involved, at www.militaryprobono.org

This Memorial Day, the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project encourages the legal community to consider the importance of pro bono work on behalf of veterans, servicemembers, and their families. It is important to remember that our nation’s military families, many of whom constitute low- to moderate-income households, encounter unique difficulties in achieving access to justice for their civil legal problems. Frequent relocations, overseas deployments, and recurring mobilizations place strains on military families, which can result in civil legal needs in family law, foreclosure prevention, creditor issues, and even trust and estate matters. Often unable to afford full-cost legal counsel to handle these civil matters, military members must turn to pro bono legal assistance, such as that provided by the ABA Military Pro Bono Project.

The story of Sergeant Jacob Wilson is an illustrative example. Sergeant Wilson served multiple deployments in combat zones. However, after returning from his last deployment, he faced a new battle at home: protecting his daughter. When he returned to the United States, Wilson found that his daughter was in an unfit home with his ex-girlfriend, as she was living in an overcrowded small apartment where illicit drug use and physical abuse were open and frequent.

The soldier went to his JAG to discuss his concern for his child’s safety and his desire to seek a custody order. But, as is common, the JAG was not authorized to represent Wilson in state family court, andWilsoncould not imagine how he could hire a civilian attorney with his limited income. What Wilson’s JAG could do, however, was to refer his case to the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, which located a volunteer attorney who successfully helped with Wilson’s legal battle by obtaining a custody order that alleviated his concerns of his daughter’s safety.

Although the names in this story have been changed, it is based on a real case and illustrates how pro bono legal help is necessary to ensure that our men and women in uniform are not distracted from their missions by an inability to resolve legal problems.

Join the ABA Military Pro Bono Project in Helping Our Servicemembers

 The ABA Military Pro Bono Project accepts case referrals from military attorneys across the country and around the world, and it matches these cases with pro bono volunteer lawyers. Joining the Project is easy. Register on the Project website at www.militaryprobono.org, and you will be contacted to consider volunteer opportunities for servicemember cases matching your geographic and practice profile. When registering, you may also join the Operation Stand-By list, through which you volunteer to provide occasional lawyer-to-lawyer consultations to military attorneys seeking substantive guidance, thereby helping these lawyers better assist their military clients. Whether providing full pro bono representation or simply giving advice through Operation Stand-By, the time you give through the Project is entirely at your discretion.

The Project also welcomes the opportunity to coordinate and collaborate with the many existing legal aid, pro bono, and state and local bar programs serving military members to best leverage the strengths of all of our efforts on behalf of those in uniform.

If you are an attorney interested in giving back to the men and women of the armed forces this Memorial Day, please visit www.militaryprobono.org to further explore how you can help by joining the Project roster or by making a tax-deductible financial contribution. Lend a hand to our military personnel and their families, recognizing the sacrifices they make on behalf of us all.

We were thrilled to see CitizenshipWorks join the ranks of 2012 Webby Award winners, taking its place alongside Epicurious, HBO and the Muppets (among others).  CitizenshipWorks, which provides free, easy-to-use online tools to help individuals navigate the naturalization process, won both the Best Law Site award and the People’s Voice Award (voted on by the public) in the Law category.  You can watch Matthew Burnett’s 5-word acceptance speech.

CitizenshipWorks helps users better understand the naturalization process, prepare for the naturalization tests, and find free or low-cost legal help with their naturalization application.  A separate part of the site available to nonprofits that provide free or low cost naturalization application services allows users to complete an interactive form that results in a completed Application for Naturalization.  This is currently being used in group processing workshops, which can now help more people.

The Webby Awards represent recognition for the hard work of those behind CitizenshipWorks – Pro Bono Net, the Immigration Advocates Network and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.  But the win also points out the importance of innovation in determining how to meet the expanding need for legal services.  CitizenshipWorks empowers users to learn about the naturalization process, assess their eligibility and find needed legal help via a national directory of service providers.  It also builds the capacity of nonprofit organizations, allowing them to work more efficiently by integrating technology-enabled services into what they offer.

Manuel J. Santamaria, grantmaking director at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a supporter of CitizenshipWorks, summed it up well: “CitizenshipWorks is a great illustration of how to use the power of technology to increase your impact.”

Looking ahead, we’ll be applying this model to other areas of need.  Which areas of law do you think offer the best potential?

In the beginning of April, a handful of Pro Bono Net staff attended the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), a gathering of over 1,500 nonprofit professionals, in San Francisco. The conference, which takes place annually, focuses on the intersection of nonprofit work and technology, and creates a space for networking, collaboration, and innovation. With attendees from all over world and many different nonprofits, it was an opportunity for Pro Bono Net staff to share lessons from the justice community with the larger nonprofit community and more importantly, for us to gain insights from other nonprofits.

Matthew Burnett presents at NTC

At one of the many NTC breakout sessions, Pro Bono Net staff members Liz Keith, Matthew Burnett, Claudia Johnson, Jessica Stuart, and Jillian Theil gave a presentation entitled, “Maximizing Program Impact Through the Use of Technology.” The session addressed ways in which technology is being used to improve client service quality and program efficiency in the legal aid context. It explored Pro Bono Net’s use of LiveHelp online chat and LawHelp Interactive with state partners, the new CitizenshipWorks site, and multimedia tools being developed in the legal aid community. Due to the diverse representation of organizations at the session, it proved an interesting challenge for the team to frame their presentation in a way that could translate to other nonprofits of different size, community involvement, infrastructure and technology capacity.

In addition to sharing our experiences with the nonprofit community, we had the opportunity to learn more about our nonprofit peers and their organizations’ projects. During the breakout session, “Doing More With Less: Innovation in Service Delivery,” presented by Laura Quinn of Idealware and Rick Birmingham of MAP for Nonprofits, attendees gathered to learn about a framework for innovation. Specifically, the four-part framework defines ways in which nonprofits can use existing and affordable technologies to address their own organization’s needs and to produce better results for more clients, with less money. The framework involves:

1) identifying needs

2) understanding technology

3) connecting needs and technology

4) effecting change in the organization.

From the presenters and audience comments during the session, it was clear those organizations that lack these elements can and do struggle with innovation.

So, what was the take away from this session for Pro Bono Net? How can we use this framework to analyze, evaluate, and learn from our strengths and weaknesses in the arena of innovation?  As an organization that works to build and strengthen relationships within the justice community through the facilitation of technology initiatives, Pro Bono Net’s work is inherently built around the four elements of innovation.  We have a unique position in the legal community where our close partnerships allow for the identification and analysis of partner needs, and our work centers around making connections between these needs and technology resources.

Perhaps the more important question to ask, however, is not whether we are innovative, but how can we push the envelope of innovation? How can we make the delivery of legal services to underprivileged communities more and more efficient? These questions are challenging to address, but as the novelist Michael Kourda said, “One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”

In our newsletter, Pro Bono Net profiles individuals, law firms and organizations that are changing the face of pro bono through their use of new technology and resources and by taking on exciting projects and doing great work to help those most in need.

Recently Pro Bono Net staffers Pam Weisz and Karin Romans had a chance to sit down at Bingham McCutchen’s New York office with attorneys Robert Dombroff, Managing Partner; Edward Maluf, Partner and co-chair of Bingham’s national pro bono committee; and Jaimie Dockray, Senior Manager, Pro Bono, to discuss their role in helping 400 Harlem students graduate high school by providing the children and their families with legal services.

Bingham collaborates with Say Yes to Education, an organization that provides inner city youth with supportive services to help them keep their focus on graduating, with the promise of college tuition.  Bingham’s New York office took an impressive and unprecedented step by a law firm and embarked on an ambitious multi-year commitment to offer pro bono legal services to the children and families of Say Yes New York.  Maluf describes the Say Yes/Bingham partnership as “leveling the playing field.”

Now in its eighth year, the program is an integral part of Bingham’s work and legal and non-legal staff support its efforts. More than 60 attorneys have worked on hundreds of pro bono matters, traveling up to Harlem during the school year and in the summer.  “These guys change lives,” Dombroff says.  “The older brother of one child was arrested for attempted murder.  Our attorneys took on the case, found out he had an alibi and the case was dropped before arraignment.”

You can read more about the program, the challenges faced in setting it up, and the immense success that it has become in Pro Bono Net’s Spring Newsletter.