November 2013

The LSNTAP / PBN webinar on October 23rd, covered many topics relating to the use of technology for pro bono engagement, and contained a great deal of practical advice for new projects to keep in mind, learned over the course of several distinct projects. The presenters for the webinar from Pro Bono Net were Mirenda Watkins, the LawHelp Interactive Coordinator, Adam Friedl, the Pro Bono Coordinator, and Liz Keith, the LawHelp Program Manager, as well as Carolyn Coffey, the Supervising Attorney at MFY Legal Services. Adam Friedl began the presentation with the often inaccurate maxim “If you build it they will come” and pointed out the risk of assuming that every exciting new tech project will be a success. While a sense of energy and excitement over an innovative tech project may be important to its success, Adam Friedl pointed out that careful planning, patience, and a number of other considerations must also be taken into account. Three goals of tech enabled pro bono were explained the first being helping pro bono programs by increasing volunteer engagement and education, the second being aiding pro bono lawyers with enhanced support tools and access to specialized expertise and creating new ways of volunteering, and the third being assisting clients by providing more resources more efficiently to underserved communities.

Mirenda Watkins gave the first presentation on Technology Tools with the Power to Enhance Pro Bono Initiatives. The major example described was LawHelp Interactive, which makes extensive use of interactive forms, primarily using HotDocs and A2J Author in an interview format. The interactive legal forms allow users to create legal documents that are both standardized and acceptable by courts, but also personalized to their particular case. LawHelp Interactive also aids pro bono volunteers by providing them with specialized information that may be outside of their area of expertise, and allows pro bono attorneys to more efficiently screen potential clients. The online availability of these forms also allows for remote sharing to overcome physical barriers, and allows reusable information (such as birth date) to be carried over rather than repeatedly reentered.

The next section of the presentation consisted of advice regarding how to build and sustain such a program, and getting volunteers to enthusiastically embrace the use of LawHelp Interactive forms and interviews. Perhaps the most important practice to remember for driving engagement for this, and other tech projects is creating partnerships. Working with court support staff to ensure that the forms are acceptable was of vital importance, and working with organizations such as libraries was extremely helpful for increasing awareness and accessibility with regard to LawHelp interactive resources. Mirenda highly recommended involving partner organizations early in the planning process, and staying willing to compromise to see the partnerships succeed. Over ambition was also stated as a potential detriment to many projects, and starting tech projects on a small scale with achievable results is a good start that can be built up later as needed. Ongoing training should also be maintained, in order to keep volunteers and attorneys up speed with the resources. Consistent evaluation is also vital, as it can definitively show the successes of the resources, as well as pointing out potential flaws or areas for improvement.

The section on the New York Family Court Remote Volunteer Attorney Program was presented by Adam Friedl. The program was designed to help expand the reach of the Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program to connect with dramatically underserved populations. While the Family Court Volunteer overall helps to answer questions and gives free unbundled legal advice to unrepresented litigants, the program had some difficulties. Certain areas were proving difficult for volunteer attorneys to reach, and Staten Island in particular was proving difficult due a lack of dedicated personnel, lack of physical space set aside for the program, and most of all by the area’s relative geographic inaccessibility. The remote program overcomes this by utilizing videoconferencing and remote IP printing so that attorneys in Manhattan can serve litigants in other locations without leaving the borough.

The project has been very successful in Staten Island and is now expanding to reach other counties in upstate New York. Several factors contributed to the success of the project, the most important being the policy of keeping things as simple as possible. Collaborating with the IT personnel in each county was also seen as vital, and getting the local court administrations and bar associations invested in the success of the project also helped a great deal. Adam Friedl did however bring up possible challenges that should be kept in mind, which included political disputes and regional divisions, and the need to adapt and utilize different staffing models to take into account differing circumstances county by county. Another large challenge is maintaining a high level of energy and enthusiasm for the project and keeping involvement a positive experience for the volunteers and litigants alike.

Carolyn Coffey then gave a talk showcasing the NYC Consumer Debt Defense Project. The consumer debt defense project was meant to help individuals being sued by debt buyers in New York City, 95% of whom reside in low or moderate income areas, and only 2% of whom are represented by counsel. A great number of these lawsuits are very sloppy and shaky cases against low income individuals, usually for less than $2,000. The Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office or CLARO provided weekly walk in clinics, held in courthouses to help litigants by providing legal advice and document preparation assistance, and was staffed by pro bono attorneys and law students. The enormous success and popularity of the program however, created problems as clinics began to overflow, and more complex documents such as MSJs began to bog down service speed even more. The solution to these challenges was to begin utilizing document assembly resources from LawHelp Interactive.

The use of document assembly resources by both advocates and pro se litigants has managed to vastly increase the speed at which CLARO can do its job. The standardized forms work to generate modifiable Word documents with contextual information applied to each case. Aggressive debt buyers with fake, sloppy, or missing documents can be countered by the Demand for Document and Debt Verification Letters that the interactive forms create. The success of this tech-enabled project hinges on the significant speed increase from the days of handwritten forms and notes. It helps to support less experienced volunteers in areas that may be beyond their area of expertise. While some there was some measure of reluctance by individuals who felt comfortable with the old methods, and challenges faced due to the need to train volunteers with the new software, CLARO has still benefited greatly from the new tech methods.

The final presentation of the webinar was on Mobile and Remote Innovations to Support Pro Bono Engagement, by Liz Keith. The first project illustrated was the Pro Bono To Go project being pioneered in Minnesota, where a mobile version of ProJusticeMN.org is being developed and will feature settlement checklists and client interview guides to support advocates. The mobile checklists are valuable for helping to get the most out of settlement opportunities, which can rise unexpectedly in court. The mobile version of the settlement checklist helps to identify pitfalls or problem areas that may be missed by inexperienced attorneys, or those working outside of their areas of expertise. The mobile interview guides provided by Pro Bono To Go can be used to streamline and improve sessions in walk in clinics with volunteer attorneys. Other mobile projects include Apps which connect attorneys to information about volunteering, and screening Apps to help non legal volunteers such as nurses and social workers identify potential clients.

Remote service models for pro bono were also featured, specifically programs such as LiveHelp, Virtual Legal Clinics, and Remote Document Reviews, which all have the benefit of overcoming geographic barriers that would previously have inhibited pro bono engagement. In addition to providing information find and referral assistance, LiveHelp volunteers provide a range of other services that vary from state to state. The types of LiveHelp volunteers also vary from state to state, ranging from to librarians, to law students and private attorney volunteers. Perhaps the largest issues that should be considered when using volunteers for LiveHelp is the fact that they require an investment in training and supervision on an ongoing basis in order to ensure quality. There are however, numerous benefits to using volunteers. A New York LiveHelp pilot program, which mainly utilized law student volunteers, found in a survey that LiveHelp volunteers felt they were more likely to volunteer for pro bono service later in their careers as a result of their experience with the program The flexible schedule that the remote nature of LiveHelp allows volunteers to adopt also provides them with a much greater opportunity to volunteer for busy individuals who may not have a large amount of time available. The LivePerson platform used by many states can also be useful for reporting and administration purposes, and achieved chatlogs and other services can help project managers with supervision and support.

The presenters Liz Keith, Mirenda Watkins, Carolyn Coffey, and Adam Friedl can be reached by email if anyone has additional inquires. A full recording of the webinar is also available for those who are interested. The next webinar in the series, Beyond Online Intake: Looking at Triage and Expert Systems, will be held on December 4th, 2013.

On October 29th the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) hosted the inaugural Small Business Legal Academy (SBLA) at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater. The purpose of the SBLA was to assist nascent small businesses by connecting them with pro bono and legal services attorneys and community development organizations. In the post below Alison King, Pro Bono Counsel at Kaye Scholer and one of the lead organizers of the SBLA, reflects on the impetus for the SBLA, the benefits of the model, and the successful day itself.

Small business legal relief is an integral aspect of law firm pro bono programs and economic redevelopment initiatives throughout New York City. The typical model involves one firm partnering with one legal services provider to identify a community-based organization (or citywide organization with local offices) to serve a specific under-resourced community in need of economic development. The legal services provider and local organization help with logistics such as outreach, client screening, data collection, and follow-up. A range of legal services are then provided by the firm at ongoing, regularly scheduled clinics. At their discretion, firms can provide follow-up pro bono representation of individual businesses. This has been and continues to be a successful, even crucial tool in community economic development.

Harlene, Alison, and Kevin
Alison King (Kaye Scholer), Harlene Katzman (Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP), and Kevin Curnin (Stroock & Stroock & Lavan) at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater (Bisnow Media)

The Small Business Legal Academy (SBLA) is a step beyond the traditional model. Our reinvention of the small business pro bono legal services throws aside the single site model in favor of an open market approach: bringing law firms and fledgling small businesses together on a large scale, adding to the mix financial services consultants and City and State agencies. This model is designed to have deeper immediate impact, with a wider array of resources, and the opportunity to discuss typical legal issues with a broad audience (through workshops) as well as advise individual business owners (through one-to-one legal counseling). The model is replicable, and APBCo is beginning to plan SBLAs in Los Angeles and Dallas and future academies in New York.

We launched our pilot Small Business Legal Academy at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater, on October 29, 2013. We are deeply appreciative to the Apollo for the opportunity, and particularly to Joe Levy, Director of Operations at the Apollo.

This project was conceived by New York-based members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (“APBCo”), a membership organization of full-time pro bono counsel and coordinators at major commercial law firms. APBCo has over 125 members from more than 85 law firms nationwide, including many AmLaw 200 firms. APBCo is dedicated to improving access to justice by advancing the model of the full-time law firm pro bono counsel, enhancing the professional development of pro bono counsel, and serving as a unified voice for the national law firm pro bono community.

The inspiration for a nationwide project grew out of a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, DC. Last September, the Vice President met with APBCo’s Board of Directors to focus on issues of access to justice and the role of pro bono attorneys in the delivery of legal services to the poor, including innovative collaborations between law firms, legal services organizations, bar associations, and the judiciary.

With this backdrop, APBCo initiated a long-term project to seed and launch a series of new collaborations across the country designed to expand national law firm efforts to increase access to justice. The APBCo IMPACT (Involving More Pro bono Attorneys in our Communities Together) Project is already taking root in eight urban centers, from Seattle to New York, and beyond. The objective is to design innovative and sustainable new solutions that will increase access to free legal services. The Small Business Legal Academy is one of several APBCo IMPACT projects in New York City and in other large cities across the country.

APBCo reached out to the following legal services organizations as partners for the SBLA:

Lawyers Alliance for New York

Legal Aid Society of New York

Legal Services NYC, Brooklyn A

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

Probono.net

Start Small, Think Big

Urban Justice Center

Volunteers of Legal Service

City Bar Justice Center/NELP

The planning committee consisted of representatives from each of those organizations, and from the following law firms: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, Kaye Scholer, Proskauer Rose, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Skadden Arps, and Stroock Stroock & Lavan.

The first SBLA was open all day, October 29th,assisting 215 business owners and micro-entrepreneurs; the academy included legal service sessions with 157 volunteer attorneys from 31 APBCo member law firms, workshops tailored to small business owners and non-profit leaders, and a small business bazaar with financial services consultants, City and State agencies, and other service providers. The overall goal was to provide immediate basic legal assistance to small businesses and to educate the small business community about the services, pro bono and otherwise, legal and non-legal, that are available to them to help grow their business.

As Bill Lienhard, Executive Director of Volunteers of Legal Services, eloquently said: “I am grateful that, through VOLS’ Microenterprise Project, I had the opportunity to be part of this important effort to provide legal information, advice, and assistance of the highest caliber to New York City’s small businesses and entrepreneurs. I look forward to continuing to work with the firms and organizations that, under APBCO’s leadership, made the SBLA such a success.” My thoughts exactly. Thank you to all of the people who helped us make this such a wonderful event. See you at the next SBLA!

To close out National Pro Bono Week, I had the opportunity to conduct a short video interview with Colin O’Keefe of LXBN. In the brief interview, I had the opportunity to discuss a couple of the series we’ve been running here on Connecting Justice Communities—both our guest posts this week and the Superstorm Sandy Series.

As part of the ABA’s National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, the Practising Law Institute gave PBN board member and pro bono and legal services consultant extraordinaire (and generally super person) Tiela Chalmers and me the opportunity to present a free webinar on pro bono for over 200 lawyers from across the United States. Titled “How to Start – and Succeed – at Pro Bono,” the hour-long program addressed a number of the questions that lawyers new to pro bono work frequently pose.

We started the hour by asking the most fundamental question – why do pro bono at all? Especially when the market for legal employment is more competitive than ever, who can afford to help people for free? I’ve written about some of the reasons on this blog before, but apart from the most obvious ones – the overwhelming need, how great it feels to give back, and the (often forgotten) obligation that comes with a license to practice law – we also discussed the idea of “doing well by doing good.” Simply put, lawyers get almost as much benefit from pro bono work as their clients in the form of enhancing skills and experience, building business networks, and raising one’s professional profile.

That fundamental question, in my experience, is the hardest question to answer. Once folks embrace the idea of doing pro bono, the details of making it happen – learning what types of opportunities are available, considering how to balance their time, finding an organization to work with – seem much less daunting. We (ok, mostly Tiela) offered some fantastic tips for addressing those issues, but I’ll encourage you to check them out for yourself – the recording dropped on November 7!

In honor of the upcoming Veteran’s Day Holiday, we are pleased to share with you this post by Associate Justice Eileen C. Moore. Many of our returning vets have legal issues, such as un-responded to VA claims, denied medical care coverage, employment discrimination and more. Our vets and military families are in great need of pro bono legal assistance and this will likely be a growing problem.  We thank Justice Moore for helping us highlight the issue this Veteran’s Day, we thank our vets, and we encourage you to look to the ABA Military Pro Bono Project for ways to help our returning vets.

 

Every so often in life, something quite memorable happens.  I experienced one of those moments while acting as a mentor in Orange County, California’s Combat Veterans Court.  I was there mentoring a few young women when the judge called a case involving a Vietnam Veteran. This was sort of unusual as most of the vets in Veterans Court served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I was interested, since I served as an Army combat nurse in Vietnam.

Justice Moore in her current role today.

The Vietnam vet, who had been under the influence of who-knows-what for most of his adult life, was not only sober, but sublimely happy, as he showed the judge an A-plus written across his college paper. He was ecstatic at his success and thanked the judge from the bottom of his heart.

Just then, some rattling could be heard from the side of the courtroom, where in-custody defendants on other matters are held awaiting their cases to be called.  The caged man called out to the judge, and she told him she would call his matter later.  The man looked as if he lived in a gutter for the previous 40 years. What skin was visible was like broken concrete, and he was absolutely filthy.  The anticipation on his face was right out of that scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” when the woman says to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Having seen another Vietnam vet succeed, he wanted to do the same.  He begged the judge to let him into Veterans Court.  She explained he had been rejected because there are only so many open spots, due to economical concerns, and his years of being in and out of jail did not bode well for his chances of success.  But he kept begging.

The judge, the Honorable Wendy Lindley, whose heart is quite large, finally relented, to the obvious consternation of members of the collaborative team, made up of lawyers, probation officers, V.A. personnel and mental health professionals.  The team apparently wanted someone with more promise to fill the spot.

When there was a recess, I went up to the holding cell and introduced myself.  I told him that, while I am now a judge, I was a nurse in Vietnam.  He could not have cared less that I am a judge.  He grabbed my hand and clutched it.  He looked straight into my eyes and said, “I would never let a nurse down. You were angels to us over there.”

 

Justice Moore serving as an Army combat nurse in Vietnam.

The next time I saw him, he looked like a college professor.  About 18 months later, clean and sober and scrubbed, he graduated from Veterans Court.  He was asked to say a few words, and he said, “See, I told you I would never let a nurse down.”

 

Eileen C. Moore

Associate Justice

California Court of Appeal

 

 

 

Our thanks to our partners at the Practising Law Institute for connecting CJC (Connecting Justice Communities) with Justice Moore for this interview.  Justice Moore chaired a program for Practising Law Institute this  past June on “Approaching Veterans Issues.”  If you’d like to learn more, “Approaching Veterans Issues”  is available (at no charge)  at: www.pli.edu


This year’s National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s annual conference, Justice in America: Delivering on the Promise, will take place in Los Angeles later this week.  Technology-enabled self-help initiatives and remote services will be among the topics Pro Bono Net staff focus on, while presenting on a variety of panels.

With ever-expanding caseloads for full time attorneys and dwindling resources for legal services and courts, both Claudia Johnson and Liz Keith will join speakers from across the country to focus on how technology can play a pivotal role in leveraging volunteer attorneys as well as providing self-help resources to litigants and clients.

 They are slated to participate in the following panels:

Claudia Johnson will join Josh Passman of Bet Tzedek Legal Services and Bonnie Hough of the California Administrative Office of the Courts in the panel How to complete over 1,400 complicated cases a year with two FTE’s; The Story of Technology and Partnership.  She will also join Sotivear Sim of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles,  as well as Veronica Alvarado and Jora Trang of Worksafe Oakland in the panel Cultural Competence: Barriers, Bias and Language.

Liz Keith will join Jessica Bolack Frank, of the Center for Access to Justice & Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law and John Mayer of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction in the panel Increasing Access to Justice through Online Self-Help Resources: The Human and Technology Sides of the Equation. And finally, both will join  Haydee Alfonso of Bay Area Legal Aid and Marilyn Harp of Kansas Legal Services for Technology Innovations to Increase Access to Justice in Suburban and Rural Communities.

We hope to see many of our partners and stakeholders at the conference, in panels, and at our PBN Affinity Roundtable on Thursday from 12-1:30!  If you know you’re planning on attending the Affinity Roundtable, RSVP to Xander Karsten at xkarsten@probono.net.  Drop in’s are always welcome!

As we close out our reflections on Superstorm Sandy, we conclude with a note from Executive Director, Mark O’Brien. We extend our thanks to our partners who continue to work to help those affected by the storm and to our supporters for your generosity. And for those looking to help, we encourage you to join in the race!

A year ago Wednesday, I awoke early, and fumbled to turn on the radio for news that would help me take stock of what I assumed had been a “once in a lifetime” storm on our city.  Unlike far too many New Yorkers, my family was fortunate to live in a neighborhood that largely escaped Sandy’s full impact; saved by an accident of topography.

But as the intervening months have made painfully clear, it is likely that the coastal regions of the Northeast will face similar threats sooner than we once imagined.  And Sandy, like other natural and man-made emergencies before her, revealed that the impact follows not only topographical lines on the map, but deeply entrenched social, economic and racial fault lines that govern how individuals and communities access our city’s shared wealth and resources.  One year later, those lines continue to impede the truly heroic efforts of the legal community to help individuals and communities recover and re-build.  As one of our Gulf Coast partners told us early on when sharing lessons from Katrina, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Thinking back to the day after Sandy hit, I remember our community’s first, tentative steps on that marathon – exchanges of emails, texts, and phone calls to our staff and then to friends in other organizations, checking on how they fared – and then moving almost immediately to talking about organizing a collective response.

Within a week, we began to gather in person, and on regular conference calls where those organizing efforts locally, and from across the country, could share challenges, solutions, strategize on next steps, vent frustrations, and even laugh and enjoy a fellowship born of common purpose.

It was in this moment that that we learned that the marathon could also be a relay race.  Gulf coast veterans of Katrina joined us (sometimes over phone lines and sometimes literally).  Disaster legal aid experts from Texas, Louisiana and Florida also pitched in to run legs.  And, of course, we’ve passed the baton among ourselves.

Pro Bono Net’s own efforts to support this work comes from our experience dealing with the challenge of scaling legal services in times of emergent need. We know technology and collaboration can overcome barriers to justice. Time and again, in the wake of the nation’s largest crises, including 9/11, Katrina, and the foreclosure crisis, Pro Bono Net enabled individual organizations to work more effectively and collectively to meet challenges.

Wednesday morning I dialed in as a facilitator on what has become our monthly Sandy call. The work (and sharing) goes on.  A staff lawyer from The Legal Aid Society shared a favorable outcome obtained in an insurance mediation by pro bono lawyers from Covington … who were prepared by pro bono volunteers from Jones Day … and they had all been mentored by the insurance expert at Legal Services NYC.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve showcased the tremendous work of our partners on our blog, Connecting Justice Communities, through a weekly Sandy Series. We’ve taken the time at the end of this series to reflect on the themes that emerged and to share our own lessons learned. I’d like to share that with you and invite you to comment with your own impressions on the race to date or priorities on the road ahead.

One thing is clear – the challenges we face are steep, particularly for New York’s lowest income and most marginalized – immigrants, the elderly, and those with diminished capacity. More runners are needed.  If you are a lawyer, you’ve got the right shoes.  Some of the work will be directly related to Sandy; other, equally important work, will help expose and repair the underlying injustices that prevent many New Yorkers from fully participating in society.  Unless we address that, it won’t matter how prepared we are; our most vulnerable neighbors will again bear the brunt.

If you are already running, thank you, and we’ll look for you on the course. If you’re still on the sidelines, this is the time.  On this anniversary, don’t only remember the storm.  Remember the feeling you had on the morning after … you were outraged by what you saw … you wanted to help … you believed you could make a difference.  You can.  It’s not as hard as you think. As the tag line goes, Just Do It! 

 If you need help finding the starting line, or are looking for a baton ready to be passed on, I invite you to visit us online at the NYC Pro Bono Center.

Mark O’Brien | Executive Director | Pro Bono Net