May 2014

On May 27th, Tiela Chalmers, newly appointed CEO of the Alameda County Bar Association and member of the Pro Bono Net Board of Directors, will lead a webinar / seminar through the Practising Law Institute (PLI) on “How to Find and Handle Your First Pro Bono Case.”  I spoke with Tiela last week to get a preview of the program. Whether you just graduated from law school or have been practicing for years, the program will be an excellent opportunity to discover the pro bono field and find ways to get involved! We would like to thank PLI for championing the need for pro bono as one of Pro Bono Net’s Bronze Sponsors since 2011. Through their sponsorship of Pro Bono Net and consistent presentation of pro bono programs, PLI has demonstrated outstanding dedication to providing attorneys with information and techniques to develop a powerful and effective pro bono practice and use their legal skills to give back to their communities.

Pro Bono Net: Can you briefly tell us about the overall purpose of your upcoming PLI program?

Tiela Chalmers: Our goal is to offer people who are just starting to look into pro bono, whether they are new attorneys or people who haven’t considered it before, a chance to get an overview of how to go about doing it and how to become involved. And then, assuming they do volunteer, we’ll go over some things they should keep in mind as they start out.

PBN: Why is it important for lawyers to do pro bono work?

TC: We will talk about this a lot in the session. There is a multiplicity of reasons to do pro bono; all of them are good reasons. There is certainly the opportunity to “do good” and make a difference. So many lawyers went to law school wanting to make a difference and having a law license really gives you a unique opportunity to make a difference in a way that others can’t. There are also more self-focused reasons to do pro bono. It’s a great way to get experience – pro bono allows you to handle a case from start to finish in a way that you don’t get to do starting out at most large firms. It’s also a chance to get to know the judges and lawyers in your community and become known as someone who gives back and contributes to the community. It shows people that you care about the place that you live.

PBN: What is the largest barrier to starting pro bono work?

TC:  It’s a combination of time and not knowing where to start. Part of the goal of the session is to give people ways to overcome both those barriers. The session will point out that there’s a lot of value to be had – even though you will be busy, it will help you advance yourself professionally. We will also talk about limited scope representation and some other ideas on how to get experience without a significant time investment. In terms of knowing where to start, we will discuss how to figure out what to do and how to find a good opportunity.

PBN: Is there anything else you would like to share about the program?

TC: When we’ve done the program in the past, people have found it useful whether they were truly brand new or just attorneys looking for ways to build professional development. We hope to get a wide spectrum of people, we had a few hundred nationally in the past and I understand registration has already reached that point for this year.

Be sure to sign up for the “How to Handle Your First Pro Bono Case 2014” webinar or seminar. The free webcast will begin at 9:00 AM Pacific (12:00 PM Eastern), or attend in person in San Francisco!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A pilot program at the Riverside County Superior Court in California is allowing domestic violence victims to complete applications for Domestic Violence Restraining Orders (DVRO) online and electronic fax completed forms to the courthouse. I spoke with The Honorable Jackson Lucky about the initiative and the impact he has witnessed in the courthouse.

At Riverside Court, domestic violence victims are one of the highest risk populations, but victims often have trouble getting access to justice. Over 6,700 domestic violence cases are filed each year at Riverside, mostly by litigants without lawyers. The filings require individuals to draft a multitude of documents, forcing them to repeatedly fill-in the same information and leading to confusion and incomplete forms. A clerk must then spend time reviewing, rejecting, or explaining the forms to the applicant. The new system, spearheaded by Susan Ryan, Managing Self-Help Attorney for Riverside Superior Court, seeks to simplify the process for applicants and increase efficiency in the court.

Individuals applying for a DVRO can now complete LHI DVRO Questionairetheir filings online through an Interactive Form Completion system enabled by LawHelp Interactive (LHI) and built using HotDocs software. LHI, a Pro Bono Net program, seeks to use technology to improve the legal form and document preparation process for low-income people and the attorneys who assist them. Comparable to TurboTax, the system asks users a series of questions that build upon their answers to the preceding questions. LHI automatically populates the repetitive fields on forms, such as name or home address, saving applicants time and increasing the accuracy of completed forms.

Another need the LHI powered forms solve is the lack of sufficient information being included in the pleadings. According to Judge Lucky, individuals often assume judges know more than they do and leave off vital facts and information about their case. He explained that a victim may make a conclusory statement, such as “my boyfriend is harassing me,” without further explanation. Harassing has many different definitions, not all of which qualify as domestic violence. The online interview eliminates the uncertainty of these situations by asking a series of specific questions about the situation such as, what happened just before the abuse started, what did the person say to you, did the police come. This information is then compiled into the form, allowing a judge to easily assess the situation.

After an individual has completed the interactive interview process they are presented with a completed form that can either be faxed directly to the court, or printed and hand delivered. Electronic fax filing, a system created by the court, allows victims to submit their forms quickly and efficiently from safe anonymous locations. Additionally, a fax filed application will arrive before a judge’s eyes faster than a document brought to the court in person, as it does not have to pass through a window clerk or be scanned into the court system. While the electronic fax system is certainly administratively beneficial and efficient, Judge Lucky stressed the importance of the LHI software.

The benefits of the online interview continue after the DVRO has been filed – regardless of how it was filed. Judge Lucky explained that it is much easier to review forms that were completed online. “I can count on certain things being consistently correct,” he explained. “It becomes more of a quick review for formal defects versus an extensive review that a document filled out by hand requires.” And of course, forms completed using a computer do not run the risk of being illegible. Judge Lucky also explained that the consistent format of the form allows him to more easily find the information he needs to review. He noted that he tends to reject fewer cases that are done through the online system for a lack of specificity, because the interview prompts applicants to supply enough information about the case. The praise for the system is not limited to the courthouse; users have been thrilled with its ease and simplicity. “This is a wonderful program,” reported one user, “the final product is perfect.”

According to Judge Lucky, this type of innovative system could be replicated in other courts and for other issues. “There is nothing special about domestic violence that makes this type of technology suited to domestic violence versus other types of filings.” He explained that the main impediment to implementing such programs, aside from cost, is the development process of creating an interview that comes up with the correct prompts to lead to well filled-out forms. “Programs like this are what make it easier for people that are forced to represent themselves in court,” he said. “Finding ways to use technology to make things more accessible should be an obligation of the court. Justice is becoming a scarce resource and we need to get more people access.”

Editor’s Note:  Pro Bono Net operates LawHelp Interactive in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Association, and with the generous support of the Legal Services Corporation and HotDocs, the global leader in document generation.

Certain features of the American legal tradition are so fundamental as to be virtually sacrosanct: the adversarial system, attorney-client privilege, and pounding on the table to make a forceful point. Some basic assumptions underlie this model, including that lawyers provide litigants with beginning-to-end “full representation” in a case. To do otherwise has long been considered ethically questionable, if not explicitly forbidden, under rules of professional conduct.  However, when this model fails to provide representation of any sort for the millions of Americans engaged in potentially life-changing cases, it’s time to try some new thinking.

The Practising Law Institute recently presented an excellent program titled “Limited Scope Representation 2014: Ethical & Practical Challenges” that explored this relatively new approach to legal representation. “Limited scope” representation, in which a full attorney-client relationship is formed between lawyer and client for a brief period to address onlya discrete aspect or stage of a fuller legal matter, is increasingly seen as a way to bridge the justice gap for litigants who typically face important legal issues, for example housing rights or eviction prevention, without any legal counsel. The program held particular interest for me as I developed the first Volunteer-Lawyer-for-the-Day pilot for litigants in consumer debt cases in the New York City Civil Courts, under the auspices of the New York State Courts’ Access to Justice Program and its pioneering Director, the Honorable Fern Fisher.

The program was moderated by Liliana Vaamonde, Training Director of the Civil Practice for The Legal Aid Society, and featured an excellent lineup of speakers with unique experiences and points of view, including Professor Philip Genty of Columbia Law School (on the concept of unbundled legal services and recent disciplinary rule changes to endorse them), Brenna DeVaney of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom LLP (on an innovative school-based program to provide limited-scope services to families in need), Lauren Donnelly of The Legal Aid Society (on the Housing Help program that provides a range of legal services from advice to full representation to prevent homelessness), and, of course, Judge Fisher herself, who is both a champion of the limited scope movement and a foremost expert on its theory and implementation.

The panelists touched on a number of key issues around the benefits and challenges of limited scope in a relatively short time, including the mechanics of limited scope representation (sign a new limited scope retainer for each brief engagement!), conflicts (see ABA Model Rule 6.5 and its state analogs), and its attractiveness to busy pro bono attorneys (help clients in need through a predefined time commitment, without the threat of becoming locked into an ongoing case). They were also careful to acknowledge the legitimate shortcomings of these models for certain subsets of litigants. For example, some litigants’ circumstances are legally complex, while others need a more meaningful and long-term relationship with a legal provider for reasons including domestic violence, age, or disability.

While all agreed that full representation for every client who needs it is the ideal, we live in the practical world, and it was inspiring to see PLI and these talented and thoughtful panelists explore these practical solutions.

A recent partnership in Minnesota crystalizes the power of collaboration and technology to increase access to justice and provide Americans with the legal advice they so desperately need.

The partnership began thanks to a lucky happenstance. One of the leading attorneys at the Hennepin Bar Association was also a board member at United Way , and learned about the problems their 2-1-1 hotline was encountering with legal referrals. The problems were two-fold: operators often lacked basic legal knowledge (e.g., the difference between criminal and civil), which meant referrals were often redundant and off-target.

Enter Ellie Krug and Call for Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the Justice Gap through two initiatives: the aforementioned 2-1-1 partnership and the innovative Legal Liaison Program. Ellie was kind of enough to speak with me a few weeks ago to discuss Call for Justice, the 2-1-1 partnership, and increasing access to justice through collaboration.

The 2-1-1 Partnership

When the 2-1-1 partnership began, Ellie’s mission was to train lay folks with little legal knowledge so they were able to accurately assess a caller’s situation and direct them to the best available resources. She hypothesized that a small increase in legal knowledge would massively increase 2-1-1’s efficiency and efficacy. Ellie held training sessions for the call operators, bringing in speakers from non-profits and legal services providers. This strategy not only trained the call operators, but also fostered collaboration between United Way and additional legal services providers and non-profits, growing the referral database.

The trainings and networking were an enormous success. Now, operators are able to make at least one primary and one back-up referral. The primary referral is often an in-person service such as court-based lawyer for the day projects, while the secondary referral is a static resource, such as a website.

Our friends at LawHelpMN have served as a key cog in this process. With LawHelpMN, people in need of legal assistance can go online at 3AM and get legal information, resources, and referrals when they are in crisis. After the partnership began, referrals to LawHelpMN increased 800%!*

The Legal Liaison Program

Over the past few years, Call for Justice has continued to grow as a facilitator with the innovative Legal Liaison Program (LLP). The LLP increases collaboration through facilitating communication between normally unconnected groups. Ellie highlighted the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit that helps single mothers escape poverty, which was adopted by two law firms. The firms provide legal assistance and work with Jeremiah’s life coaches to employ a holistic approach to serving clients. For example, life coaches can explain legalese and help the clients understand how legal developments will affect their lives. Thanks to this collaboration, clients are able to get a variety of services from “one” provider, increasing their ability to escape from poverty. To facilitate such collaboration LLP hosts two-hour meetings, with one hour devoted to a Speed Networking Program. It’s kind of like speed dating, but for networking! Attendees go around the room briefly explaining their programs and exchanging business cards, exposing providers to opportunities and laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

The Expanding Future

Building on this incredible record of success, Ellie hopes to take the 2-1-1 model to a national audience. Just as a small investment made a big difference in Minnesota, so too can it across the country. Ellie says the key is relationship building – or what she refers to as “Nonprofit 101.” She sees relationships as the key to Call for Justice’s success and says that innovators must develop connections with a variety of stakeholders including law firms, court personnel, social services agencies, and the media. In Minnesota the LLP is smoothing this process and helping organizations develop crucial connections to expand their reach. With these relationships in hand, legal services providers, community based organizations, and other non-profits will be able to replicate the amazing, collaborative success of Call to Justice and United 2-1-1 across the country.

*Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the effects of the partnership on LawHelpMN. LawHelpMN received an 800% increase in referrals not overall traffic. 

About the Series

Richard Zorza, one of the founders and leaders of the access to justice (ATJ) movement, recently received the American Bar Association’s 2014 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access’ Lifetime Achievement Honor for decades of work on behalf of self-represented litigants. Not to be outdone, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators passed a Resolution of Recognition “express[ing] their deep appreciation to Richard Zorza for his thoughtful, unique, and dedicated service, loyal support and guidance, and for his unfailing commitment to improving the state courts of this nation, and the Conferences extend to him their best wishes for the future.” Richard was at the Open Society Institute with Mark O’Brien and Michael Hertz when they formed Pro Bono Net, and had a profound influence on our founding and development. As we approach our 15th anniversary, we would like to extent our deepest gratitude and thanks for his tremendous guidance. I recently spoke with Richard, and we are excited to produce this five-part installment from that discussion. Our final post focuses on the future of the ATJ movement. And of course, read more of Richard’s always fascinating thoughts on his Access to Justice blog.

Where to Now?

After covering the successes and struggles of the access to justice movement, I asked Richard where we go from here. What are the areas to focus on and how can we build on our successes and respond to emerging areas of need? As we conclude Speaking with the Master, I encourage everyone to think about what Richard has said and share where they think we need to go next (and why).

Richard highlighted the non-lawyer initiatives in New York and the work that Judge Fern Fisher and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman have done to highlight access to justice issues and encourage experimental efforts to close the justice gap. He has heard very positive reports and thinks that if they continue to go well, such initiatives will “spread like wildfire” and quickly become the norm across the country. In addition, he mentioned Bonne Hough’s work in California to increase the California courts’ responsiveness to pro se litigants and ensure that all litigants, not just those affluent enough to afford counsel, receive fair and equitable treatment. It is important that we consider what we can to do provide help – not just legal assistance, but help – to the millions who interact with the complicated court system every year. Richard stressed the importance of broadening our horizons and continuing to look for innovative solutions, both technologically and conceptually. Almost every great idea was once considered crazy and unrealistic.

Of course, some traditional solutions are incredibly effective (eat your veggies!) and Richard said that non-lawyer programs must be paired with efforts to increase the supply of lawyers working to meet the ever-growing demand for legal services. As discussed previously on this blog, the economic theory of supply and demand is not an accurate description of the issues facing the legal profession and the justice system. America has both an oversupply of lawyers and an unmet demand for legal services. We must encourage more young lawyers to help increase access to justice and make it economically sustainable for them to do so.

Lastly, Richard pointed to the importance of ongoing research assessing the size of the justice gap, where it is most prevalent, and what remedies are most effective. In the early years of the movement, research was too often neglected, but thankfully that has begun to change. Increased research leads to increase knowledge, which leads to the efficient resource allocation necessary for effective resource utilization, and finally the narrowing of the justice gap (it is like the path to the Dark Side, only the exact opposite).

And on that wonderful joke, I am going to conclude Speaking with the Master. I want to thank Richard Zorza for his generosity and time, and all of you for continuing for bearing with me as I repeatedly expanded this series. Personally, I blame Richard for being too interesting and insightful, but I understand if others feel differently.