October 2014

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net is highlighting innovative and inspirational pro bono stories.Visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn more about Celebrate Pro Bono.

Below, we are pleased to provide an overview of MassProBono, one of our biggest projects of the past year.

In the late 1990s, in the midst of the technology boom, the legal aid community in Massachusetts sat down to talk about the need for statewide websites. They planned to have three websites: MassLegalServices, to support legal aid advocates; MassLegalHelp, to provide general legal information to the public; and MassProBono, to connect private attorneys to volunteer opportunities. MassLegalServices and MassLegalHelp were built into successful sites over the years. While the URL for MassProBono was reserved, the site never came to fruition.

MassProBono, a site 15 years in the making, launched in late April. Barbara Siegel, Project Manager at the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, discussed with us the history behind the site and the exciting plans for how it will bolster legal services in the Commonwealth.

Three years ago, legal aid coordinators from across the state began meeting together again after a long hiatus. The renewed idea for MassProBono grew out of these conversations, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) received a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation to help the idea finally become a reality. Pro Bono Net was the natural choice to help build the site. While Massachusetts has a strong existing legal services network, MassProBono will fill a critical void in pro bono needs, efficiently matching volunteer lawyers with legal services organizations across the state.

The site is also a product of coordination with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), which for years has maintained a pro bono opportunities guide that lists organizations needing volunteers. However, the MBA was using an antiquated listing system and agreed to collaborate with VLP on an Opportunities Guide for MassProBono that will encompass all existing listings from the decommissioned MBA guide.

The new MassProBono site will serve primarily to match pro bono volunteers with opportunities. “It’s giving pro bono programs a forum where they can be very visible to a wide population,” explained Siegel. “The other side of that,” she noted, “is letting people out there who are interested in pro bono really see the wide array of what is available and the different ways that they might be able to volunteer based on their background and how much time they have.” Like other Pro Bono Net sites, MassProBono also raises awareness of the need for pro bono and highlights the great work that the legal community is undertaking.

MassProBono strives to involve organizations from across the state. The Greater Boston area is typically well served thanks to easy access to a large legal community; however, other areas of the state have the potential to gain great benefits from the new site. Siegel explained that the site also makes geography less of a barrier through online mentoring functions and pooled resources.

In addition to an attractive new layout, Pro Bono Net developed several exciting features for the Massachusetts site. Resources can now be directly submitted to the site library using an email form, allowing for easier and more efficient sharing. The site also features a new projects tool that allows volunteers to find short-term pro bono opportunities such as walk-in legal clinics. This tool grew out of a shift in the pro bono field towards more unbundled and limited assistance representation. The availability of these short-term opportunities has proliferated and the projects tool on MassProBono will connect volunteers with limited available time to these projects. The opportunities guide for the site has also been integrated with the projects and cases tools, allowing members to quickly discover all available opportunities.

The launch of the site was met with excitement from the Massachusetts legal community. Programs that are not already tied into the legal community were particularly eager to begin utilizing the new site, according to Siegel. These programs are now able to connect with the greater pro bono community in Massachusetts and gain access to the wealth of available resources. On the other side of the equation, lawyers in the community are also excited about the new site – particularly those not employed by large firms. “A lot of pro bono is done by people in small firms and people who are unemployed and they don’t have access to a pro bono coordinator who will give them a list of opportunities,” said Siegel. “I’m really excited about what the site can do for those folks.”

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences.Visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn more about Celebrate Pro Bono.

Below, we are pleased to present a guest post from Audrey Roofeh, the Training and Technical Assistance Director at Polaris and a Pro Bono Net partner on the Human Trafficking Legal Access Center.

Audrey Roofeh
Audrey Roofeh

Since 2011, I’ve worked at Polaris, a leading non-profit organization in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors. When I started, I worked at the hotline that we operate, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Every day, we got calls from people living in trafficking situations across the country, looking for help. Sometimes it would be a farmworker whose boss seized his passport, wouldn’t pay him for his work and told him if he left he’d get busted by immigration authorities. Other times the call would come from a brave teenager who’d had enough of her abusive pimp and wanted to find a way out of the life. There were all sorts of calls in between, from women held in domestic servitude, young men in traveling sales crews, and others.

What I learned from these calls was that a lot of the time what a survivor of human trafficking is looking for involves the help of a good lawyer. Many survivors of trafficking work without getting paid and need help seeking back wages. Some are from foreign countries and, despite being trafficked in the U.S., want to stay here and need help applying for immigration remedies like a T or U visa. Others have rap sheets with prostitution-related crimes on their record – arrests that happened while they were victims of sex trafficking – and want to have those convictions vacated so they can move on with their life.

What I’ve seen at Polaris is that the legal needs of trafficking survivors have a wide range, from the above issues to family law, juvenile justice, and even tax issues, calling for various kinds of legal expertise. When we’re able to connect a survivor of trafficking to an attorney who can help right a wrong, those attorneys work to empower survivors to build a strong, sustainable life after their trafficking situation. Seeing that survivors of trafficking get pro bono legal assistance is a great feeling.

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences.Visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn more about Celebrate Pro Bono.

Below, we are pleased to present a guest post from Malorie Medellin, a third year associate at Latham & Watkins.

Malorie Medellin
Malorie Medellin

Like all new associates, I was nervous when I began my legal career three years ago. My own insecurities in my first real job made each assignment difficult. In order to avoid my discomforts and self-doubts I focused on working hard and completing each task quickly and thoroughly. I pursued my work in a discrete, obligatory manner, addressing the issues at hand and moving on. My focus was the finish line.

Then I took on my first asylum case. I had no idea when I volunteered to work on this case that it would become such a formative milestone for me. It was a new type of law with a new type of client. I was not dealing with a contractual dispute or commercial litigant, instead my client was a young man who had endured unspeakable hardship and was trying to stay in the United States. With this case, the finish line seemed uncertain, and that uncertainty left ample room for fear and anxiety.

It was then that I realized my self-doubts and fears affected my ability to truly be present in the moment. True, I had always worked hard on every task on every case, but mentally a part of me always pined for that moment of completion. With this case I saw for the first time that the part of me holding out for the finish line, was affecting my ability to cope in the present and, more importantly, to truly be there for my client.

Releasing myself from this mentality enabled me to reach my greatest potential as a lawyer. Overcoming my insecurities allowed me to face all possible outcomes. I realized that staying present sometimes meant sitting and listening to my client’s story—allowing them to get it all out without trying to skip steps or jump to conclusions. It meant that I might not always have an answer right away, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t seek out the answer effectively.

Most of all, my asylum case has taught me about endurance—the calm and steady kind that gets you through anything. My client has taught me how to be courageous, how to be present in the face of your fears and not turn away. So now, I don’t just focus on the finish line, I look around, I take it in, and I am present. And I rest easy knowing that no matter what the outcome, I will be there for my client every step of the way.

There are over 4,000 online forms on LawHelp Interactive, the largest national online document assembly platform designed specifically to meet the needs of low-income communities and the legal aid providers that serve them.

Forms are available in various areas of law and for a range of audiences. By and large, family law is the area with the greatest number of interviews posted and documents assembled. For example, in looking at the most recent quarter of statistics, from June to September 2014, 135,459 interviews were done in the family law area (excluding guardianship/conservatorship), compared to 12,408 housing forms, another area of great need for help and forms.

However, when diving in and looking at the numbers more carefully, it is striking to see that there are not a lot of domestic violence pleadings posted in LHI. This comes as a surprise, since all states have a uniform domestic violence form instead of forms that vary county by county, and the many benefits to survivors of being able to ask for protection from outside a courthouse from safe locations..

Divorce forms account for approximately 40% of resources and assemblies in LHI. Divorce and separation and annulments, including debt relief make up about 54,000 of all the assemblies during this period (out of 135,549 totals). Compared to this, DV form assemblies (at 19,214) make up only 14% and  pale in comparison. However, when diving in and looking at each state, there are some states that are having enormous success in the utilization of their DV and protection online forms; in these states the courts have whole-heartedly embraced online forms as part of their self-help strategies online and in brick and mortar self-help centers.

In New York, the NY Courts through their DIY form initiatives are seeing good use of their online form interviews that help survivors obtain protection orders. In fact, in New York DV protection order document creation via LHI is almost at par with Divorce/Separation/Annulment. In New York, 4391 Orders of Protection were created from June to September 2014. This success is mostly due to the e-filing initiative that was piloted out of the Bronx County self-help center which has now expanded to all judicial districts in New York and is part of a collaboration between Safe Horizon, Pro Bono Net, and other partners to make the forms available to survivors at self-help center with the assistance of trained advocates.

In Minnesota, also the home of an innovate e-filing project, a 1,612 forms were created for DV survivors in the 3rd quarter of 2014. In August 2014, the Minnesota Courts restarted an e-filing pilot that allows survivors to file DV protection requests through the Minnesota MyCourts page. This pilot recently won a State Innovation Award from the Humphrey School of Public Policy. Over 680 harassment petitions and orders for protection have been filed at the Hennepin County self-help center through the pilot.

Another state that is seeing great utilization of online forms is California. In California, the courts are using online forms in self-help centers that provide services in person with the Riverside Self-Help Center providing assistance online. During this period, over 6,700 DV assemblies were created (34% of all family law documents created across the state). The bulk of these assemblies come from Riverside County. In January 2014 they started making the online forms available for filing through faxing using the LHI platform to let survivors access the forms online from safe shelters, police departments, and other locations. Part of this volume is also explained by the partnership between Neighborhood Legal Services in Los Angeles and the LA Superior Courts through the Domestic Violence Self-Help Assistance project (DASH)—which has been allowing survivors to create protection orders and file them in person at over 5 self-help centers for years.

The benefits of providing online DV forms are many. DV forms are a natural form to automate given that as mentioned before there are statewide DV forms available in each state. So instead of having to create county-by-county forms—a legal aid or court wanting to automate a form could create a statewide form with the same level of effort. Once a form is available online either through select self-help centers or survivors assistance projects, the form could be e-filed from any safe location, as NY courts and Minnesota Courts are doing. For survivors, who generally are working under difficult financial conditions, often are afraid of running into the abuser in person, and might be trying to protect their children, and keep their home safe while living in danger, avoiding the trip to the court is an amazing improvement. They can ask for their protection form from a shelter (as they do in Idaho, Los Angeles and surrounding counties and Riverside), they can do it a police station with the help of a trained officer or with the help of survivors services, or at a DOJ Justice Center (as they do in Los Angeles), or they can do it from a library, or a virtual self-help center, as they do it in Arkansas or Washington State.

October is DV awareness month. Legal nonprofits and those working on Access to Justice need to consider making easy-to-use online DV pleadings available to their communities. Working with courts to accept the pleadings produced, and promoting the forms so that shelter workers, and other survivor advocates can access the forms and help survivors complete them, can go a long way in protecting a life.  Survivors should not be required to take time off from work and spend an entire day to get the benefits of a protection order. Access to Justice should be reachable from anywhere at anytime, including after hours. Incorporating e-fillable self-help friendly forms into survivor advocacy projects and working in partnership with providers that already work with these groups, including civil legal aid non profits, will go a long way in removing some of the difficulties and barriers when they need to figure out how to protect themselves, their children, and their homes.

Pro Bono Net is pleased to announced our partnerships and celebrations surrounding the 2014 National Celebrate Pro Bono Week (October 19 – 25). National Celebrate Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increasing need for pro bono and acknowledges the dedication and unprecedented response of attorneys who volunteer their services throughout the year.  Pro Bono Net, a national non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to justice for the disadvantaged through innovative uses of technology, collaboration, and volunteer mobilization, joins this week long celebration to salute the work of volunteer lawyers across the country who help low-income people achieve access to justice.

Pro Bono Net is proud to have partnered with the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service on the 2014 Celebrate Pro Bono website (www.celebrateprobono.org). Lawyers, law students, and paralegals interested in volunteering can find organizations in Pro Bono Net’s national opportunities guide (http://www.probono.net/oppsguide/) and training events on the Pro Bono Net Calendar (http://www.probono.net/calendar/). As part of the celebration this year Pro Bono Net is excited to once again present a series of blog posts gathered from members of the legal community on our blog Connecting Justice Communities (www.probono.net/blog).

This year we will welcome guest bloggers from the entire spectrum of the legal profession, including volunteers and pro bono professionals from nonprofits, corporations, private law firms and public interest law firms. Our contributors include Audrey Roofeh, Polaris Project; Stacy Lefkowitz, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Inc; Nura Maznavi, American Bar Association; Malorie Medellin, Latham & Watkins LLP; Jillian Theil, Pro Bono Net; and several others in the pro bono community. These posts will appear on the blog starting during Celebrate Pro Bono Week and into early November.

Pro Bono Net will be participating in events and celebrations around the Week, including a joint-webinar with LSNTAP on technological innovations in pro bono delivery, and is pleased to join in acknowledging the legal profession’s commitment to pro bono work. Pro Bono Net’s online platform, at www.probono.net, makes it easy for attorneys to get involved in pro bono work, saving them time and connecting them with opportunities, training events, mentors, and searchable libraries of practice resources they won’t find anywhere else.

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net and LSNTAP partnered to produce a pre-Celebrate Pro Bono Week webinar on innovations in technology-enabled pro bono. Moderated by Adam Friedl of Pro Bono Net, the webinar presented examples of new innovations in technology to support pro bono, as well as tips on how to make these technologies more effective and helpful for pro bono programs.

Paul Haidle, Director of the Volunteer Attorney Program at New Mexico Legal Aid, kicked off the presentations by discussing their virtual legal fair, in which attorneys gather at a central hub and connect with clients in rural areas using Skype. Additionally, Haidle explained steps to developing a successful rural clinic and technology considerations for a virtual clinic.

Next, Ric Morgan, a private attorney, and Beth Anderson of Johnson & Associates, covered a virtual pro se clinic concept – free monthly clinic(s) at public libraries across Colorado that link parties without an attorney to counsel over the Internet – and a sample plan for implementing such a concept.

Tony Lu, Product Manager at Immigration Advocates Network, then described work being done on Citizenshipworks 2.0. Citizenshipworks 2.0 is a project currently in development that utilizes expert systems, online forms, contextual information, and video/web chat to connect those seeking US Citizenship to the appropriate pro bono resources.

Afterwards, Brian Houghton, Litigations Projects Manager at Law Help Ontario demoed LHO’s ticket system to manage their remote assistance project, as well as considerations for undertaking such a project.

Lastly, Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net concluded the webinar with a discussion of online forms and e-filing projects in the legal aid community.

While this was the final LSNTAP/PBN webinar of 2014, be sure to check out LSNTAP.org for additional information about upcoming online trainings. Materials from this and other webinars in this series are available on the SWEB Support Site.

Russ Randle
Russ Randle

A few months ago, we highlighted Squire Patton Boggs’ innovative pro bono model, the Public Service Initiative. Today we’re happy to report on another of Squire Patton Boggs’ pro bono successes: the ongoing restoration of the Anacostia River. Beginning in 2005, Russ Randle (then of Patton Boggs) began working with DC Appleseed on the rehabilitation of the Anacostia River following years of degradation through sewage runoff and storm overflows. The river lost the ability to cleanse itself and had become a danger to the community and environment.

On September 16th, DC Appleseed celebrated its 20th Anniversary and as part of the celebration honored Squire Patton Boggs (and others!) for its work supporting DC’s revitalization, in particular the Anacostia River Restoration. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Russ about Squire Patton Boggs’ work on the restoration and his work with DC Appleseed over the past 9 years.

Working with DC Appleseed and the National Resources Defense Council, Patton Boggs initially focused on a series of projects setting standards for the Anacostia Water Development Zone. The standards were among the most advanced in the country and eventually became a template for the EPA’s Storm Water Development plan. Subsequently, Russ led a group of pro bono attorneys from Patton Boggs, Covington & Burling, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges on a report examining regulatory and legal accomplishments in the restoration and identifying remaining gaps and how to fill them. (For a great summary of the report, watch Brooke DeRenzis of DC Appleseed and Russ present on it!)

The report highlighted that restoration would improve recreation and natural wildlife in the surrounding areas and eventually lead to a swimmable and fishable river. In addition, the implementation of green infrastructure would produce new jobs and business opportunities in economically struggling Northeast and Southeast Washington, D.C. In addition, it recommended that a partnership between the Federal and local governments on cleanup (at $2 local for every $ federal) and to focus on incentivizing the retrofitting of waterfront homes through tax credits and waterfront commercial properties through tax relief (e.g. property taxes) and streamlined permitting. Many toxins, including legacy toxins from decades old discharges (that are hence not covered under the Clean Water Act), pollute the river, creating ecological concerns and serving as a potential danger to the local community.

These toxins are especially problematic for fishing and this potential danger was of particular concern to Russ. While working on the report, he was particularly struck by the widespread consumption of fish from the Anacostia River despite the numerous signs and notices warning against it. Warnings are ineffective for those with food security concerns and they are also often the most vulnerable if they get sick. Since the report, Squire Patton Boggs has focused its efforts on toxin and sediment cleanup, working through the District Department of the Environment and on legislation from the DC Council.

Russ’ work with DC Appleseed was a continuation of a career full of pro bono and environmental work. Inspired by his time with the Scouts, Russ went to law school so he could work in environmental law. His wealth of experience from paid matters has made him uniquely situated to assist with pro bono environmental causes, for example identifying less commonly used legal strategies. In addition to working with Appleseed since 2005, Russ has represented asylum seekers, worked on human rights in Sudan and South Sudan, and helped incorporate and obtain the tax emption for the League of Conservation Voters’s 501(3) education arm in 1984.

Last month Pro Bono Net and LSNTAP took the legal community back to school with the 50 Tech Tips webinar. Xander Karsten, the LawHelp Program Coordinator here at Pro Bono Net, moderated the webinar. I suppose one could say he was the principal! The lesson plan covered website launches, productivity and efficiency enhancers, and data analysis and visualization with some general purpose tips thrown in for fun.

Kim Marhsall, Content Developer & Project Manager at Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, kicked things off by highlighting some efficiency enhancing services and apps. My personal favorites were the speed-reading app Spritz (and for PDFs readsy), the language teacher Duolingo, and word finders such as One Look and Tip of My Tongue.

Tony Lu, Citizenship Works Project Coordinator at the Immigration Advocates Network, augmented Kim’s presentation with a focus on general productivity tools. For collaborative project management he recommended Trello and for those times when you’re in a loud office and need to focus, check out Noisli or Simply Noise.

Coming off his recent partnership with Pro Bono Net on OlmsteadRights.org Talley Wells, the Disability Integration Project Director at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, gave some tips for launching a website. Talley’s central tip was to plan, plan plan! Make sure you know what is and, maybe more importantly, what is not possible and think about the site from a user perspective. A good best practice is to have a soft launch and audit your site for accessibility before and after as users find bugs and other issues. In addition, Brian recommended the LSNTAP Guide on accessibility and the Wave.WebAIM tool.

Jessie Posilkin, the Training and Implementation Specialist at LSC, concluded the webinar with some fantastic tips on data analysis and visualization. For those just starting out, she recommended Tuva Labs and School of Data as great resources to learn how to use and display data compellingly. For a bit more advanced work she highlighted SQL School as a great place to learn database querying.

The webinar lived up to the hype and is a great resource for anyone looking for simple (and powerful!) tech tips and hacks. Materials are available on the SWEB Support Site and join us for the next LSNTAP/PBN webinar, Innovations in technology-enabled pro bono!