December 2014

This year, Pro Bono Net celebrated our 15th Anniversary. As we reflect back on the past 15 years, we caught up with a few individuals who were critical to our early growth and development. Below is an interview with Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net Program Director. 

Pro Bono Net: Tell us about your time and role at Pro Bono Net?

Liz Keith: I’m approaching a decade with Pro Bono Net.Liz Keith That sounds like long time, and in some ways it is! But PBN and the communities we work with are incredibly dynamic. I’ve never stopped learning along the way, and have had opportunities to work on and develop a wide variety of projects over the years. I started as a Circuit Rider, helping our partner organizations around the country develop their LawHelp.org and probono.net initiatives. My role has expanded since then. I’m still very involved in those efforts, but now oversee our strategies and services across our programs.

PBN: What drew you to working here?

LK: I came to Pro Bono Net after completing a self-tailored masters degree in community informatics at the University of Michigan, focused on public interest applications of technology. Before that I had worked for several years at the Maine Women’s Policy Center, where I helped to coordinate advocacy and community outreach initiatives focusing on economic security, freedom from violence, health care, and civil rights. In Maine I had a chance to work on several novel initiatives that used online tools to support participation of rural and under-represented communities in policy formation, as well as educating women about changes in the law.

Finding Pro Bono Net was a little like finding a needle in a haystack. It combined my interests in access to legal information, community engagement, and creating innovative solutions to help people in need. The fact that Pro Bono Net is not just a technology provider was also attractive. It’s equally invested in improving collaboration in the legal sector, and supporting our partners in developing effective content, outreach, and sustainability strategies. At the time there very few nonprofit organizations working across these areas – and we’re still pretty unique in that way. The national scale of PBN’s work was an added draw.

PBN: What have been the most exciting changes to observe as the organization has grown?

LK: The most striking is probably the transformation in how the communities we work with view technology. In my first few years I did a lot of site visits to our field partners. The local project coordinator and I would do outreach presentations about LawHelp.org and probono.net to legal aid program staff, community groups, law schools, and so on. Invariably, about 10 minutes into a workshop, someone would raise their hand and say, “all of these online legal resources are great, but do low-income clients really have access to the Internet?” It was a valid question at the time, and a digital divide still persists in certain areas, so part of our strategy has always been to work with community anchor institutions that help the public access LawHelp.org. But these days, we’re hearing questions like, “these online resources are great, but our clients are asking if they can apply for services online or e-file forms through LawHelp Interactive.” Some of that change relates to how much more interwoven technology is with our daily lives now, but evaluations of PBN’s programs and training initiatives show that we’ve played a key role in helping to grow the capacity of the field in taking innovative approaches to client services and volunteer mobilization. Some of the most exciting ideas I hear these days come from people who once described themselves as Luddites. In our consumer-facing work, we’ve also expanded our longtime focus on plain language to include other critical areas like language access. Another exciting development has been the growth of our immigration work, via the Immigration Advocates Network, from a small pilot to a major national initiative using innovative technology and collaboration to tackle complex issues and expand legal services for low-income immigrants.

PBN: What are you most proud of from your time at Pro Bono Net?

LK: I think Hurricane Katrina was a galvanizing moment for Pro Bono Net as an organization and me personally on certain levels. I had done a site visit to New Orleans just a few months before. The impact of Katrina was so widespread it became apparently very quickly that the affected communities, particularly low-income ones, would be dealing with legal issues stemming from the disaster for years to come. We were still a small organization at the time, but were able to mobilize quickly to assist our partners in the region with certain immediate needs, and then in leveraging their LawHelp.org and probono.net projects to deliver critical information to the public and help coordinate response efforts by legal aid staff and volunteers. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to support the work of incredibly dedicated advocates and programs throughout the Gulf Coast in the wake of that event. Since then, I’ve worked with other partners on efforts that use our programs to help people recover from crises – whether natural or industrial disasters, like the BP oil spill or the 2008 economic recession. It’s gratifying to see how our programs can help people get a foothold out of crisis, support the work of legal aid practitioners and volunteers, and advance our partners’ own goals on the ground.

Also – and I can’t take credit for this, but I’m not sure where else it fits in this interview! – I’m really proud of PBN’s staff. They are incredibly talented, committed and deeply engaged in the work we do and supporting our collaborations around the country. They’re also a lot of fun. You can see how we like to spend our spare time in Jake’s summer 2014 round-up.

PBN: Where is Pro Bono Net going over the next 15 years, how will our role change, and how will the second 15 years be different from the first 15?

LK: The only constant is change, right? I think our core mission and approach – developing innovative, sustainable solutions for expanding access to justice – will be a constant. I also think we’ll continue to focus largely on solutions that are scalable and replicable and can have widespread impact, not just one-off projects. That said, I see PBN becoming even more of an incubator, and creating spaces for our staff and partners to develop, test, and learn from small-scale projects. I think increasingly we will mix and match our own technology platforms with cutting-edge commercial tools or innovations in the start-up space. I also see us getting more involved in designing and delivering direct services in certain contexts. We do this now through CitizenshipWorks.org and a few other projects, but other examples might include developing and managing a large-scale remote volunteer initiative for underserved communities, or designing new programs that engage many more non-attorneys and non-legal organizations in access to justice. Looking ahead, I’d love to see us leverage the “network” nature of Pro Bono Net even more – how can we connect the hundreds of public interest organizations and thousands of volunteers in our network in new and creative ways to match resources to needs? And how can we connect individuals facing life-altering issues with these groups, and to each other, in ways that not only solve their immediate problem, but also provide information and resources that have an enduring positive impact on whole communities?

PBN: What are some examples of innovative technologies we hope to support/help develop in the next few years to close the justice gap?

LK: I’m glad you’re not asking me to look 15 years ahead on this one! In the near term, I’m excited about the new capacities we’re building into the next generation of LawHelp Interactive and CitizenshipWorks. On LHI, this includes creating a more scalable platform to better support the creative and diverse ways that legal aid programs, courts, libraries, shelters, and others want to use it. And CitizenshipWorks 2.0 will include new remote consultation tools to bring naturalization legal assistance to smaller and rural communities where resources are scarce. We’re also exploring expansion possibilities for the Debt and Eviction Navigator (aka DEN), a tablet-based screening tool that is used by social workers and nurses to assess the legal needs of the homebound elderly. DEN guides the social workers through a series of questions to conduct consumer and housing “legal health check-ups” for the seniors and then direct them to sources of help. It’s part of a national trend toward partnering with non-legal organizations and lay advocates in solutions for closing the justice gap. I think supportive tools like DEN have a lot of promise, particularly when they draw on the incredibly rich information and referral resources on LawHelp.org sites. We’re also expanding our mobile strategies through several LawHelp.org and probono.net projects. So, a lot to look forward to. Stay tuned to Connecting Justice Communities for updates!

This year, Pro Bono Net celebrated our 15th Anniversary. As we reflect back on the past 15 years, we caught up with a few individuals who were critical to our early growth and development. Below is an interview with Michael Cooper, Pro Bono Net Founding Board Chair. His understanding of the justice gap and support for new ideas were critical during Pro Bono Net’s early years. Mr. Cooper continues to sit on the Pro Bono Net board, and we are very grateful for his continued passion for our mission. 

Pro Bono Net: How did you first become involved with Pro Bono Net?

Michael Cooper: My recollection is that, as I was finishing up a term as President of the New York City Bar Association around May of 2000, Mark and Michael just asked to meet with me. I didn’t know either one of them— I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know anything about them.  But they just asked to meet with me and I said sure.

Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper accepting his award for dedicated service to Pro Bono Net as the Founding Board Chair.

They described their concept of facilitating the connection between the users of legal services and the providers of those services, whether they be lawyers in private practice or the Legal Aid Society or any other organization. And I’m a luddite, I do use the laptop, but I don’t have an iPhone, I don’t have an iPad – I’m really not technology-oriented. But I have devoted a lot of thought, for a long time, to the justice gap.

I guess it was just before I became President of the City Bar in the late 90s, Chief Judge Judith Kaye asked me to chair a task force to try and find permanent funding for legal services. I don’t remember the names of many of the people from the task force, but we got this idea, which I thought was brilliant, to tap the Abandoned Property Fund.  In New York, because there are lots of bank accounts, insurance policies, and dividends that don’t get claimed, this fund is $300 million a year. So we said okay, let’s assign $25 million a year to legal services, and we drafted a statute. I went up to Albany with this idea, and I went to see the Governor’s Secretary and he said, “That’s a really good idea why don’t you go to see the Senate Majority leader.”  So I went to see his Chief of Staff, and he said, “Well that’s a very good idea, see how it strikes the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver.”  So I went to see Sheldon Silver and he said, “That’s a very good idea, why don’t you run it by the governor.”  And then I realized I was never going to get anywhere.

So I had this awareness of the gap and frustration with efforts to fill it.  Although I’m not technology-savvy, I intuited that Pro Bono Net had an idea that was potentially invaluable. If you can’t diminish the needs, and they never seem to diminish, and you can’t increase the resources, then you have to make them connect more effectively. So intuitively, I said this is a great idea and I signed up. They asked me if I would be the Board Chair, I signed on, and then it just grew.  I looked away and then looked back and all of a sudden there were two new national sites, and other great leaps.

PBN: How was Pro Bono Net different from the other legal services organizations you had been involved with?

MC: The other legal services organizations that I knew, they all gathered lawyers together, but they basically were providing or arranging for the provision of the service – they were only one part of the equation. The genius of Pro Bono Net was that it connected both parts, originally through probono.net and LawHelp, and then we had this dramatic incident – the World Trade Center attack.  Pro Bono Net created a site for volunteer lawyers, there were more than 2,000 of them at the City Bar, who were willing to help but didn’t know how to find people in need.  Then it has gone on to create sites for Katrina, the tornadoes, and Sandy. That was a very dramatic example of this new concept of using technology to bring together the consumers and the providers.

PBN: How has Pro Bono Net evolved over the years?

MC: It seems like it grew up without my being aware of it. Gradually it accumulated more and more state sites, and two sites in Canada. I have been very interested the relationships that Pro Bono Net has established with the courts, in New York and elsewhere. There’s a huge potential for having a simple work station in a court house where somebody can get help.

PBN: As someone who is not a big technology user, could you discuss how you knew technology could have a powerful effect?

MC: I intuited it. I sensed that there was immeasurable potential there. But I didn’t really understand what it could do.

PBN: What role has PBN played in the broader access to justice movement, especially in terms of bringing technology to the movement?

MC: Well, I don’t know of anybody that was promoting the use of technology to bridge the justice gap – it’s really a very apt phrase – before Pro Bono Net. There was growing interest and capability in getting lawyers to volunteer their services, but there was some connector missing. It’s like having a power station in one place and 100,000 consumers with no electricity in another place and no wires between them.  There was no connection, and that’s what Pro Bono Net has provided.

PBN: What has motivated you to stay involved over the past 15 years?

MC: It’s the only organization where I wasn’t present at the birth, but I saw it in the nursery.  I just watched it grow and it has been such a joy to be there from day one and I want to continue.

PBN:  Is there any part of the growth that has surprised you?

MC: The connection with the courts – that may be the one thing that I didn’t see, or didn’t see it happening as fast, but it didn’t surprise me.

PBN: Where do you see Pro Bono Net going in the future?

MC: I think it’s going to be doing more of what it’s doing.  I’m sure that there will be development of additional national sites – take an example of something that’s been recognized fairly recently, so called human trafficking, there will be additional sites as additional needs arise. I suspect that there are still going to be additional states that will want to work with Pro Bono Net as well. Where else it’s going, I just don’t know, but I sure as hell would like to be along for the ride.