Author: Mark O’Brien, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Pro Bono Net
We held a very special event recently to celebrate twenty years of Pro Bono Net. My co-founder Michael Hertz previously wrote about how the idea for Pro Bono Net came about, and as this week is Pro Bono Week, I thought it would be suitable for me to follow up by sharing some of the highlights of our event, and to thank all of our fantastic speakers who took the time to celebrate with us.
Our mission at Pro Bono Net is to increase access to justice for the vulnerable in society through innovative uses of technology and collaboration. While we feel that we have made huge progress on this front in the past twenty years, it was important to us when planning this event to ensure that we use our celebrations to engage our supporters and partners in conversations about new strategies we can use to bring the power of the law to all.
Our first speaker, Lawyer and Disability Rights Advocate, Haben Girma, the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, is inspirational in her belief that “anything can be made accessible.” As she opened her speech, Haben gave us her first example of how the world can be equally accessible to her by taking the time to educate the audience on the technology she uses to help her communicate and to make her aware of audience reactions.
Haben shared with us a number of examples of how she has been able to do things that people assumed she never could, such as dancing or surfing, all because there have been others who have taken steps to remove barriers on her behalf. Haben pointed out that it can be easy for everyone to “choose inclusion” by refusing to accept oppression and instead to advocate for justice and remove barriers for others.
Haben’s message speaks closely to that of Pro Bono Net. We believe that justice is a fundamental human value and we work to ensure that people know and can exercise their rights, have their voice heard, and challenge inequity and discrimination. For that to happen the law and our justice system must be accessible and useable by everyone. We grapple with many different types of accessibility issues related to our use of technology in service of our mission, including literacy, language, culture as well as the issues facing someone like Haben who is deaf and blind. For anyone interested in learning more about Haben I highly recommend you pick up her book “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.”
Following Haben was our panel, “Funding Access to Justice: Can New Innovations in Legal Financing Close the Justice Gap?” facilitated by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin and including panelists Heidi Dorow, Ralph Sutton and Benjamin Elga.
The panel gave us an overview of the legal finance market and discussed why companies access this funding. They also shared with us the many ways in which public impact litigation is funded today and looked at what different models are emerging from various sources of funding, while focusing on the topic of litigation funders. It was a lively exchange on a topic that could be a major innovation for many organizations connected with Pro Bono Net. Finding new capital to support strategic advocacy and public interest litigation could be a game changer.
Our keynote speaker for the evening was Brad Smith, President of Microsoft. We are very grateful to Microsoft, Brad and our board chair Dave Heiner for all of their support over the years and we were delighted that Brad was able to join us for our celebrations.
Brad also spoke about “closing the gap” when it comes to supply and demand in legal services. He shared his thoughts on society and technology, telling us the stories of three people he learned from in the course of researching the digital impact around the world for his book “Tools and Weapons.”
Like Brad, we believe that while technology can and is used by some as a weapon, it is a tool that is a cause for hope. The future of technologies such as artificial intelligence, when combined with groups like Pro Bono Net, who are committed to innovative human and values-centered design practices and are sensitive to the needs of people facing life-changing legal situations, means that technology has the opportunity to close the justice gap in our society.
The evening closed with a Q&A session for Brad moderated by White & Case Chairman Hugh Verrier, with some interesting questions coming from our audience. Thank you to everyone who offered a question throughout the evening and thank you to all of our speakers who kindly took the time to celebrate with us and share your knowledge and stories.
Our board and staff were honored to celebrate twenty years of transforming access to justice on this evening with so many supporters, partners and friends. You all have been an integral part of the work we do and we are very grateful. Please continue to celebrate with us through this anniversary year, and join us in bringing the power of the law to all for the next twenty years!
Thank you again to our Corporate Event Sponsors and all of the supporters who made this event possible.
This blog was originally published on our LinkedIn page. For information and highlights on Pro Bono Net’s 20th Anniversary event, please visit