This weekend as we celebrate our Independence Day, we should remember that our country was founded on the principles of freedom and justice. However, for millions of Americans access to justice is still beyond reach. Pro Bono Net seeks to increase access to justice through innovative technology solutions and expertise in building and mobilizing justice networks.
This May, the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice at New York University School of Law held its fifth annual Law School Access to Justice Conference. This year the conference focused on the role of New York’s law schools in helping meet the essential civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers. Michelle Born, LiveHelp Coordinator for LawHelp NY, attended for the first time this year and discusses her experience below.
As I sat in the auditorium full of law school administrators and legal service providers at my first Annual Law School Access to Justice Conference, I anticipated a long day of theoretical discussions about diversifying the profession and getting law schools more involved in access to justice initiatives in New York State. Imagine my interest and surprise when the first panel of the morning, comprised exclusively of women in leadership roles in academia, government, legal services, and the judiciary, quickly turned to issues of implicit bias among judges and stereotype threat in classrooms.
Questions of racism, sexism, heterosexism and transphobia undergirded the discussion, even as the panel tackled such academic questions as how to preserve students’ interest in impact litigation amid the lure of the more immediate results of what is oft-termed rebellious lawyering. (In response, panelist Suzanne Goldberg challenged the dichotomy, believing that these two approaches to social change are not mutually exclusive and that the interplay of the two are, in fact, the hallmark of most social movements.)
As we moved from the morning panel into working groups, we homed in on the more pragmatic questions of how to efficiently deliver legal services to underserved and difficult to reach populations, and how to best engage students in narrowing the justice gap.
Pro Bono Net’s work was prominently featured in several arenas. In the small working group focusing on New Models for Cost Effective Legal Service Delivery, Leah Margulies of LawHelpNY/PBN highlighted as examples of such models three exciting ProBonoNet initiatives: LiveHelp chat service of LawHelpNY, the DEN (Debt and Eviction Navigator) application, and Closing the Gap. Participating in the working group on Non-Lawyers Working to Help Narrow the Justice Gap, Niki De Mel, Pro Bono and Special Initiatives Coordinator for Pro Bono Net, and Michelle had occasion to discuss LiveHelp, DEN and other PBN initiatives while emphasizing the appropriate use of technology and non-lawyers in increasing access to justice, not replacing traditional legal services. To wrap up the day, ProBonoNet’s technical design work was on display as attendees were offered a preview of the online Handbook of Best Practices for Supervising Law Student Pro Bono Work.
As a newbee to the conference and the LawHelpNY/PBN team, I was energized by the dedication of the practitioners whose work we strive to support and the academics whose students we have the privilege to engage.
Michelle joined LawHelp as the LiveHelp Coordinator in September 2015. She worked as an Immigration Attorney at The Bronx Defenders after receiving her J.D. from CUNY School of Law. Before law school Michelle worked in Arica, Chile as a social worker with Jesuit Volunteers International, and in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina as an International Development Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. Michelle also worked in grant-writing for Human Rights Watch and recruitment for Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Michelle holds a Master’s degree in International Development from Fordham University and a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from St. Louis University.
 The panel was composed of the following women:
Deborah N. Archer, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion & Professor of Law; Co-Director, Impact Center for Public Interest Law; Director, Racial Justice Project, New York Law School
Jennifer Ching, Project Director, Queens Legal Services, Legal Services NYC
Hon. Fern Fisher, Director, New York State Courts Access to Justice Programs; Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts
Suzanne B. Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life; Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law; Director, Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, Columbia Law School
Maya Wiley, Counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, City of New York