Pro Bono Net is celebrating twenty years of transforming access to justice. In honor of this milestone, our current Board Chair, Dave Heiner wrote an amazing blog about Pro Bono Net’s relationship with Microsoft. This blog was originally posted on Dave Heiner’s LinkedIn page.
Ten years ago, Mark O’Brien, the Executive Director of Pro Bono Net, came to Microsoft to meet with Brad Smith. (Brad was the general counsel of Microsoft at the time and now is its president.) Mark had a straightforward message: Microsoft ought to get involved in Pro Bono Net’s mission. Mark had co-founded Pro Bono Net a decade earlier because he saw the potential of using the internet to help close the access to justice gap in the United States. Brad could see right away that if that was a good idea in 1999, it was an even better idea in 2009, as the internet had become more powerful and broadly accessible.
Brad asked if I’d be interested in getting involved with Pro Bono Net. I was immediately intrigued. I’d recently read Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, which develops Singer’s ideas for “effective altruism.” For me effective altruism meant putting my legal skills to use to help people who have a legal problem but cannot afford a lawyer. I was focused on undocumented immigrants, people who typically face great hardship to come to the United States, often fleeing a dangerous situation at home. They find themselves caught up in a foreign and complex legal system, often alone, and without a lawyer. And chances are they don’t speak English. My first immigrant client was a political refugee from Eritrea, who followed a circuitous and dangerous path through Ethiopia and South Africa to South America and eventually to the States. He had been imprisoned and physically tortured by the Eritrean government. He was granted political asylum, and today he lives with his wife and children in Seattle, where he is a small business owner.
That was gratifying work, but I’d been wondering if there was a way to effect more systemic change—to help thousands of lawyers to provide pro bono representation, or to help millions of people who can’t afford a lawyer to help themselves. I was the chief antitrust lawyer for Microsoft at the time, and that work was focused on the value that Windows delivers by serving as a “platform” that connected computer users and applications developers. I wondered: if a platform like Windows provides so much value in the commercial space, could platforms be built to help close the access to justice gap?
So when Brad told me about Pro Bono Net’s mission—leveraging the power of technology and collaboration to promote access to justice—I was eager to get involved. In partnership with the Legal Services Corporation, Pro Bono Net already offered platform software called LawHelp that legal aid organizations in at least 30 states and territories are using today to efficiently build statewide web sites that provide helpful information to people who can’t afford a lawyer. And it offered a service called LawHelp Interactive that helped people to fill out legal forms (to contest an eviction, or to apply for an order of protection against an abuser, etc.) so that they could represent themselves more effectively. There seemed to be a great opportunity to build on emerging technologies and to really scale up platforms that could help millions of people.
Today LawHelp, LawHelp Interactive and other Pro Bono Net offerings are available in more than 40 states and territories. These and other Pro Bono Net programs facilitate collaboration—collaboration between legal aid organizations and people in need, collaboration among legal aid organizations and collaboration with the courts. And that is essential because technology alone cannot ensure that access to the justice system is accessible to all. That requires people working together. That is also why Pro Bono Net created the Immigration Advocates Network, the largest network of immigrant rights organizations. Today the Immigration Advocates Network is leveraging the power of cloud technology to offer services like Immi, an online service that helps undocumented immigrants to figure out if they have a path to obtain legal immigration status, and Citizenshipworks, an online service that helps people who qualify to apply for citizenship. Both are available nationally and support the work of hundreds of local nonprofit organizations that can leverage these platforms to drive innovation in service delivery.
As Pro Bono Net celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the promise of technology to help secure access to justice is greater than ever. I bet Mark and his co-founder Michael Hertz weren’t thinking about artificial intelligence when they founded Pro Bono Net in the late 1990s. Yet today AI is transforming large parts of the economy and society more broadly. AI is helping businesses to seize new opportunities, doctors to diagnose illnesses, and drivers to get to their destination (and sometimes AI is even doing the driving!). Can AI help people who have to navigate the justice system on their own? That is precisely the mission of a prototype solution, aptly called Legal Navigator, that is a joint project of the Legal Services Corporation, Pro Bono Net, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Microsoft and Accenture. Legal Navigator aims to leverage AI to connect people with the right resources—legal aid lawyers, court rules, online forms, or other self-help resources—far more effectively than a simple web search.
Next month Brad Smith will deliver the keynote address at Pro Bono Net’s 20th anniversary celebration. There will be a lot to talk about. Every day seems to bring a new story about the societal challenges that technological advances can bring—for privacy, for the environment, even for democracy. Brad will share his thoughts on how we can benefit from technological innovation while preserving timeless values. I know one piece of the puzzle: we need to ensure that technology is put to work to benefit everybody. That’s why I’m excited to see what Pro Bono Net—with support from the technology community—can build in the next ten years to promote access to justice for all.