Pro Bono Net is celebrating twenty years of transforming access to justice. In honor of this milestone, co-founder of Pro Bono Net, Michael Hertz wrote an amazing blog about how we got our start, and how far we’ve come. This blog was originally posted on Michael Hertz’s LinkedIn page.
This year we are celebrating twenty years of Pro Bono Net. As one of the co-founders, I’m proud to see how the organization has developed over the years, establishing a national presence through partnerships and providing access to justice for the poor and other vulnerable populations.
As with a lot of technology-based solutions, the idea for Pro Bono Net came out of the need for a solution to a basic problem. I was working as a young partner at Latham & Watkins, and heavily involved in developing its pro bono program, while my co-founder Mark O’Brien was managing the pro bono program at Davis Polk. We knew each other well from meeting in pro bono circles and both became involved in a series of cases stemming from the 1993 Golden Venture incident, where a cargo ship carrying a large number of Chinese immigrants ran aground in New York. All survivors from the ship claimed asylum but were detained. Many firms across the city took cases on a pro bono basis, including Latham & Watkins and Davis Polk.
It was a massive undertaking for every lawyer involved in the Golden Venture cases to ensure that they were able to collaborate with each other. This was in the early stages of the internet, so in order to be as efficient as possible we were faxing documents, having conference calls and meeting together in person wherever we could.
The Golden Venture cases went on for a number of years and by the time we were done it was obvious to Mark and I that there had to be a better way of coordinating pro bono work. The internet had come a long way by 1998 and we could see how the new web technology could be used to make a difference.
Pro Bono Net came from a pretty simple idea of building a technology platform that would link all pro bono lawyers together. What Mark and I wanted was to set up a place on the web where the legal services and public interest lawyers, volunteers and private attorneys could collaborate on issues more effectively than they were able to do at the time.
With this idea in mind, I applied for support from the Soros Foundation’s justice program and was approved for a fellowship. I took what I thought would be a short leave of absence from Latham & Watkins and shortly afterwards Mark came over from Davis Polk. It was wonderful to have the support of our firms at the time and also the support of Michael Mills, the then Chief Knowledge Officer at Davis Polk, who is still a member of our board today. We were incubated at the Soros Foundation for a couple of years until we moved out to our current office and grew our investor base.
Pretty soon after we set up Pro Bono Net we saw how it worked in doing exactly what we intended. When 9/11 happened, the legal community in New York was able to use the platform to respond very quickly to people who had lost friends and family members in the attack. Legal groups were able to collaborate and assist people in navigating the legal system and accessing help. This was amazing to see and to be able to help people in this way really meant something and it encouraged us to keep developing our services.
Something that really helped Pro Bono Net to grow and become what it is today was the interest that the Legal Services Corporation took in working with us. By partnering with them we were able to secure more funding and create connections with legal aid services around the country. This resulted in the creation of LawHelp.org, which has expanded public access to legal rights information and to pro bono lawyers. It’s been really exciting to watch how Pro Bono Net has evolved over the years with the development of diverse legal services and technologies, all with the aim of assisting those in need.
Another of these important developments has been the creation of the Immigration Advocates Network, where we worked to bring together immigration services and groups from around the country. Again, Pro Bono Net has found different ways of using technology in order to provide immigration services where possible and this means that we can help people in areas of the US where there may be very few immigration experts to assist those in need.
The use and development of technology has been so important in getting Pro Bono Net to where it is today. Looking back on everything that we’ve achieved in the twenty years since we created the platform, and seeing how technology has developed at such a rapid pace in recent years makes me really excited for the things we can continue to do to expand the platform and provide broader and smarter services for the pro bono community.
If you would like to learn more about Pro Bono Net and the ways you can help us to continue in these developments please feel free to drop me a line. I look forward to sharing more of our stories in the future.
The Pro Bono Net team in the New York offices today are pictured above. The earlier image showed the team from the early start-up years.