The Equal Justice Conference (EJC) is an annual convening hosted by the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. The event brings together lawyers and advocates from across the United States to discuss strategies for breaking down barriers to equal justice and promoting greater equity in the legal system. Attendees also share new developments and innovations in providing legal services to people with low incomes.
This year marked the conference’s 25th anniversary with over 1,000 attendees and more than 80 sessions on delivery innovations, diversity, management, information technology, pro bono service delivery, resource development, and substantive law issues.
Pro Bono Net’s Mark O’Brien, Claudia Johnson, Jessica Stuart, Alison Corn, Megan Vizzini, and I had the opportunity to attend EJC this year. It’s a great opportunity to listen to experts who share Pro Bono Net’s goals to increase access to justice, learn about innovations in legal service delivery beyond Pro Bono Net’s own network, and connect in person with Pro Bono Net partners and friends. Below are five of my highlights from EJC.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Legacy and the Restoration of the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Access to Justice
During the opening plenary session, attendees enjoyed coffee and breakfast during an interview by Mark K. Updegrove, Presidential Historian and Author, with Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson and co-founder of LBJ Family Wealth Advisors. Luci’s reflections shed light on her father’s presidential terms and role in passing several historic federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Revenue Act of 1964, and the Economic Opportunity Act.
Luci revealed that the only handwritten note she had from her father was from July 2, 1964, at 12:10 pm. Her father celebrated her birthday and the end of legal apartheid (the Civil Rights Act was signed into law that day).
During the hour-long interview, Luci emphasized the significance of political consensus, shared values, diversity, and justice. She urged EJC attendees to continue the work of constructing a better America— one that advocates for the principles of liberty and equality. She said, “When there is justice for all, there is good for everybody,” and ended with a quote from her father, “Hate and destruction are easy. Hope and construction are hard.”
Attendees then heard from Rachel Rossi, Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Access to Justice. After being closed in 2018, the Office for Access to Justice was re-established as a standalone agency in 2021 under the Biden administration. During her speech, Rossi highlighted the need to ensure access to justice for all and said that to achieve equal justice, we need bold ideas, creativity, and a spirit of innovation. She talked about a few initiatives led by her office, including the Department’s first-ever Language Access Coordinator. Rossi’s full remarks are here. Her call for ambitious solutions resonated with Pro Bono Net’s work, and a Fast Company op-ed Pro Bono Net authored this year outlining three strategies that government and civil society can undertake to help ensure, as Director Rossi so powerfully put it, “our justice system belongs to everyone.”
Building a More Inclusive and Impactful Pro Bono Community
Of the ten sessions and activities I attended this year, my favorite was “The Changing Landscape of Pro Bono Volunteering.” Led by Martin J. Cowling, a change management expert, this session stood out to me for its energy and ideas by attendees. Martin guided us through the evolution of pro bono and the need to adapt to the interests and preferences of today’s volunteer lawyers, as well as the generational and technological changes that have taken place since the C19 pandemic:
Attendees shared the challenges they were seeing in pro bono:
- Volunteer lawyers don’t want to take on full-representation cases
- Seeking alignment between what an organization needs with what a law firm or volunteers want to do
- The aging out of legal aid attorneys that do public benefit work
- Attorneys are incredibly niched and not wanting to “branch out”
And a few trends in pro bono:
- Lawyers interested in pro bono are seeking a balance between volunteering, work, and personal time
- There’s a sense of feeling overwhelmed by global and social issues
- Lawyers are interested in remote and local opportunities
Martin then walked attendees through seven factors to consider when thinking about a new pro bono volunteering model, including:
- When sharing your pro bono program or recruiting volunteers, it’s important to think about how you want to communicate impact. For example, instead of saying, “We recruited 4,000 volunteers and donated 1,000 hours,” consider rephrasing the effect to clients’ outcomes, such as “100 people were not evicted and stayed in their homes.”
- Ask volunteers to share the impact of their work (e.g., what does pro bono mean to you?)
- Challenge people, from funders to volunteers, to think about their values and what they stand for. Think about your messaging on impact and frame it around shared values.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
- It’s paramount to incorporate DEI principles into access to justice work.
- Volunteers need to be equipped with cultural competencies to work with diverse populations.
- Lawyers come from diverse backgrounds, and they are increasingly open about their diversity.
Exploring Data-Driven Approaches to Access to Justice
Data is becoming increasingly crucial in access to justice and equal justice efforts. Several sessions covered this topic, although I sensed that we had more questions than answers when it came to data:
- One panelist pointed out that most of our data collection is driven by grant reporting. We should ask ourselves, “why are we collecting data?” This begins to open up our minds to collect data differently.
- Could generative AI help in turning narrative data into automated data?
- How can we collect better client stories?
- How can data collection help us better understand the scope of the legal problems our communities are facing?
- Where can we find good data (e.g., 211, census data) to track trends and patterns in legal issues and to measure the effectiveness of legal aid and pro bono interventions?
Pro Bono Net is already exploring and addressing many of these questions, such as examining usage of our LawHelp Interactive program in rural communities, or among low-income communities during the pandemic. We look forward to continuing these discussions in the months ahead.
ABA & NLADA Presidents Highlight the Importance of Diversity, Civics, and Racial Equity
Deborah Enix-Ross, the second Black woman to lead the American Bar Association, and April Frazier Camara, President & CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), joined attendees for lunch during the second day of the conference.
Deborah highlighted the ongoing need for increased diversity within the legal profession and emphasized the importance of civics, collaboration, and civility as the “cornerstone of democracy.” On the other hand, April underlined the importance of understanding systems of oppression and talked about NLADA’s Racial Equity Initiative, which aims to translate ideas into values. She finalized her remarks by inviting the over 1,000 attendees to chant with her, “When we fight, we win.”
The Power Behind Storytelling
While I left the conference with valuable insights, the highlight of my attendance was the “Story Slam” during the Host Committee’s Reception on Thursday evening. Attendees were invited to share their stories of justice within five minutes, although all the stories deserved more time. Stories of injustice transformed into stories of hope, success, and resilience, which moved some storytellers and attendees to tears. The stories, mostly about immigration and family law, were a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and why the work of many lawyers, legal professionals, and advocates nationwide is still necessary.
Examples of Initiatives & Resources of Interest
Below are a few resources and projects that I learned about at EJC:
- In California, the Legal Services Funders Network matches recent law graduates who are awaiting bar exam results with legal service organizations.
- In Illinois, the Chicago Bar Foundation is supporting “The Above Line Network,” a new group of incubators, nonprofit law firms, sliding-scale legal aid programs, and other entities working to better serve people considered over-income for purposes of legal aid assistance.
- In South Carolina, Charleston Legal Access is leading the way by providing direct legal assistance at reduced fees ($50 – $100 per hour) to South Carolinians with low and moderate incomes.
- In New York, the court system uses Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program to enable self-represented litigants to create legal court documents for uncontested divorces, custody or visitation modifications, guardianships, name changes, consumer debt, foreclosures, and evictions.
- At a session about access to civil justice research, panelists highlighted this working paper series about the “formality effect,” showing that formal government communications are more effective at influencing people’s behavior than informal government communications. This article about deregulation was another one panelists shared, which singles out state court judges and their role in facilitating nonlawyer participation and legal document preparation in domestic violence cases.
- In North Carolina, Legal Aid of North Carolina and Code for Durham are helping people with their expungement petition processes.
- In Louisiana, legal aid organizations play an important role in relief and recovery after major climate disasters like Hurricane Ida. For example, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services advocated for extending deadlines enforced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and submitted comments and suggestions for long-term rebuilding plans.
Interested in Learning More About Pro Bono Net and What We Do?
Pro Bono Net will be hosting a webinar in the coming weeks to give an overview of our organization, including Pro Bono Net’s different products and programs. From LawHelp Interactive, our legal forms and document assembly solution, to Advocates for Disaster Justice and Justicia Lab, our immigration justice technology lab, you will learn how we reach more than 8 million people annually and explore ways we can partner together. If you’re interested in getting on our mailing list for this webinar, please email Megan Vizzini, Director of Business Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz is a Senior Program Manager at Pro Bono Net. She coordinates, develops, and grows state and national digital initiatives that strengthen the work of legal advocates and pro bono attorneys helping individuals with their legal problems.
She’s an honoree of the “On the Rise 40 Top Young Lawyers” award for her work in disaster relief and leadership in the American Bar Association. You can find her on LinkedIn or email her at email@example.com.
Image 1: A four-picture collage of the conference in Dallas, Texas. The first picture is of several Pro Bono Net staff members. From left to right standing in front of Pro Bono Net’s banner: Jessica Stuart, Senior Product Manager of Pro Bono Manager; Claudia Johnson, Program Manager of LawHelp Interactive; Megan Vizzini, Director of Business Development, and Betty Balli Torres, Pro Bono Net’s Board Chair.
Image 2: Credit: National Archives (NARA). President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights leaders in attendance.
Image 3: Credit: Lukas Photography via Pexels. Document with data graphics on top of stationery.
Image 4: Credit: Gezer Amorim Photography via Pexels. Black and white photo of microphone.