Pro Bono Net would like to recognize the thousands of volunteer lawyers who make a huge difference for those in need and the incredibly important work of pro bono volunteers in building our capacity to meet the vast unmet need for civil legal services. This year we are celebrating National Pro Bono Week through a special Volunteering Through Technology Initiative, which features someone who volunteers though one of Pro Bono Net’s innovative legal tech solutions on our Connecting Justice Communities blog. We are very proud to showcase these volunteers from our pro bono community and hope they may inspire you to get involved as well! Today we are highlighting Joan Archer, a LiveHelp Volunteer at LawHelpNY, and the NYC Pro Bono Center‘s October Volunteer Spotlight! We would like to extend special thanks to Michelle Born, LawHelpNY’s LiveHelp Co-ordinator, for sharing this story.
Joan Archer, LiveHelp Volunteer
“Joan saves the day!” This was a frequent phrase in my emails to Joan Archer over the course of the last year. As LiveHelp Coordinator at LawHelpNY, I work with dozens of law student and law graduate volunteers at any given point in time. Joan has been a dream volunteer.
Joan Archer began her work as a LiveHelp operator with LawHelpNY shortly after completing the New York Bar exam in July 2015 and before resuming her studies for the Connecticut bar exam in February 2016.
She had already completed the 50-hour pro bono requirement for New York State through her judicial internships, and she had plenty to keep her occupied with two young children at home, but she wanted to stretch herself while also giving back to the community. LawHelpNY/Pro Bono Net in particular was attractive to Joan: “Coming from a tech background, I am very interested in how technology is, or isn’t, being used in the legal field. In the past twenty years, technology has made so many things more accessible to more people.”
Coming from a tech background, I am very interested in how technology is, or isn’t, being used in the legal field. In the past twenty years, technology has made so many things more accessible to more people.”
“LawHelpNY sounded like a progressive organization in terms of using technology to make legal information accessible to people who don’t know where to go. I wanted to see how it worked and also hopefully point a few people in the right direction.” Joan attended a LiveHelp training at her alma mater, Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, and eagerly signed up for several weekly shifts.
Joan took on her work as a LiveHelp operator with the same enthusiasm I have since realized that she brings to any challenge. When asked what she enjoyed about the experience, Joan replied, “I love hearing about all the different issues people are facing – and the issues are all over the place.”
“I see LiveHelpNY volunteers as EMTs for law, doing legal triage. Aside from feeling good for doing good, I appreciate that this experience has exposed me to complex issues and areas of law that I otherwise would know nothing about. For example, I recently heard from a woman who was applying for jobs with nanny agencies in New York City but was being turned down because she had a criminal conviction.” It was the caller who mentioned the Fair Chance Act, and Joan quickly read up on the law and provided the caller with relevant referrals.
“During training, we touched on divorce, domestic violence, foreclosures, and landlord tenant issues, and I’ve definitely seen those but I’ve also seen international patent disputes, corruption claims, claims involving farm animals, and internet fraud/stalking/invasion of privacy claims.”
When asked what she found challenging about the experience, Joan noted that it is hard not knowing the outcome for people she assists via LiveHelp. “I’d love to know what happens with the people I chat with – if any of the phone numbers or information I gave them wound up helping them get what they need. For example, I got an email from a veteran who was homeless and living in a shelter for veterans in New York City. The shelter provides short term housing and he was looking for permanent housing. I did a lot of research on programs for veterans. I found some programs that sounded like they might help, but was left wondering how much of a runaround he was going to face and wishing I could do more.”
Aside from feeling good for doing good, I appreciate that this experience has exposed me to complex issues and areas of law that I otherwise would know nothing about.”
After several months of volunteering as a LiveHelp operator, Joan signed off to focus on her studies for the Connecticut bar exam in February. I heard from her shortly after, when she sent me an email with the magic words: “Reach out to me any time you need coverage!” Joan became my go-to person whenever I had a last-minute cancellation, or exams took many of my regularly scheduled volunteers away. Yet, I was keenly aware that Joan had much more to offer LawHelpNY.
Before attending law school, Joan had worked many years as a software developer and coder in prominent companies such as Merrill Lynch, as well as tech start-ups. When I approached her with a request to help as we transitioned the software through which we operated LiveHelp, she jumped at the chance. She was later instrumental in setting up a system through which to manage and track the many emails that come in to LawHelpNY requesting legal information.
Joan continues to make herself available to LawHelpNY, even while becoming certified as a FINRA arbitrator, taking on paid tech projects, serving on the town’s Wetlands and Conservation Commission and the community’s Board of Directors as the representative for the youth programs, volunteering at her children’s school, training for the New York City Marathon, and searching for the legal position that will be a good match for her skills and her commitment to remaining available to her family. Such a balancing act is unsurprising, given Joan’s ability to simultaneously excel at law school (she made Dean’s list every semester), engage multiple judicial internships, and be present to her then diaper-clad children. When asked how she did it, Joan replied “Time management is my superpower. I knew what my priorities were and built a routine around them. Errands will always be a low priority for me, I do most of them on my phone – sometimes I buy groceries at the gas station while filling my tank…”
When asked what she envisions for her legal career, Joan replied, “I’m still trying to figure this out. In tech, I always had a lot of flexibility and even though coders are predominately male, it’s actually a great fit for women and work-life balance. … I’ve found that law is not so progressive, so it’s a little tricky to get started at this stage in life. I have met a lot of moms who are lawyers but not practicing, even though they would like to be in some form. Apparently, the way law is generally practiced today is not conducive to being the primary parent. I think there’s an opportunity here, especially with the demand for legal services, but I haven’t figured it out yet.” There is one thing though that has become clear– there is a place in the legal services world for tech skills like Joan’s.
LiveHelp is an online chat service designed to help users navigate legal aid websites and locate legal information, resources and referrals. LiveHelp volunteers offer individuals real-time assistance by pointing the way towards resources written in plain language about their legal problem and/or by helping them identify a free legal aid organization for representation or advice. LiveHelp operators are primarily law students and law graduates, working under the supervision of an attorney.
LawHelpNY, a program of Pro Bono Net, is New York’s leading online tool for helping low-income New Yorkers find solutions to their legal programs. Available in both English and Spanish, it provides and promotes access to high-quality online information about free legal services throughout New York, legal rights in a broad range of substantive areas, the court system, and related advocacy, government and social service organizations.