Even before the pandemic led courts to completely shutter or severely limit services, Pro Bono Net’s technology was taking root in District of Columbia Courts, helping individuals navigate the domestic violence process.

Legal services organizations were already seeing an increase in domestic violence matters nationwide, with more than 137,000 cases handled by Legal Services Corporation-funded agencies in 2019. That’s the highest number of cases recorded by LSC since the organization began collecting data almost a decade ago. LSC Chair John Levi expects an even higher number in 2020 because of evidence of spikes in reported domestic violence incidents during stay-at-home orders.

This pre-pandemic increase in volume combined with an increase in the number of individuals seeking to represent themselves in court prompted the DC courts to beef up their self-help offerings.

By March, Forms Help Online contained 26 guided interviews (plus 26 in Spanish) with automated document assembly for those seeking the court’s domestic violence services.

Because the courts already had Pro Bono Net’s document assembly technology in place, they were able to quickly pivot to provide remote court services during the pandemic.

“The DC courts were able to maintain and expand services because they already adopted a model to help people where they are,” said Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive’s Partnerships Manager.

Helping people where they are — rather than forcing them to travel to and physically navigate the courts for fairly routine filings — is what LawHelp Interactive’s interview and document assembly services aim to do.

Although Pro Bono Net didn’t have the pandemic in mind when developing this technology, it was built precisely to accommodate remote use by individuals seeking service, and fortuitously, court clerks.

“We wanted to use this technology opportunity as a way to increase access to justice for people with legal needs in the District,” Meghelli said. “We also wanted to use this opportunity to strengthen collaboration between community justice stakeholders both inside and outside of the courts.”

To date, the project has resulted in more than 9,000 interviews and over 4,400 forms generated since its launch in October 2018.

“As laid out in the [Court’s] strategic plan, the DC Courts are committed to enhancing access to justice and providing resources for self-represented litigants. Forms Help Online is an integral initiative in carrying out those goals,” said José Idler, program & project manager at the District of Columbia Courts.

To create the service, Pro Bono Net identified which forms needed to be automatic, then worked with the Court of Appeals and domestic violence, family, probate, and civil divisions to refine the list. Working the Capstone Practice Systems, document assembly draft interviews were created for division review. Interviews were updated based on court and external feedback as well as a professional plain language assessment. Each interview was translated into Spanish by a professional translator (and that translation was validated by the court’s Office of Interpreting Services).

In addition to overseeing the project, the District of Columbia Courts offered legal substantive expertise, testing, feedback, outreach, marketing, and other project support. Numerous organizations assisted in the project, including the DC Bar Pro Bono Center, the Office of the Attorney General, DC Volunteers Lawyers Project, UDC David Clarke School of Law, George Washington Law School, DC SAFE, Legal Aid Society, Law Students in Court, and the Children’s Law Center. Their involvement included substantive review and feedback on the interviews created.

The D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers were also engaged to improve accuracy and the project’s visibility in the community.

This blog post was originally posted on LawHelpNY’s blog

Because of the pandemic, people are turning online more than ever to look for information and resources to resolve their legal problems. The newly created COVID-19 resource page has quickly become one of the top accessed pages on LawHelpNY. Chats on LiveHelp have increased by 50% following the state of emergency declared in mid-March.

LawHelpNY is New York’s statewide legal information website providing access to Know Your Rights information, DIY court forms, as well as referral information for over 250 free legal service providers. LiveHelp is a real-time chat feature of LawHelpNY, through which visitors can obtain tailored assistance from a LiveHelp Operator in navigating resources to find the information they need related to the legal issues they’re facing.

Post-chat surveys show that LiveHelpNY operators are helping users find the information they need and more quickly. One user described the LiveHelp operator as very helpful in “providing more info than any other contacts I’ve made about the issue in the previous 2 weeks.”

The volume and types of LiveHelp chats demonstrate that the pandemic is impacting our most vulnerable communities in ways that will have long-lasting effects as courts remain partially closed and as they resume full operations.

“LiveHelp NY is a critical first point of entry for New Yorkers looking for help with pressing legal problems,” said Mark O’Brien, co-founder and Executive Director of Pro Bono Net, which powers LawHelpNY.

Our staff and volunteers quickly mobilized in early March to help connect people across the country to lawyers and legal services,” O’Brien said. “These vulnerable populations are being hit particularly hard by the pandemic and their legal needs are mounting.”

Because low-income individuals often reach out to LiveHelpNY before being connected with a legal service agency, LiveHelp’s experience is an early indicator of particular areas of need.

“LiveHelp gives us insight into the questions people are asking right now,” says Aimee Latorre, LiveHelp Program Coordinator for LawHelpNY at Pro Bono Net. Our content team evaluates the latest questions asked to inform the resources needed for the public which are then added to LawHelpNY’s Covid-19 resource page.

The increase in LiveHelp chats has fluctuated between 40%-75% weekly since New York’s shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March. We have seen a range of Covid-19-related issues. The most common chat topics involve questions about court operations, family law, housing, unemployment and public benefits. We have also seen a variety of systemic problems including decreased access to community services resulting from the pandemic, ensuing stay-at-home recommendations, office closures and general confusion about which services are still available.

Common questions include:

  • Are the courts open and is my case considered essential?
  • What can I do if my landlord is trying to evict me?
  • What options do I have if I lost my job because of COVID-19?
  • How do I manage my custody agreement during stay-at-home orders?
  • I’m stuck home all day with my abuser; how do I get help?

Facing legal issues while experiencing pandemic-related stressors has led to an increased sense of anxiety and urgency by chat users. LiveHelp operators have noticed that chat visitors require more support during these trying times.

“Pre-pandemic, our LiveHelp Operator program included training on cultural competency and responding with empathy. However, now more than ever, we need to slow down our engagement and connect on a human level, before jumping into the legal issues,” said Latorre. This has led to adjustments in training and operator schedules. Latorre created new shifts and added volunteer operators to respond to demand.

Launched in 2000, LawHelpNY connects those living on low incomes to legal information, legal organizations and related services. The New York arm is part of a nationwide LawHelp network, with 25 legal information portals powered by Pro Bono Net.

LiveHelp operators, mostly law students and recent law grads fulfilling pro bono requirements, take chats during regular business days from 9 a.m. ET to 9 p.m. ET. While they don’t give advice, they do help connect chat visitors to legal information, free legal forms and direct-service providers.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the entire LawHelpNY team, Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, and Molly McDonough, former Editor and Publisher of the ABA Journal, for contributing to this post.

About the Author:

Tim Baran is the Technology Innovations Manager at Pro Bono Net. After two decades in the legal profession as a law firm library director, legal technologist, and marketing director, he now engages the community to identify problems and collaboratively build solutions to help close the justice gap and improve access to legal information and affordable legal services.

The Cyber Dignity Program is an interesting program that we have wanted to highlight since we sat down with the team early in the year to discuss. While COVID-19 and Racial Justice activities have been top of news, we feel this program is as current and pressing of an issue as ever and we applaud the great work.

Social media has, in many ways, magnified the complexity of the issues teens and young adults face. It is important for teens and young adults to learn how to prevent as well as deal with these issues and what to do when they see something unlawful happening to a peer online.

To address these challenges, Practising Law Institute (PLI) teamed up with the Cyber Dignity Program to digitize their training program, “Cyber Dignity: Digital Age Law for Teens and Young Adults.” This program trains pro bono attorneys and advocates to teach young adults and teens about their rights and how to make healthy decisions in relation to their online presence. As part of the Cyber Dignity Program, attorneys visit schools and communities throughout California to provide students and young adults with a clearer understanding of their legal rights and obligations in the digital realm. PLI’s program trains attorneys about unlawful online and related criminal conduct. It also teaches attorneys how to empower teens and young adults to exercise their rights in relation to online misconduct, best practices to engage teens and young adult bystanders to help their peers navigate the pitfalls of technology misuse, and how to report misconduct.

Pro Bono Net had the opportunity to sit down with Carrie LeRoy of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Amr Razzak of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Mahlet Getachew of Suki AI, and Ivo Mijac, Senior Program Manager at PLI. They were kind enough to share with us their experiences with this program, and provide more information, including how this program got its start and why and how attorneys might get involved to expand it.

The Tragic Catalyst

We asked Carrie LeRoy, the chairperson, about her motivation for starting the Cyber Dignity Program.

Carrie began teaching teens and young adults about their rights and major pitfalls online after hearing a tragic story of a California teen. Audrie Pott was sexually assaulted at a party. Following the assault, explicit photos of her were posted online and she experienced horrendous cyberbullying. Audrie committed suicide eight days after that party.

Extremely saddened and affected by Audrie’s case, Carrie thought, “Something needs to be done. Nobody has the right to use technology to shame victims of sexual assault.” Carrie decided to reach out to the Palo Alto Unified School District and offered to be a guest speaker to talk about the problems that teens and young adults face on social media and the internet, what rights they have online, and how to help a peer going through a cyber issue.

Carrie continued speaking to teens and young adults and grew the program through her law firms—first at Skadden, Arps in 2013 and most recently, with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.  That is when PLI gave this program a broader platform on which to expand. Carrie explained, “this program is great, because you do not need to be connected to any law firm or company. You can take the curriculum and help teens and young adults learn their legal rights and obligations in the digital realm.”

Why Attorneys are Critical

“Seeing a lawyer talk about this made it more real.” This has been a common response following each class where pro bono attorneys have presented and students have been asked to write comments and questions. Lawyers are uniquely situated to offer their legal expertise on issues ranging from cyberbullying, sexual consent, online hate crimes, and more. According to Amr Razzak, kids are sophisticated when it comes to social media, but they don’t appreciate the legal implications of some of their actions or know their legal rights. Mahlet Getachew added that they start this class with two main concepts: one, that ignorance of the law is never a defense; and two, that the law protects their dignity.

Attorney Training on Cyber Dignity

Taught in both public and private schools, the Cyber Dignity Program covers a range of issues ranging from cyberbullying, online hate crimes, sexual consent, human trafficking, and teen sexting. The training through PLI is designed to talk attorneys through the major considerations involved. It focuses on combatting a victim-blaming culture that can be worryingly prevalent in schools by providing an in-depth overview of the legal framework and concepts that empower victims of online crimes and related misconduct. The program also helps attorneys identify legal and mental health resources for teens and young adults in the communities in which the Cyber Dignity Program is taught.

Attorneys can also learn how to replicate an effective version of the Cyber Dignity Program and launch it at any high school or college in California. With the goal of having this program one day roll out on a national level, replicating this program throughout California is a big step in the right direction. Attorneys interested in replicating this program in their area are encouraged to reach out.

Get Involved

If you are an attorney thinking about getting involved but are not sure if you are qualified or are the right person for this program, the easiest thing to do is to go observe a class or take the training offered by PLI.  The program partners with specific legal services providers in several parts of California. These legal services providers will be there to help answer any specific questions. Materials for the program are updated and continually evolving each year.

Mahlet adds that “[t]he learning curve is steep at first, but then you realize is it something that you can do. You can also give young people a sense of power to save lives. It is not a legal requirement to report something, but they do have the power that can save a life.”

Carrie continues to think about the Audrie Pott case that got her involved with this initiative in the first place. She says, “I always think that Audrie Pott is sitting in this classroom and she was assaulted last week. We want to prevent crimes, engage bystanders but also help those struggling with difficult issues to help them to make empowered and empowering decisions.”

To learn more about Cyber Dignity: Digital Age Law for Teens and Young Adults and watch it on-demand please click here. This Cyber Dignity program was offered as part of PLI’s pro bono curriculum, which provides the legal community with the training necessary to assist individuals in need of legal representation. For more information about PLI’s pro bono trainings, scholarships, and Pro Bono Membership, please visit www.pli.edu/probono.  

On May 22, 2020, the Practicing Law Institute held a webinar to discuss how nonprofits can adopt and expand remote models at a time of immense legal need. Organizations that have offered in-person and remote services have been forced to transition completely to remote work.

Legal Information for Families Today’s  (LIFT) Director of Pro Bono Programs, Samantha Ingram, spoke about the shift to remote work as it continues to help pro se litigants self-advocate in New York Family Court. Carolyn Kim, an attorney and Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, (AAAJ) discussed how the organization is expanding its remote capacity. Together, they shared experience-tested tips on streamlining remote legal service.

Before COVID, LIFT did much of its work in person. It helped over 30,000 litigants a year, many through one-on-one in person meetings. Legal advice consultations have moved to the phone and a helpline that already answers 15,000 inquiries a year has become even more central to the nonprofit’s work, as program associates answer calls from their homes.

Both LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have longstanding remote programs. LIFT’s Family Legal Connection facilitates web-based video chats between pro bono attorneys and pro se litigants. The site has fillable court forms that allow attorneys to help their clients by filling them in and allowing clients to download and submit documents themselves. This process enables efficient limited scope representation on a remote basis.

In addition to providing legal support and education to Los Angelenos and using impact litigation and coalition building to advance civil rights, AAJC partners with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), to deliver remote naturalization assistance. It uses Citizenshipworks and other cloud-based services to provide remote legal assistance to immigration applicants, offering eligibility screenings, legal review and application help, provide information and help getting fee waivers and instructions on how to self-file. Citizenshipworks guides candidates through the application through simple questions and answers and flags any answers that require follow up by a pro bono partner.

Barriers to Remote Legal Service

Pro Bono Net’s Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz discussed Pro Bono Net’s remote legal support survey of non-profit legal support and immigration advocate groups. The study found that legal service providers need remote legal services to reach and stay in touch with clients. It found that some of the most common barriers to successful remote legal support were internet access and steady internet workflow. Those living in rural areas that lack internet infrastructure, and those who cannot afford to pay for in-home internet now face new barriers to legal help.

LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have worked to make the internet workflow with remote clients as simple as possible. Some keys to keeping things simple are using built in e-signature functionality and web-platforms that minimize additional downloads. Both organizations have found texting with clients particularly effective to stay in touch and follow up on unfinished legal matters was most effective in maintaining a steady working relationship—applicants and clients who did not answer emails and phone call follow ups were more likely to answer text messages. Kim and Ortiz both made clear that remote legal help platforms work best when organizations provide significant follow up and direct assistance to clients.

LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have also used texting and phone calls to reach more clients who lack steady internet in their homes. One key challenge is getting clients’ assent to begin a limited scope representation—a legal requirement to begin providing them with legal support. E-signature makes things much simpler: clients can easily agree to limited-scope representation agreements. For clients who can’t get online, LIFT associates and volunteers have mailed and texted those agreements and gotten clients to verbally assent over the phone. Advancing Justice-LA has set up a drop box for local clients who need documents scanned to e-file.

These organizations are facing new challenges to delivering legal services by taking advantage of existing remote capabilities and innovating to meet their clients’ needs. By using cloud technologies, organized case management systems, and a willingness to adapt, LIFT, Advancing Justice-LA and their peer legal nonprofits are rising to the challenges of this crisis.

In a Daily Matters video podcast appearance, Pro Bono Net’s co-founder and executive director talks about the need to connect with and listen directly to underserved communities to tackle complex equity issues in the justice system.

The law is very important for people to be able to live their lives, to remove the barriers that keep them from participating fully in society,” Mark O’Brien says in a conversation with podcast host and Clio Co-founder Jack Newton.

The conversation ranged from the early focus of Pro Bono Net on using technology to enhance and increase volunteerism to its current operations in direct service, document automation, and developing self-help tools.

Pro Bono Net takes a holistic approach to removing barriers to justice for low-income communities. Newton, who recently joined Pro Bono Net’s board, notes, it occupies a unique position at the nexus of technology, collaboration, and volunteer mobilization. To create meaningful justice solutions Pro Bono Net takes seriously its obligation to listen to and engage with communities that have been disproportionately impacted by systemic racism and inequality. It has also tapped into often overlooked sources of creativity and innovation.

“A lot of us think of innovation being driven at the tech-rich coasts and the hubs of the new tech sectors,” O’Brien says. “What we’ve really found is that innovation – the drive to think about how to use technology more effectively… has actually come from some of our partners from rural and remote communities.

These under-resourced legal services organizations often have a deeper understanding of the need for their  roles to intersect with other human and social service actors serving vulnerable communities.

To listen to the full podcast and hear how O’Brien would grade the current state of access for people navigating the justice system, listen to their conversation here.

David A. Heiner, chair of Pro Bono Net’s board, shared a powerful story about a remarkable man, a broken system and the story–in the sharing–shows how lawyers can make a difference through pro bono service.

Dave’s piece about a Washington State clemency petition for a pro bono client gives us a glimpse of the path far too many take to prison, as “juvenile delinquents, throwaways and runaways.”  Michael A. Lidel, an African-American man from Seattle, was, in his words, a “throwaway,” and juvenile crime turned to adult crime and a life spent mostly in prison.

Along the way, Lidel found a partner, his wife, who helped him reframe and turn his life around in prison, taking responsibility for his crimes and helping others.

“With the nation focused on racial equity, it is a blessing to have the opportunity to help someone through volunteer legal work,” said Heiner. “Organizations like Pro Bono Net can help connect lawyers to opportunities in housing law, employment law, consumer debt and many other areas, all areas where African-Americans face disproportionate legal challenges.”

Read his full piece, “A Redemption Story,” at this link.

Learn more about the Seattle Clemency Project here.

As a recent podcast guest on Reimagining Justice, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager Claudia Johnson talks about how using smart-form technology can break down barriers for those who are heading to court without a lawyer.

Johnson, who has an extensive background working with low-income clients, also shares how critical it is for lawyers to be able to have the tools so they can do the very best for their clients, many of whom are facing significant and often multiple challenges including facing eviction, abuse, and termination of parental rights.

Reimagining Justice, a podcast focused on the intersection of law, social justice and innovation, is hosted by Australian lawyer Andrea Perry Peterson, a consultant who is passionate about the future of the legal profession and innovative ways to increase access to justice.

Listen to the full podcast at this link.

At a time when the access to justice movement, and indeed the legal services sector overall is experiencing enormous challenges, I am excited to announce the appointment of two new board members. Jack Newton – CEO & Co-Founder of Clio and Frank Torres-Director of Public Policy at Microsoft, bring unique backgrounds with diverse experiences that make them an asset to Pro Bono Net’s Board of Directors and to our organization as a whole.

Jack saw an unmet need and turned it into an award-winning company that’s proven itself a market-leader in the legal community. He has spearheaded efforts to transform the practice of law, for good, and empower lawyers as they deliver their crucial services to their clients. Over the last decade, Jack has become an internationally recognized writer and speaker on the legal industry, client centricity, and the benefits of cloud computing. As the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the legal community, Jack created a disaster relief program to help law firms navigate the difficulties that lie ahead, reinforcing Clio’s commitment to serving its community.

Microsoft has been a long-time partner with Pro Bono Net, and the addition of Frank builds on its commitment to give back. His work at Microsoft focuses on the intersection of privacy and public policy. He’s led the effort to advance public understanding of the link between big data and civil rights.  Collaborating with activists, researchers, policy makers, and community and business leaders, he’s worked to create a better understanding of data-driven discrimination and the risks they present in introducing new sources of bias. Focused on the responsible development and deployment of AI, Frank is an advocate for raising the bar for corporate responsibility.

Pro Bono Net is fortunate to have its experience, knowledge and expertise significantly increase with Jack and Frank joining the board. As we continue developing cutting-edge technology solutions and fostering legal collaboration across the nation, they will help us shape the future of civil legal service delivery for years to come.

Please help me welcome Jack and Frank and visit our site to see their full bio’s and the complete board of directors’ listing.

The senseless and tragic police killing of George Floyd was yet the latest episode in a long legacy of  pervasive violence our society has countenanced against Black Americans.  Witnessing the events of recent days, together with the profound and disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities of color, our hearts are with those who have lost loved ones or live in fear for their health and safety each day.

Pro Bono Net’s mission is to bring the power of the law to all. Yet we know that systemic racism, a lack of fairness and the unjust application of laws contribute to the pain and outrage we see expressed during marches and demonstrations in communities across the country.

As an organization committed to justice, we can and will do more. For the rule of law to continue as a bedrock of our democracy, our justice institutions need to be accessible, fair, transparent, and responsive to the needs and lived realities of the communities they serve. Moreover, our own work and strategies need to be rooted in equity, inclusion, care, and a renewed commitment to the most vulnerable among us.

How we respond to these challenges  — as organizations and individuals committed to equal justice – will be of great consequence moving forward. We stand with those peacefully challenging injustice in the streets, demanding change, and working to envision and build the more just future we know is possible.

Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, published an update on how Pro Bono Net is responding to increased need during the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog was originally published on Mark O’Brien’s LinkedIn page.  

Over the past few weeks, it has been heartening to witness our community coming together to respond to critical needs. As healthcare workers provide urgent medical care, police and fire fighters continue to respond to urgent calls for help, and essential workers of all kinds keep our food supply, transit and other key services operating. We also have seen nonprofit organizations across the country step up in new ways to ensure critical human services to the most vulnerable. We are grateful for this wide array of first responders, on the frontline, keeping us safe and providing enormous hope and inspiration in the face of global uncertainty.

While we have all had to adapt to enormous change and loss, we acknowledge that the possibility of losing access to justice is very real for millions of vulnerable Americans who will face a myriad of social and economic issues with a legal dimension in the coming weeks and months. This is something Pro Bono Net and our partners are working very hard to ensure doesn’t happen.

Like a lot of you, our team now works remotely from home, and for us, this transition has been minimally disruptive. We feel privileged to be able to continue our work, even as we recognize that so many others are not as fortunate and are struggling to hold their lives together.

The most effective antidote to the mounting consequences of this pandemic is to work together to ensure we support those in need and provide a path back to safety and security. We are reminded of the importance of widely accessible and community-centered information and tools to help people solve their legal problems. During a time of physical distancing and profound need, we find that our services and online resources are needed more than ever.

As the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality to everyone in the US, we released our Remote Legal Support Guide: A Best Practices Manual for Nonprofit and Pro Bono InnovationIt was the culmination of over a year’s work exploring ways to leverage technology and share strategies that improve access to justice for rural and underserved communities. The result is the collective effort of more than 10 nonprofit organizations to capture, share and amplify successful strategies for dramatically increasing legal support through remote assistance models.

Working with our partners, we continue to share information to help direct service organizations embrace service delivery models that can scale in response to pressing needs and social distancing measures. We are sharing our experience in national webinars, including the weekly COVID-19: Impact on the Need for and Delivery of Legal Services webinar available here and Strategies for Providing Remote Legal Services to Older Adults webinar which can be accessed here. We’ve also activated our COVID-19/Disaster Legal Aid national efforts, by convening stakeholders to shape legal responses and advocacy strategies across the country.

With the current health crisis, underserved communities have even less access to services and resources. We are assisting partners nationwide to incorporate these and other tools into their service delivery.

  • Online services, such as Citizenshipworks and immi, enable vulnerable immigrants to find pathways to stability for their families and flags potential legal issues.
  • Our national network of LawHelp sites saw a 30-50% increase in usage last week. Last month, 25% of LawHelpNY’s LiveHelp chats were COVID-19 related, with questions ranging from the pandemic’s impact on eviction; tenants unable to pay rent; alimony and child support modifications as a result of unemployment; public benefits and worker’s rights.
  • LawHelpNY has already added a new option to its Find Legal Help feature highlighting organizations providing remote services. We are also adding a new “remote opportunities” filter to the Pro Bono Opportunities Guide making it easier for attorneys to volunteer their skills and expertise.
  • We are offering a new remote legal services platform that enables legal services organizations to enroll, manage and link volunteers with remotely located clients for advice, counsel and document preparation. Modeled on the Family Legal Connection service already in use in New York City to assist unrepresented family law litigants, it provides a new option for partners struggling to maintain their during the shutdown.

We are in uncertain times, but we are confident that our work to support collaborative strategies to tackle pressing justice problems will be as relevant as ever as the sector tackles the challenges ahead. We are grateful to our partners for their support in this work.

If you are interested in finding out more, please visit probono.net to view our COVID-19 information page and the ways in which Pro Bono Net’s work continues to respond to the most pressing needs in these uncertain times.