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.

Pro Bono Net, the Immigration Advocates Network, and partners are pleased to announce the publication of Remote Legal Support: A Guide for Nonprofit and Pro Bono Innovation.  It is a collaborative text by more than 10 organizations, to pool expert resources and experience. It features our national survey results, as well as successful Remote Legal Support programs and their program logistics, processes, challenges, tools, checklists, sample documents, and best practices.  Complete with an interactive appendix, this manual will help organizations learn about and explore opportunities to build their own remote legal support projects.

Background

In early 2019, Pro Bono Net teamed up with over 10 organizations to explore different ways to leverage technology and share strategies that increase rural and underserved communities’ access to justice. We conducted a national survey of immigration nonprofits to understand the field’s experience and interest in offering Remote Legal Support (RLS) programs. 

Survey recipients answered questions about their current practices, interests, capacities, engagements, in using technology for a service delivery model. The survey asked about basic use of everyday technology and centered the idea of Remote Legal Support: a technology-based approach to providing off-site legal consultation, support, and services to people in underserved or rural areas. 

The survey results showed strong interest by more than 200 responding staff at organizations, and the need for guidance to develop remote legal support models in their communities. Organizations had little experience but a strong desire to try technology-based strategies to reach rural and underserved clients. They identified barriers to developing Remote Legal Support projects, including sufficient staff, partnerships, training, and technology. Organizations also identified resources that would help them explore RLS options: a training manual, examples of successful programs, sample documents, and more.

Learn More

Pro Bono Net will work with partners on a webinar series, to help interested organizations and communities foster Remote Legal Support partnerships. Click HERE to download the manual, and stay tuned  for events to come. If you are interested in piloting a Remote Legal Support Partnership/Program, email dhussain@probono.net.

Claudia Johnson is the Program Manager for LawHelp Interactive (LHI) at Pro Bono Net. Under her stewardship LHI has grown to be the largest and most used online form platform in the US. In this capacity Claudia supports a network of legal nonprofits, pro bono programs, and other groups creating, funding, and using online forms to improve their work and make it better for those without lawyers to create legal documents for free. Claudia practiced public interest law for 15 years in California and Philadelphia before joining Pro Bono Net. She has been recognized throughout her career for her contributions, most recently receiving the Promoter of Justice Award by the Washington Access to Justice Board. She has also received the Fastcase 50 and Women in Law honors. Here are Claudia’s thoughts as she reflects on attending ITC this year and how her experience at the conference has changed over the years.

If you look at the #LSCITC twitter feed you can see how vibrant and diverse the Innovations in Technology Conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation (LSC), was this year. I started going to the conference in 2008 – and back then we could count the number of women in attendance on two hands, and the people of color (POC) participants with only one hand. This year I was so happy to see so many new participants that bring new life experiences and perspectives to the Access to Justice Community.

In large part I believe this has to do with the ATJ Fellowship program that LSC has supported, which is now is going into its fourth year. This program has increased the participation of law students from non-traditional backgrounds and is mentoring them to become the technology access to justice leaders of the future. Many fellows presented in multiple panels, including Miki Nakamura who did her fellowship at Legal Aid of Hawai’I and presented on her navigator project and LaDierdre McKinney, who is the first woman of color online form developer at Michigan Legal Help.

From a document assembly perspective, it felt like a large percentage of the attendees were LawHelp Interactive alumni. Many of them are now leading on their own and it was great to see so many of them contributing beyond just forms in the tech and innovation field. For example, Angela Tripp, Jonathan Pyle, Quinten Steinhuis, Matthew Newstadt and Michael Hofrichter all led panels on their own and contributed significantly to the conference.

Prior to the start of the conference this year, LawHelp Interactive had two trainings. LHI trained staff from 10 programs and courts who hailed from California, Alaska, Texas, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. Since 2017, LHI has trained approximately 100 developers through the online training series in the fall and the live training in January. Many of these new developers are now managing successful form projects and are part of the larger LHI community including contributing to LHI monthly calls.

We had newer members of the LawHelp Interactive community join us. Laurie Garber, from the Northwest Justice Project, is leading the largest automation project to date. She has created forms that are rising in use at a rapid pace. She did a great panel with Mirenda Meghelli, Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive Partnerships Manager, on A Tale of Two Washingtons: Launching Successful Court Automation Projects.

In terms of the Pro Bono Net network, it was well represented and we were able to connect one on one during a well-attended session highlighting developments in Pro Bono Net’s State Justice Communities program. We also connected with many of our current and former partners on projects. They will always be partners in innovation, sharing and closing the justice gap. Many of us gathered impromptu at the ITC reception, which led to the picture below.

Substantively, the Innovations in Technology Conference did not disappoint. There were a lot of great panels and talks that challenged us to think grandly. The influx of new disciplines, including law school students, bloggers, design experts, and the participation from other countries, particularly Canada – greatly increased the dialog. For me the most gratifying part of the conference was to see how the idea of using technology to level the playing field for those without legal representation is no longer a radical or strange idea for a lawyer to pursue. It is now a movement that has buy in and intellectual momentum and force. It is a movement that will leave our nation a more just society, more inclusive, and more well thought out than what we had before the TIG program started or from when I joined this group of innovators in 2008. I left the conference feeling that legal technology and access to justice are now together forever – and I know that the future is bright. The foundations we have laid, the lessons we learned, and the trust we have built will ensure that future and create a more peaceful and just America.

Thank you to the LSC TIG staff and all of LSC for organizing a conference that is showing us the way to move forward together as a community.


The 2020 Innovations in Technology conference took place in January, earlier this year, in Portland, Oregon. This annual conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation, brings together technologists, legal aid staff, courts, funders and many others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.

Tim Baran is the LawHelpNY 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 the community to identify problems and collaboratively build solutions to help close the justice gap and improve access to affordable legal services. Here are Tim’s thoughts on attending ITC this year and moderating a fun, actionable panel.   

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Innovations in Technology Conference is like summer camp for justice advocates in the civil legal aid community – lots of learning, lots of fun, and lots of relationship building – year after year. The opportunity to present at the conference offers a handy way to access these three components – learning, relationships, and yes, fun. I was privileged to present with a killer panel on Communication Tools and Practices to Optimize Internal Collaboration and Engagement. The panel included Susan Choe, Executive Director of Ohio Legal Help; Kristen Sonday, Co-founder & COO of Paladin; Rodrigo Camarena, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network, and me.

Our session, as described below, was based on our own experience and feedback from the community about successes and challenges communicating and collaborating across programs, departments, and stakeholders.

Overview

How can we work better together, leverage institutional knowledge and expertise, and foster meaningful relationships to more effectively pursue our mission of serving communities in need and addressing the access to justice gap? One way is increasing our productivity and community engagement by using communication tools to share and collaborate. This is especially important when working with a distributed team as more organizations provide the opportunity for staff to work remotely.

The panel brought people together from a range of organizations and companies to offer insight and advice on the tools, best practices, and processes used every day to communicate and collaborate, manage projects with internal and external stakeholders, and address security and privacy concerns and safeguards. Tools that were discussed and demonstrated included Slack for interoffice communication, G Suite (Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides) for collaborating, Basecamp, Jira and Trello for managing projects, and GoToMeeting and Zoom for video and audio chats.

Communication and Collaboration Tools

Each panelist led the discussion on a couple of tools and we all weighed in with our perspective and experience. This was a show-and-tell session – we trusted the venue’s WiFi and was rewarded with a seamless hour of demonstrations. Here’s a brief overview of the tools we covered, some of which you may already use, and others you should consider taking for a test drive.

SlackSlack seemed to be a popular tool for the crowd, mostly due to its seamless group and 1-on-1 chat and video capabilities, ability to collaborate across multiple organizations in one workspace, and handy plug-ins. With integrations like Zoom, GCal and Google Docs, internal polling, and the most important, Giphy, Slack is a one-stop shop for communication and resource sharing. Plus, its freemium model makes it an attractive option for centralizing group chats. Tim even estimated that during his time at a legal technology startup he cut down on 80% of internal email by moving to Slack!

G Suite – If you’re one of the 1.5 billion gmail users, you have free access to Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms. It’s arguably the most powerful and accessible productivity suite out there and of course, the most affordable. A couple of outstanding features is the seamless and intuitive ability to collaborate on the creation and editing of documents, spreadsheets, and slide decks and accessibility since everything is saved to the cloud. Our panel used a Google Doc to plan our presentation and would have created a slide deck if we weren’t insistent on the session being all about live demos. This is an invaluable tool for teams.

GoToMeeting and Zoom – The verdict is in, and WebEx is out in favor of popular newcomer Zoom and reliable GoToMeeting. With an intuitive UX/UI and simple phone app, Zoom makes it easy to join conversations on the go, share screens, chat, and record. The free Zoom plan gives you 40 minute sessions with 100 participants.

GoToMeeting does one thing and does it well – online meetings where you communicate via audio or video, give a presentation by sharing your screen, exchange chats with participants, record for future viewing, set up recurring meetings, and more. They also offer a free version with a 40-minute limit and only 3 participants. You’ll want to spring for a Pro account starting at $12/month.

Trello – Based upon the audience, Trello is a popular simple intuitive project management tool. Trello has a number of project management templates that you will find handy and collaboration with other team members is easily done through the creation of a team and shared Trello boards. If you are looking for an easy to use project management tool and or even a simple task tracker for yourself, it’s worth giving Trello a try. Trello has a free version in addition to options to upgrade to Business Class and Enterprise.

Basecamp – By a show of hands, only two members of the almost 100-strong audience indicated that they use Basecamp. I think they’re missing out.

Basecamp is a project management tool that keeps you and your team organized and in the loop. We all work on projects all day every day and it’s a lot more efficient and productive to have one place where you can access documents and files, messages and tasks, meeting notes, and communication threads. For me, the standout feature of Basecamp is it gives you what you need and not more. Too many project management tools are overly complicated with an abundance of features which hinders the adoption. Basecamp offers a flat fee of $99 per month for unlimited users and projects + a discount for nonprofits. They also offer a free 30-day trial. Check it out!

Jira – Like Basecamp, Jira is a project management tool but it shines as a powerful issue tracking collaboration tool between program and technology teams at nonprofits. If you’re managing the development of a technology project or looking to address bug fixes and maintenance on an ongoing basis, you can sign up for a free version and kick the tires before deciding to upgrade. If you decide to upgrade, make sure to contact Jira directly for non-profit pricing.

Our session was recorded and should be available on LSC’s YouTube channel soon. If you missed the conference, video recordings of some of the sessions, including Jim Sandman’s inspiring opening plenary, are available now!

Thanks to the panelists who shared their knowledge and special shout out to Kristen Sonday and Susan Choe who contributed to this post.


The 2020 Innovations in Technology Conference took place in January, earlier this year, in Portland, Oregon. This annual conference, hosted by Legal Services Corporation, brings together technologist, legal aid staff, courts, funders and many others to explore innovative ways of using technology to promote full access to legal assistance for low-income individuals.