I was delighted by the invitation to speak recently at one of my favorite events – the yearly gathering of New York’s Pro Bono Coordinator Network, held during the New York State Bar Annual Meeting in NYC. The meeting brings together pro bono professionals of all persuasions – from large urban legal services organizations and small rural ones to law firms and law schools – from across the state to discuss changes and hot topics in the field. Although my lunchtime tech talk meant that I missed out on those delicious little sandwiches (I think it’s the dressing) I’d tasted the previous year, it was definitely worth it to share ideas with these folks.
The invitation asked me to hold forth on tech tools and case management systems, but I confessed up front that the only thing I can say about case management systems with 100% confidence is that you’re probably frustrated with the one you’re using. Better to stick with a few tips for using technology to streamline, automate, and promote key elements of a pro bono program (and an organization).
So, first up: versatile, name-brand, collaboration-enabling office tools that you’re already familiar with are available in the cloud, and in many cases are free to your program or organization. Not that you don’t have so much funding you can’t spend it all but, you know, just in case. Google for Nonprofits offers the suite that you probably already use in your personal life completely free to nonprofit organizations. Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar … but branded with your program’s name. That is, I can use the email address email@example.com (drop me a line!) through Gmail, with my program’s logo where Gmail usually goes. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has begun offering Office 365 for Nonprofits as well. Outlook, Word, Excel … all the programs that you know and love, cloud-based and free.
Second tip: don’t reinvent the wheel – just write your name on it. There are great tool-builders out there you can partner with to offer innovative features under your brand. Take, for example, the NY Opportunities Guide created by Pro Bono Net. I mean the NYSBA Opportunities Guide. See what we did there? The second is identical to the first (it searches the same organizations and provides the same functions) but has the look (or “skin”) of NYSBA’s website laid on top. (Also, NYSBA, great new design!) Similarly, for large organizations and law firms that use an intranet, Pro Bono Net has developed a tool that seamlessly streams content from the PBN network alongside the normal content on your page. It makes pro bono resources and information available in the same window – no going to another website or remembering passwords. In many cases, users don’t even know the content is coming from another site.
Third tip: when you’ve got a great program, folks ought to know about it – but be thoughtful in how you approach your web and social media presence. It’s always better to start small and grow rather than start too ambitiously and not be able to keep up. For example, you want to make sure that your website is fresh and current. Websites that have obviously not been touched in a long time feel stale and imply that their creators are not on the ball. Similarly, if you’re going to use Facebook or Twitter, really use them. When an organization’s last tweet was 963 days ago, I start to suspect it might not be the sort of engaged place I want to know more about. There are lots of ways to lighten the social media load, including linking your Facebook and Twitter accounts or using services like Buffer or Hootsuite that allow you to pre-write, schedule, and otherwise manage posting efficiently.
Although I’d love to say my talk was the day’s unquestionable highlight, 2013 was a year of big changes for pro bono in New York, so I was a small part of a big day. It was fascinating to hear views on developments such as the 50-hours of pro bono requirement for bar admission, mandatory pro bono reporting (but not mandatory pro bono service itself), and authorization for inhouse counsel pro bono from such a diverse group. There were also excellent panels on Federal Practice Pro Bono and on Court-based Family Law Clinics for Pro Se Assistance (including a new videoconferencing model that Pro Bono Net is helping to expand).