In a world of fierce competition, it’s marvelous to hear of instances of active cooperation and collaboration that make a positive difference in the lives of others. During this National Pro Bono Week, I’ve been learning more about the truly impressive work of a nonprofit organization call Pro Bono Net. This innovative, award-winning organization uses technology to increase access to justice in the United States and Canada. As effective as they are, the need for their services keeps growing. According to an American Bar Association study cited by Pro Bono Net, “at least 40% of low and moderate-income households experience a legal problem each year. Yet studies show that the collective civil legal aid effort is meeting only about 20% of the legal needs of low-income people.”
By connecting and leveraging networks of volunteer lawyers and public interest groups with the millions of people who need legal services but can’t afford them, Pro Bono Net is transforming the legal landscape. In existence for just over 10 years, it’s clear that the impact of Pro Bono Net is real:
- Their oldest program, probono.net is a rich online resource of the materials volunteer lawyers need to provide effective legal assistance to their pro bono clients. This program has a membership of 65,000 pro bono and public interest lawyers who use it to find and volunteer for pro bono cases, and then rely on the educational resources made available through the site to ensure the representation they provide is effective.
- LawHelp.org is the site Pro Bono Net has created for clients. It is “an online resource that helps low and moderate-income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights, court information, links to social service agencies, and more. This resource was built and is maintained in partnership with hundreds of legal aid, pro bono and court-based programs….” According to Pro Bono Net, LawHelp is visited by 4 million people each year.
- LawHelp Interactive uses the power of document assembly to help unrepresented people create and complete legal documents without the need to hire a lawyer. Subject matter experts create interview templates that are then “used to assemble court forms and other legal documents based on a user’s input. The system increases opportunities for self-represented litigants to achieve justice on their own and improves efficiency for legal aid, pro bono and courts-based access to justice programs.” The documents focus on areas of real need such as child support, protection orders for victims of domestic violence, consumer debt and eviction. In 2009, LawHelp Interactive helped unrepresented clients complete 150,000 document. In the first six months of 2010 alone, they have completed 100,000 documents. This fantastic trajectory is part of the reason why LawHelp Interactive won the College of Law Practice Management’s 2010 InnovAction Award.
- Pro Bono Manager is an innovative web application that helps law firms efficiently manage, support and expand their pro bono practice. It replaces ad hoc, homegrown efforts within law firms with a thoughtfully-organized platform that “integrates content from the public interest legal community regarding training events, volunteer opportunities and news with powerful reporting, knowledge management and lawyer matching tools that draw on data from the law firm’s internal personnel, billing, time keeping and docketing systems.” To date, Pro Bono Manager is in use by 10 leading international firms and, through them, by the 7,200 lawyers within those firms.
While there are many wonderful stories of lives changed for the better through individual instances of pro bono representation, I must admit that I was drawn to Pro Bono Net because it puts into practice what fortunate knowledge managers learn every day about the power of networks, collaboration and knowledge management. Through the innovative use of enabling technology, Pro Bono Net puts people in touch with people, and then empowers all of them by providing a huge knowledge base. In the process, they help lawyers achieve the high professional goal of acting in the public good and help the change lives of their pro bono clients.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Michael Mills (Vice Chair of the Board of Pro Bono Net) and Pam Weisz (Pro Bono Net’s Director of Corporate Sponsorship) for helping me learn more about Pro Bono Net. If you’d like to learn more, I’d encourage you to watch one or both of the informative and inspiring videos Pro Bono Net provides on its website.
Finally, I’d like to thank Kate Bladow. It was her campaign that led me to pledge to write a blog post about pro bono work during National Pro Bono Week. Kate is gathering all the resulting blog posts on the technola blog. If you read them you’ll find instant inspiration.