Kristen Wagner heads pro bono services at the New York State
Bar Association and oversees both upcoming and ongoing online
platforms for New York attorneys to connect with pro bono services. She oversaw the launch of New York’s FreeLegalAnswers.
org site last August, a platform that allows attorneys to answer
civil legal questions posed by users in the state.
The platform began as an offshoot of a similar project originally launched at Baker Donelson a few years earlier. The ABA
picked up the technology and began offering it to bar associations
for local use; now, 22 state bar associations have live statewide versions of Free Legal Answers, and another 13 bar associations are
looking to launch similar ones in the near future.
“We’re actively getting questions posted every week, and we
have a number of attorneys that regularly participate,” Wagner
says of the New York site. She notes that the attorneys most likely
to volunteer time answering questions on the site are solo practitioners and small-firm attorneys. “Those are the types of attorney
who find it a little more difficult to fit pro bono into their schedules
or lifestyles.” Big Law attorneys, she adds, often have more support from their employers to take on pro bono cases.
Ericka Garcia, director of pro bono partnerships at the Florida Bar Association, has taken on a similar charge in her state.
She says boosting the convenience of pro bono work was similarly part of the impetus behind FloridaProBono.org, a website she launched with the support of both Bass and U. S. District
Judge Patricia Seitz of the Southern District of Florida. The platform culls legal aid organizations for available pro bono opportunities and posts them in a centralized board for attorneys to look
over. If attorneys see a posting they are interested in, they fill out
a short questionnaire that is sent over to the corresponding legal
The Florida Bar Foundation piloted the program for Miami-Dade County attorneys, and it quickly found success across the
region. The foundation has plans to roll out the platform statewide by the end of the year.
Garcia, who started her career in public interest work, took
great pains to make attorneys on both the user side and legal aid
side of the platform feel connected to its design and implementation, a task that’s not always easy. “What you think lawyers want
and what they tell you they want is really different,” she says.
Letting attorneys and legal aid organizations guide the pilot-
ing and decision-making process has paid off. Garcia found many
of the law firms she consulted in putting together the platform
have been excited to commit time and usage to pro bono efforts
through the platform. “They’ve become really invested,” she says.
“They feel like they created it. They participated in building it,
obviously not the actual tech piece, but the design of it.”
“They’re still giving me lots of feedback,” Garcia adds. Pre-
dictably, even after a product is already up and running, attorneys
still want their voices heard.
THE TECHNOLOGY INSIDE
State bar associations have handled the “actual tech piece” of these
pro bono platforms largely by forging relationships with legal
technology companies and organizations. Wagner has found that
leveraging these connections to build New York-centric technology, rather than trying to create online resources in-house, has
been a much more efficient means of developing useful technology. “We never want to duplicate anyone’s efforts. We never want
to recreate the wheel or duplicate something else that someone
else has done quite well,” she explains.
Instead, she sees a very different role for state bar associations.
“We really act as a connector and conduit bet ween attorneys, legal
service organizations and members of the public,” Wagner says.
Wagner mentions that a partnership between the New York
State Bar Association and Legal.io to build out an online referral
system later led into an idea to work out a pro bono portal similar
to FloridaProBono.org. “The underlying infrastructure of that
platform can lend itself to other projects related to pro bono in a
slightly different way,” she says.
Garcia similarly looked to a local legal technology company,
Wiedza Creations, to build out the infrastructure behind the
Florida ProBono.org platform. The small company is part of University of Central Florida’s tech incubator and was founded by t wo
former legal aid attorneys. Wiedza Creations built out an application program interface (API) that makes it possible for the plat-