forcing legal aid organizations to manually keep track of which
opportunities they have available and which they’ve filled.
Also supporting both projects, as well as similar online platforms in at least 23 other states, is Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit organization and web platform founded by Mark O’Brien and a collaborator. O’Brien worked for nearly a decade as pro bono coordinator for law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, but he left to start the nonprofit organization in 1999 in hopes that technology could foster
greater collaboration amongst pro bono innovators.
“We were really struck by a couple of things. One was the lack
of incentives that existed for legal organizations to think about
collaborative approaches to grow the pro bono pie. One of the reasons that wasn’t happening was we didn’t think there were very
good tools,” O’Brien says.
“There was an opportunity to think about using emerging web
technology to create tools to share recommendations and information about pro bono in ways that would necessarily have to recreate the silos that exist within the brick-and-mortar world,” he adds.
Pro Bono Net has grown into a number of different online
programs, but they generally fall into two categories: attorney-facing programs and client-facing programs. The platforms the
organization has built for attorneys typically include lots of different toolkits and easily accessible resources that attorneys can
keep handy for easy access to updated information, or to consult
in doing work in unfamiliar practice areas. Pro Bono Net’s client-facing platforms are often a means to help connect clients to legal
services organizations or information they need to handle legal
matters on their own.
Because of technology advancements made in recent years,
O’Brien has begun to see a way forward that unites both sides.
“We’re beginning to get to a point where we can put the two of
those together and put together models for virtual service delivery,” he says.
A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP
This kind of virtual service delivery clearly has great potential for
rural areas, which tend to lack expansive legal aid infrastructure.
Pro Bono Net is currently piloting a program in upstate New York
to use online tools for document assembly, which would essen-
tially co-produce legal work product in a similar way that some
virtual law firms aspire to work with clients.
Garcia says one thing she’s learned from her time on the job
is that this technology can be a game changer in rural areas, but
it works best when it’s built on a trusted relationship. Some rural
parts of Florida are now starting to pilot the use of Skype to communicate with attorneys in larger cities, an incredibly useful tool
when getting face time with the nearest attorney would otherwise
take hours of transit time.
But Garcia notes that when she has physically showed up in
these communities to pilot these programs as a representative of
the state bar, it has helped people feel more like they’re valued
partners in building the legal services they’re receiving, an effect
much like the personal investment law firms felt in being consulted in piloting FloridaProBono.org. “They’re embracing technology as much, if not more, and at the same time the relationship
is very important,” she explains.
This commitment to communication and collaboration is
something that O’Brien has tried to forge in the technology devel-
opment side as well, a somewhat unusual ethos in a tech world per-
petually seeking the next big “disruption.”
“We’re not really interested in disrupting,” he says. “I mean, we
are, we’re interested in changing, but we’re trying to bring along a
set of community partners rather than trying to disintermediate
O’Brien says the landscape around collaboration has changed
enormously since he originally started Pro Bono Net. “The polit-
ical economy of the nonprofit sector says that you’re competing.
Sometimes that creates these warped senses of incentives,” he says
of his early work, recounting that groups were hesitant to share
training materials or support for the sake of staying competitive
Today, O’Brien sees a much different landscape in the legal
nonprofit sector. “It’s quite remarkable how much the legal aid
community has grown, in part because of recognizing scarcity
and the need to be inventive,” he says.
“We may have spent a few years dragging people kicking and
screaming, but I think it’s actually proving to be a very inventive,
LAW FIRM OPERATIONS: PRO BONO TECHNOLOGY
“Why can’t we do that all online? ... We could at least eliminate
the first day where they make you go in for a pretrial conference.”
—Hilarie Bass, president-elect, ABA