Pro Bono and Tech

Here in London,  national pro bono week – celebrating its twentieth anniversary – is drawing to a close. Yesterday saw a discussion headed ‘Technology and Pro Bono: domestic and global perspectives’. This had a range of domestic speakers (full disclosure: including myself) and contributors abroad including Els Enenche from Nigeria and Cat Moon from the US. The session was organised by domestically focused LawWorks and externally orientated Advocates for International Development or A4ID. It provides an opportunity to assess the relationship between pro bono and technology in the access to justice field.

Pro bono and the founders of its week have not been without controversy. After a similar event in Pro Bono Week 2018, the Jeanie Project published a pretty hard headed ‘business case for pro bono’ which paradoxically made its detractors case with commendable succinctness:  ‘The marketing and reputational benefits of pro bono outweigh the costs of the lawyers’ time by far.’ This gives support for the well honed argument that pro bono should be seen as PR. The original creators of Pro Bono week were also not without personal controversy.  One was Lord Goldsmith, once Attorney General, whose legal defence of UK involvement in the Iraq war, was derided by most of his peers. The other was Michael Napier, once President of the Law Society, whose public career was disrupted by a nasty debate about an alleged conflict of interest in a pro bono matter that reached the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the courts. 

Over the 20 years since the week was first organised, both pro bono and its promotional week have increased in prominence and success. The large commercial firms linked with the City of London have very much taken up the model prominent in the US and, indeed, the amount of work undertaken by US firms directly practicing in the UK has increased dramatically. These large City firms have become the backbone of what has become a correspondingly powerful pro bono movement. And it is no real criticism to argue that it has reflected enlightened self-interest as the Jeanie project identified – in terms of both reputation (as the Jeanie blogger pointed out) and also training/job satisfaction of staff. Indeed, that self-interest gives pro bono a solid foundation which has allowed it to embed itself in practice.

There are two immediate benefits from this effect. First, there has been funding to establish new players in the access to justice field. In the US, probono.net has become an important organisation with a string of successful and innovative projects. In England and Wales, LawWorks, once a rather fringe Solicitors Pro Bono Group, has become a mainstream player. Elsewhere, much the same has happened. In Australia, JusticeConnect – increasingly influential in Australia and, as we will see, globally – originated from state-based pro bono clearing houses. Second, following the diaspora of US firms and their openness to pro bono, there has been a momentum behind the international co-operation displayed in the pro bono week session. The ease of video communication accelerates this and allowed foreign participation to be as easy as that of domestic ones. 

The institutional pressure behind prominence for pro bono work has not been without comment from those earning low wages in poorly paid access to justice fields. Here we have a contribution from a rumination on 2011’s pro bono week: ‘Last month the Legal Action Group warned pro bono charities against making too much noise about the amount of pro bono assistance that they are helping to support – and the danger this poses. “The pro bono movement must not fall into the trap of overselling itself to a government that is all too happy to adopt it as an alternative to legal aid and other publicly funded advice services,” it asserted.’ 

But all would probably agree in most jurisdictions that pro bono provides a modest but important element of access to justice provision. London’s National Pro Bono Centre is careful to advise those seeking help first to try legal aid then the Citizens Advice Service or law centre and thereafter and ‘If these services do not meet your needs, you may be able to get assistance from a pro bono solicitor at legal law clinic or a pro bono barrister through Advocate.’ In a jurisdiction like England and Wales, pro bono remains very much a minority provider of assistance – if an important one.

Notwithstanding all this, pro bono can justly claim to have played a leading role in some fields of tech. The first role is more indirect than direct but may be the most important. The big legal firms provided a model for how to run remote services when Covid struck. Most were up and running over at most a weekend. This provided an important example of how it could be done for smaller and less well resourced agencies and offices. Lawyers in pro bono firms were used to sophisticated case management systems that allowed remote working. Student pro bono clinics followed their example. So did others. Pro bono engagement in access to justice has undoubtedly assisted in the ‘trickle down’ effect of commercial forms of digital case support.

Second, the process of pro bono – carried out in the past by pro bono clearing houses of various kinds – involves matching of offered resources with individual demand. So, it is no surprise that pro bono organisations have led the process of automating this process. The result is that JusticeConnect developed a product for its Australian market based on earlier US forays into the field. This is now being taken up in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere. Illinois Legal Aid Online has its own equivalent and the Legal Services Corporation has Navigator projects in the US doing the same thing. At some stage, these may well provide ripe for the successful integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Third, pro bono is playing a major role in developing what we might call unbundling 2.0. Thus, there are a number of projects which help users through the process of resolving a dispute rather than, as in the original form of unbundling, providing assistance on static segments. Thus, for example, Citizenshipworks helps users through the process of making an immigration claim in real time as they move through it. CW ‘was created in 2011 by the Immigration Advocates Network, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and Pro Bono Net, three non-profit organizations with over 20 years of experience in the immigration law and technology.’ Unbundling in its original form was the idea that you could separate out elements of a case into those with which a person needed assistance and those which they could do themselves. What is evolving are systems which put all this within a case managed context in which the user is helped through the process over time.

Finally, pro bono has played a role in the massive upgrading of how information and assistance is provided on the net. For example, LawHelpInteractive is a probono.net organisation that advances the use of self-assembly documentation. Free Legal Answers is an American Bar Association product which strives to do what you would expect and what its says on the tin. And, for England and Wales, England and Wales is borrowing the technology with its equivalent (and trade mark protected) Free Legal Answers.

So, pro bono gives us a coherent sector of access to justice provision making an important contribution to the use of technology within the field. Where we need to go next – both nationally and internationally – is to integrate discussion of pro bono and mainstream provision of legal aid and legal assistance. That raises interesting – if rather difficult – questions of how we might institutionally take that forward. The integration of overseas speakers within the domestic event yesterday points out the value – and, indeed, the practicality – of doing that. 

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