As innovation in legal technology transforms legal service delivery, pro bono legal clearinghouses aim to use technology to streamline the match-making of lawyers with pro bono opportunities. To this end, PILnet (Public Interest Law Network, an international NGO headquartered in New York City) and Justice Connect (an Australian non-profit organisation) announced a partnership intended to make the latter’s Australian Pro Bono Portal internationally available to legal pro bono clearinghouses starting with PILnet’s own clearinghouse services.
The announcement at PILnet’s annual Global Forum, hosted in Singapore from 11 to 14 November 2019, which I attended, was the focus of a session titled “Redesigning Pro Bono for a Digital Future”. This session fell within one of the conference themes of “empowering innovation” to equip the legal community to develop relevant legal tools and services for communities increasingly left behind by globalisation. PIlnet’s annual forum brings together legal community representatives from law firms, law societies and associations, non-profits, academics and law students to identify actionable agendas for advancing pro bono as a means of access to justice for vulnerable and under-resourced communities.
There are a number of double-sided platforms (of prospective users and providers), especially in the U.S., that help laypersons to find a lawyer (e.g. LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer). But, a pro bono matching platform isn’t simply a connection tool between a client and a lawyer. First, legal services clearinghouses play a critical role in screening matters through their own case in-take process to identify the client eligibility, type of legal need and scope of services to be provided by the pro bono lawyer. The clearinghouse acts as an intermediary between the lawyer and her client whether an individual, non-profit or social enterprise. This saves valuable time for lawyers who can be confident that the matter is appropriate for allocation of their pro bono time.
Second, lawyers in private practice must typically clear conflicts checks and coordinate internal support before their firm accepts a pro bono matter. Larger law firms with well-established pro bono practices, may also have a full-time pro bono coordinator to oversee the pro bono work of the entire firm. The pro bono coordinator may also be the firm’s point of contact to intermediate between the clearinghouse and the lawyer. So a pro bono matching platform would involve a triangulation of three user types: clearinghouse, pro bono coordinator, and lawyer.
The current process of match-making performed by clearinghouses is built on a foundation of personal connections, but often relies on manual communication; lacks transparency and is, therefore, ripe for innovation. Automation of certain clearinghouse tasks (such as notification of whether a case is matched or remains available) could certainly build a clearinghouse’s capacity. With less time spent on administrative tasks, clearinghouses could focus their time on client-facing work and hence increase their reach and impact.
What is interesting in this newly announced partnership is the potential for scalability of impact through application of technology on a process that, if done well, the actual beneficiary of the pro bono services finds seamless. Following the screening process, like magic the client is paired with a pro bono lawyer willing and available to assist. With an initial grant from Google, Justice Connect invested three years into developing their “Gateway Project” of which their Australia Pro Bono Portal is one component. The portal launched in March 2019 and in the following six months, Justice Connect states that the use of the portal by 49 member law firms has doubled their pro bono referral.
Through their collaboration, PILnet and Justice Connect have a stated aim to offer this platform technology at low-cost or no-cost. However, this aim is presumably only referring to the clearinghouse users, and that law firm users might pay a ‘membership’ fee similar to Justice Connect’s existing model to ensure sustainability of the platform. In the U.S., pro bono technology has been successfully deployed for law firms using a for-profit model with the legal services organisations providing opportunities on the platform paying no fees. Justice Connect’s successful deployment of technology to build organisational capacity in essentially a non-sexy area of process improvement could inspire philanthropists to think more about funding non-profit operational costs as compared to a focus on funding programmes.
One of the trickier issues to address in designing pro bono matching for global use is the fair allocation of opportunities when there is the good problem of having multiple lawyers interested to serve the same client. Clearinghouses want to be fair in ensuring opportunities are shared among law firms and lawyers who are interested to build their pro bono experience and profiles. Fair work allocation could be as simple as first-come, first-served or as complex as applying algorithms and artificial intelligence to take into consideration factors like the lawyer’s expertise, jurisdiction, past matters and time passed since his/her latest pro bono case. An algorithm might then award the work to a similarly qualified lawyer who hasn’t recently received a pro bono case so that opportunities are not concentrated with certain firms or lawyers who might be more active in pro bono work. Given the importance of good rapport between a client and her lawyer, another option would be to allow the pro bono client to choose among the interested lawyers, but this option would likely reduce the efficiency of the matching process.
During the conference session, there was some debate whether a platform operator might allocate pro bono work undemocratically to benefit one firm’s pro bono practice over another. It seems incongruous that a mission driven platform enhancing access to justice might factor such outcome in its design. Ultimately the discretion on allocation already exists and should remain with the clearinghouses who can best judge their client’s needs against the expertise of their pro bono lawyer network. Clearinghouses would likely prefer to continue to apply a certain level of human intervention before a match is confirmed with the pro bono client.
Justice Connect shared insights into how they exercise discretion in their allocation procedures, which includes discerning the urgency of matters. Matters on the portal may be open for all users to express interest with Justice Connect placing the matter with whom they determine to be the best fit for the end-client. For urgent matters, Justice Connect may opt to push the opportunity to a specific law firm without an open process based on the law firms known expertise and likelihood to take the case.
Platform technology in and of itself also raises questions about the use of data collected. With more organized and bigger data sets, clearinghouses could potentially identify hot spots of unmet need or find ways to re-scope cases that pro bono lawyers are not readily taking up. Law firm pro bono practices might also be more readily differentiated in terms of the types of matters and focus areas of their pro bono work. Assuming law firms consent, data on the amount of pro bono work provided as measured against the need of the community could also help to illustrate how pro bono isn’t a panacea where states should allocate more resources for legal aid.
Beyond the initial matching, a pro bono platform has the potential to automate follow-up requests for tracking outcomes of pro bono matters. Impact measurement and agreeing a uniform taxonomy of what to measure poses another interesting challenge for a platform designer. As firms re-define their key performance indicators beyond statistical measurement (e.g. total hours, hours per case, number of cases, percentage of lawyer participation, practice area participation, etc.) towards capturing qualitative outcomes of impact and perhaps even contribution towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it would be desirable for a platform to prompt collection of this information to generate meaningful reporting for its users.
While there is growing investment in legal technology in private practice, technology for legal services non-profits requires creative resourcing. PILnet and Justice Connect are taking a step in the right direction to collaborate on scaling technology for impact. Further hard work lies ahead in applying a human-centered design approach to redesign a platform for global users.
Mary Ho is a Hong Kong based lawyer and founder of Access Our Community, a pro bono opportunities matching platform. You can chat with her about pro bono technology at firstname.lastname@example.org.