10 Paths to Online Pro Bono Work
During times of crisis, we often wonder, “How can I help?” However, during the COVID-19 crisis, lawyers might have also been asking themselves, “How can I safely help?” If you had been volunteering at clinics or taking on individual pro bono work, this probably became difficult and certainly more complicated during the pandemic.
For my own reasons, I have been doing pro bono work online for a few years already. However, providing online legal services suddenly became much more important as a way to help when COVID-19 made it more risky to meet with clients in person. Many pro bono needs are centered on family, landlord/tenant relationships, employment, and consumer issues — all of which are made worse by a sudden increase in unemployment and the stress of the pandemic. While we are now recovering from the pandemic, other social or financial crises are unfortunately inevitable. There is also much greater acceptance by clients of remote assistance from lawyers and a greater desire to avoid further disruptions to lives already disrupted by their legal needs.
Below are ten examples of ways lawyers can help clients in need with pro bono work using remote technology.
1. Volunteer With Online Question Websites Sponsored by Legal Services
In my case, I have been volunteering through Minnesota Legal Advice Online. This service is available to income-qualified individuals in Minnesota who need assistance in civil matters. The client is screened for eligibility and is then able to type in a question on the website. The question and the lawyer’s response are not made public, which is important. Public forums for lawyer questions and answers can expose the client’s information and create a situation where the lawyer’s advice is more general than if they were writing privately to a client.
In the program I work with, lawyers can look through the questions in the queue to see if there is one they feel qualified to handle. They research as needed and respond to the client in writing. Most often, the client is able to use the information without a follow-up, but they can post replies to the lawyer if they have questions. The American Bar Association operates a similar service in 41 states. If your state is not listed there, check with your local bar association.
Online clinics with representation limited to answering legal questions can greatly leverage your pro bono efforts. In 2022, I was able to answer over 122 questions in 51 hours. One full representation case could have easily taken the same amount of time. Given the overwhelming number of legal aid-qualified clients who go unserved, this approach is a great option.
2. Draft Practice Materials and Online Self-Help
Various bar associations and legal services groups generate self-help materials for robust websites to help the public navigate the law. Someone needs to create and edit that material; why not you?
3. Participate in a Virtual Clinic
Winston & Strawn started a virtual clinic for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The clinic uses online meeting software to communicate with clients regarding immigration matters. Check with your state’s bar association for more information to find out what opportunities are available.
4. Conduct Online Training for Other Lawyers in Your Practice Area
If you are knowledgeable in a practice area that impacts lower-income clients, consider conducting training sessions on the basics of the area to enable other lawyers to assist. A quick webinar may help lawyers understand how best to triage and refer clients.
5. Do Research and Write Briefs for Criminal Appeals
Some states have programs where appeals are submitted on the briefs without oral argument. You could review the record, conduct the research, and write the brief, all from home. Even if there is oral argument, a number of courts are at least temporarily allowing remote arguments.
6. Conduct Online Hearings
Many hearings have moved online during COVID-19, but some already were online, and others continue to offer online options. If you would prefer to handle hearings online, raise this with an agency you are volunteering for to see if it’s an option. It could facilitate representing clients you otherwise might not be able to.
7. Participate in Virtual Incubators
Purdue Global Law School was the first fully online law school to participate virtually in a legal incubator program. If you are not familiar with legal incubators, these are programs to help new attorneys launch their practices (or help existing solo practitioners grow their practices). As part of the program, participants typically do pro bono work referred by the sponsoring organization. If you are looking to operate your own practice, or you are already doing so and are interested in participating with an incubator, check with your law school or bar association to see if it offers a virtual incubator option. The American Bar Association (ABA) also maintains a list of incubator programs (although it may not be fully up to date).
8. Conduct Webinars for Nonprofits and Legal Services Organizations
If you have expertise helpful to a nonprofit organization’s mission, consider offering online training for them, their staff, or their clients.
9. Write Letters on Behalf of Individuals or Organizations
Lawyers are uniquely skilled in persuasion. You can help those affected by a disaster or other dire circumstances by offering to write letters on their behalf. Naturally, you have to be careful to limit the engagement if you don’t want to be pulled into litigation later. However, small organizations or individuals often aren’t aware of the law, and once they hear from a lawyer, they may drop their course of action, avoiding the need for further advocacy. A good example of this during the COVID-19 crisis was when landlords attempted to evict tenants despite executive orders staying such actions.
10. Provide Pro Bono Work for Servicemembers
The military is greatly affected by disasters as well. In addition to directly helping members of the military, volunteers can also answer questions for other volunteer attorneys who call for a consultation. Servicemembers might be abroad, so working remotely is not unusual.
Learn More About Online Pro Bono Work
Note that if you are looking for COVID-19-related pro bono work opportunities, the ABA has a page for disaster relief pro bono.
Doing pro bono work online raises a number of logistical and ethical challenges. Purdue Global Law School offers a course in Virtual Law Practice to its students and alumni and to other practicing attorneys.
Whatever your interests are, there are many opportunities to continue to do pro bono work — even (or especially) during trying times like these.