For those of us who have been running pro bono programs in law firms for a long time, it used to be a solitary position. When I became Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s first full-time pro bono partner more than a decade ago, there was no one within the firm to tell me what to do (which was good), but also there was no one within the firm to show me what to do (not as good). And that was the case for almost every pro bono professional at that time — of which there were not many.
It was against this backdrop, in 2006, that five intrepid and forward-thinking pro bono professionals in large law firms founded the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, a bold move for which those of us who joined later are eternally grateful. APBCo is a mission-driven membership organization that seeks to increase access to justice through law firm pro bono services. Today, APBCo’s 234 members run pro bono programs in 122 law firms with offices all over the world. APBCo’s members are located primarily in the U.S., but also in Europe, Australia, South America and Africa. In the U.S., 75 percent of the firms listed on the 2018 Am Law 100 have APBCo members running their pro bono programs.
As an organization, APBCo provides professional development guidance to our members, as well as takes policy positions on issues that relate to law firm pro bono, and works in substantive areas that affect low-income individuals and community groups. Our network allows us to mobilize and deploy volunteer lawyers from our firms when and where there is the greatest need. Together we have a collective voice and we take collective action.
One example of our power to present a collective voice is on the issue of funding for the Legal Services Corp., the governmental entity that makes grants to legal aid organizations. LSC funding assures that there is at least one legal aid lawyer for every county in the U.S. Over the years, LSC has been chronically underfunded. In late 2016, a group of six APBCo members asked their law firm leaders to join a steering committee to discuss ways to advocate for LSC funding. Soon thereafter, the new administration’s budget proposed eliminating LSC altogether. With our steering committee already in place, APBCo was able to quickly set in motion a tremendous outreach effort to law firm leaders to sign a letter opposing the elimination of LSC.
On March 9, 2017, a letter signed by 150 law firm leaders, whose firms had offices in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, was sent to the Office of Management and Budget. The letter drew media attention to this issue and was followed by a similar letter from leaders of corporate legal departments. The law firm leaders sent a second letter when the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal again included the elimination of LSC. So far, LSC remains intact, and even received a small increase as part of the overall government budget increase passed by Congress in March 2018. There is no way to know how much influence the advocacy of our members and our law firm leaders had in preventing the elimination of LSC, but the effort certainly shined a light on the need for legal aid funding in this country and the nexus between legal aid funding and the ability of volunteer lawyers to do pro bono work.
In addition to using our collective voice to advocate for access to justice, we help our membership take action during natural disasters or other situations that require a rapid response, such as the travel ban in early 2017 or the family separations at the border more recently. We do this using what we have developed as a "near-far" model.
For natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, the "near-far" model designates one APBCo member as a point person located in the area directly affected and another APBCo member located in an area not affected, usually a completely different part of the country. The person in the affected area is the one who has the relationships with the legal aid organizations there, and is in the best position to understand the needs in the community and how pro bono lawyers might be able to help. Yet, in a natural disaster, the local member may be facing personal challenges, whether damage from a storm or fire, or ensuring that friends and family are safe, or potentially having to move out of his or her home, or take in other people. That’s why we have the "far" member — someone who can play a coordinating role, marshaling resources and organizing the volunteer lawyers and communicating with the entire APBCo membership about what is happening. We successfully executed this model after Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, Jose, Florence and Michael, as well as during the California wildfires, thus supplementing the work of our legal aid colleagues with a cadre of volunteer lawyers.
In addition to working within our membership to increase access to justice, we partner with many other organizations. One recent example is also in the area of disaster relief. In order to provide disaster survivors with accurate information about how to access Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, APBCo worked with the legal education company TalksOnLaw Inc., the New York state chief judge’s task force on hurricane relief, New York Legal Assistance Group and celebrity spokesperson Adrienne Houghton to create a video explaining the top five mistakes in filing for FEMA benefits and how to avoid them. The video is a free, easily accessible resource to help disaster survivors preserve their opportunity to recover FEMA benefits.
What does the rise of APBCo mean for access to justice? It means that there is a dedicated army of pro bono professionals working to harness the time and talent of thousands of volunteer lawyers. And while pro bono won’t solve access to justice for everyone, it is an important element of the access to justice ecosystem. To the 25 Am Law 100 firms that do not have an APBCo member: We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the value that having an APBCo member running your pro bono program could add to your firm. To our legal aid colleagues who are on the front lines helping low-income people and community groups every day: We are committed to supporting your efforts, and we thank you for making it possible for our attorneys to do pro bono work and give back in a meaningful way.
Allegra R. Nethery is the pro bono and philanthropy partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and current president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel.
"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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