Pro Bono Counsel Leaders On Mobilizing Against A Pandemic

By RJ Vogt | March 29, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Steve Schulman, co-president of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel and the pro bono partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, has seen law firms’ pro bono output grow fivefold during his 25-year career.

Steve Schulman

Rebecca Greenhalgh

Still, little has prepared him — or the industry — for the novel coronavirus that’s swept across the planet, infected hundreds of thousands of people and disrupted the world economy.

“The potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income and marginalized populations across the world is catastrophic," Schulman said in a recent statement. “APBCo members recognize that no one law firm can lead this pro bono effort alone and ask others to follow.”

Instead, he and APBCo co-President Rebecca Greenhalgh, a senior associate and pro bono manager at Ashurst, have urged law firms to collaborate with each other and the legal aid groups that need their help.

APBCo, which includes more than 250 lawyers across the world who are at least 50% dedicated to pro bono work, has sought to facilitate such coordination in response to an increasing number of unmet legal needs tied to the pandemic.

Last week, Greenhalgh and Schulman spoke with Law360 about the steps they’re taking to help the legal industry rise to the occasion.

What should pro bono attorneys do to help during the coronavirus pandemic?

Schulman: I’ve thought about this in three phases. Phase 1 was sharing best practices. Things like, what should we be doing in terms of mail? If a client gets a green card delivered to the office, who’s monitoring that? APBCo uses Chatter, a Salesforce platform similar to a Facebook interface, to post and comment on such issues. It’s an efficient way to communicate.

Phase 2 is what we are in right now: coordinating to find remote work opportunities for our lawyers to help people. If we’re not coordinating, then everybody runs to the public interest organizations asking, “How can we help?” and they say, “What you can do is stop asking us.”

Everybody wants to help, but we can’t all be running in our own directions. That leads to a lot of inefficiencies.

Phase 3 will come in the fallout from all of this. We’ve identified different issues coming up, but they will change in weeks to come. Evictions have been put on hold, but when courts reopen, what are the defenses to eviction during a pandemic?

How are pro bono counsel around the world collaborating to tackle this pandemic and the ensuing legal problems it’s creating?

Greenhalgh: One benefit we’ve had is the ability to use a global platform for coordinating on all of the potential legal issues that might arise as a result of the pandemic.

A list was drawn up and we’ve been able to put that onto the platform. Now people in London can look at that list and think, “There are some issues that we haven’t considered.” Then somebody else in Australia can look at the list and think, “Actually, there’s something else in there that you haven’t thought about. It’s cropping up here and you may find the same issues.” And then, maybe another member in Paris spots another issue.

Where there are so many different areas of law that the pandemic could possibly cover and everyday we all seem to think of more, by having this big global platform that people can look at, is really letting us take a step back and get a comprehensive view of what might all the possible legal issues be from this.

Are you worried that there won’t be enough pro bono providers to meet new legal needs associated with COVID-19?

Schulman: I do think there’s a bit of a worry about that — that’s why we’re trying to coordinate as best as possible, so that our legal aid partners can be focused on finding the opportunities and not on necessarily staffing the opportunities.

In the U.S., most legal aid agencies have somebody whose job it is to get lawyers to do pro bono work. And if they know that they can reach out to one person at APBCo and they’ll get 250 people who are seeing the message, it’s a lot easier for them than trying to reach out to 250 people separately.

There’s unfortunately too much work to be done; pro bono can't fill the justice gap alone. But what I’m more worried about is too many people needing legal help and not having sufficient funding from governments to provide for legal aid.

How can lawyers support each other during this crisis?

Greenhalgh: This is a long-term thing. It’s a huge shift. Everybody is having to deal with this complete shift in everything right now: of working practices, working remotely, dealing with having possibly children at home, completely changing all the pro bono programs ... there is a huge amount of change right now, and actually one of the things that I think we found to be most beneficial is just being able to talk to each other, to be able to pick up the phone to talk with someone else and poke through the sorts of challenges we’re facing and just get that moral support from each other.

Is there a feeling of competition between firms, to have the biggest impact with pro bono work?

Schulman: We coordinate a lot among each other, and that has been the real value-add to us as professionals: knowing that we’re not just out there alone trying to find the best opportunities.

We are not competitive with each other. Our firms are competitive on the commercial side, but one of the things I really like about being at APBCo is the sense of community and collaboration that we have. Nobody’s trying to take credit for something. Nobody’s trying to grab an opportunity before anybody else.

We all realize that unfortunately the legal needs of the world, not just the United States, are vast. The more pro bono resources we can put into that, the better off we’ll all be.

What advice do you have to law firms that lack pro bono counsel, or to attorneys at those firms who want to help during this crisis?

Schulman: They should hire somebody and have somebody doing it full-time, just like we have people leading other practice groups. What we have seen is that it is the very rare firm that doesn’t have somebody leading pro bono on a full-time basis and has a successful pro bono practice.

But there are certainly other mechanisms for coordination: Bar associations are good, both general associations and specialty associations. Folks who don’t have a pro bono counsel certainly do have other ways of getting involved. It may be that we’re able to coordinate or help to facilitate some of that work as well. So we’re certainly not unwilling to work with firms that don’t have a pro bono counsel. The need is going to be vast here and we are not shortsighted.

Greenhalgh: The thing that we always say to people is just connect to networks, connect to the informal initiatives and, at the very least, look into what’s in your local community. Is there a local pro bono round table or casual meeting? There is going to be lots and lots of need out there, and we’ll always need capacity to bring more firms on board.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.


--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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