Pro Bono Puzzle: Attys Try To Navigate Helping From Home

By RJ Vogt
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Law360 (March 29, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT) --

Despite "stay home" orders around the country, pro bono efforts are full steam ahead during the COVID-19 pandemic, as demonstrated (clockwise from left) by Phong Wong, pro bono director at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles; Susan Davies, litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis; and Bill Silverman, pro bono partner at Proskauer Rose

Due to the novel coronavirus that's infected more than half a million people across the planet, Bill Silverman has been working from home a lot lately.

Like over half the U.S. population, the pro bono partner at Proskauer Rose has been urged to stay home by state officials racing to contain the deadly spread of COVID-19.

But just because he's wearing a sweatshirt and socks doesn't mean he's lounging around with nothing to do. In fact, Silverman's never been busier thanks to a surging interest from fellow lawyers looking to tackle the flood of legal problems caused by the pandemic.

"I sent an email the other day asking for volunteers and got 60 responses in 60 seconds," he told Law360. "In over 25 years of practicing law, I've never seen anything like this."

Silverman isn't alone: Across the country, legal aid organizations and pro bono partners are reporting a massive increase in volunteers looking to help people and businesses in need with issues like eviction, domestic violence, debt collection, government benefits and more.

An increase in pro bono initiatives might seem counterintuitive, considering the pressure firms are already facing from billable clients struggling with a litany of new dilemmas caused by the virus and subsequent economic fallout.

But a rise in pro bono output actually tracks with response to the most recent national crisis. During the 2008 recession, pro bono hours reported to the Pro Bono Institute increased more than 13%.

Click to view interactive version

"If we look to how the community has come together in the past, we can anticipate a tremendous amount of commitment, engagement and participation by lawyers, firms and in-house legal departments," said Eve Runyon, the Pro Bono Institute's CEO.

Undertaking pro bono work during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, presents a unique challenge that the Great Recession did not: This time, lawyers used to meeting with clients and leading clinics in person must provide their services remotely. In the era of social distancing, face-to-face methods can't be used, at least for the time being.

For Susan Davies, a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, the inability to conduct pro bono work in person has made breaking down the barriers between a lawyer and a vulnerable client especially difficult.

"Making a human connection with the individual is an incredibly important part of a successful pro bono program," she said. "It's hard enough when they're right across the table ... now we're all six feet away from each other, or 60 miles away from each other."

At Kirkland & Ellis, attorneys have had some success hosting trainings and clinics via technology like Zoom, FaceTime and WebEx, Davies said. Since the explosion of coronavirus cases, the firm has fired up compassionate release efforts for at-risk seniors incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, as well as remote legal services clinics for small businesses and nonprofits reeling from a cratering economy.

Other firms, like Wilson Sonsini and Dentons, rely on Paladin, a legal tech platform that helps legal service groups place pro bono matters. According to Kristen Sonday, Paladin's founder, the company has recently added the ability to search specifically for remote opportunities.

"We've definitely seen an increase in interest," she said. "A couple firms have actually accelerated their launches … they want to get people connected to those in need faster."

Friday, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation (L4GG), a non-profit network of more than 125,000 legal advocates with lawyers in all 50 states, launched the Small Business Remote Legal Clinic, offering qualifying small businesses with 25 or fewer employees will be offered free 45-minute consultations.

Unfortunately, not every potential pro bono client has access to the tools that make remote connection possible.

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Institute in early 2019, 18% of adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year do not use the internet, either due to lack of access or expertise.

A 2017 report by the Legal Services Corporation, or LSC, estimated that 4 in 10 Americans can only get online via smartphone, or not at all.

That group is the one most concerning to Phong Wong, the pro bono director at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. She said about a third of LAFLA clients have disabilities, and a quarter are seniors. Many are homeless or live in transitional housing.

Wong's organization usually has five offices, four self-help court centers, and three self-help centers located outside of courts, but since March 17, all of those doors are closed.

"If people don't have access to a computer or internet or a smartphone," she said, "our ability to represent them in the same way that we used to represent them is limited."

One solution she raised was the potential of providing hard to reach clients with free cellphones. That kind of support, however, would require significant funding, something perennially hard to come by for legal aid organizations.

For example, LSC, the nation's largest single funder of civil legal aid, requested $100 million in relief funding last week to help grantees like LAFLA handle the current crisis. Congress ultimately allocated $50 million — or approximately .05% of the total spending in its stimulus package.

The fact that legal aid groups are traditionally under-resourced is one reason why Sonday advised lawyers to consider providing nonlegal help during the pandemic.

"What type of support and work do organizations need right now?" she said. "It might not be legal. It could be administrative, like helping shift clinics online, or technical, like getting an intake service up and running. That's why firms need to be flexible with the type of assistance they offer."

And more than anything, Wong said lawyers looking to help should heed advice from the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, which called on attorneys to be patient and coordinate their response instead of overloading legal aid groups with requests for projects.

"Right now, a lot of organizations are trying to figure out their internal techniques," she said. "Everyone's been in a little bit of chaos trying to figure out what work is appropriate for volunteers."

Eventually, when the pandemic ends, Wong said pro bono work may never go back to the way it used to be. She believes working from home requirements could be a catalyst that encourages the legal services community to make more pro bono matters available remotely.

Silverman agreed, saying that "technology and the way it's used in pro bono work will be forever impacted — in a positive way — by this situation."

He said Proskauer has been remotely tackling prisoner release petitions and legal issues facing small businesses. His firm is also looking into helping rural communities handle housing and family law issues, all by emphasizing the use of technology.

But while all the remote activity is encouraging the use of new tools in pro bono work, it remains to be seen whether the high level of output can be sustained over the long haul.

Scott Cummings, a law professor at University of California-Los Angeles, has written extensively on the legal industry and pro bono work. He ascribed part of the increase in pro bono efforts that followed the Great Recession to the simple fact that work dried up — leaving many lawyers "sitting around, not knowing what to do."

During the economic recovery, he noted, pro bono hours dipped.

"Over time, as work picked up a little bit but economic constraints remained, I think people shifted away from pro bono because they really wanted to stay busy with billable work," he added. "Especially junior associates worried about being laid off, that made them more risk-averse."

Will coronavirus lead to a similar rise, then fall, in pro bono output — or will the pandemic of 2020 be the spark that transforms how lawyers spend their time for years to come? Cummings said it's too soon to tell, but added that there's no doubt the crisis could reorient the way young lawyers make decisions in the future.

"if you're a law firm in this moment that doesn't step up to meet the crisis, I think it will have a negative effect," he said. "It will impact your reputation in ways that affect what future associates think about where to invest their time."

On an individual level, Davies said the greatest potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be that it "bolsters commitment to serving those in need."

"Every single person now knows what its like to feel vulnerable," she said. "And pro bono efforts are all about serving people who are vulnerable. So what I think — what I hope — is that we as lawyers and as members of society will come out of this remembering what it's like to be vulnerable."

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--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

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