Disaster Aid Portal Aims To Ease Hunt For Pro Bono Work

By Emma Cueto | May 3, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

The American Bar Association's Disaster Legal Services program has teamed up with legal technology company Paladin to launch a pro bono portal that allows attorneys across the country to volunteer their time to people affected by COVID-19 and other disasters.

The new portal, which prominently features relief projects related to COVID-19, the January earthquakes in Puerto Rico and the March tornadoes in Tennessee, launched on Thursday. It allows attorneys looking for pro bono opportunities to sort by location, type of aid, level of commitment or type of beneficiary.

"The COVID-19 public health crisis has made the need for a nationwide Disaster Legal Services pro bono portal more apparent than ever," ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said in a statement. "Streamlining our volunteer recruitment and referral process means connecting those in need following a disaster to volunteer attorneys as quickly as possible."

The portal comes at a time when interest in doing pro bono work is spiking among attorneys and as local legal aid organizations are badly in need of more resources and assistance.

When it launched Thursday, it listed 155 opportunities, many of them from the ABA's Disaster Legal Services program, local bar associations and several different organizations funded by the Legal Services Corp., including Bay Area Legal Services and The Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York.

Ron Flagg, the president of LSC, which is the largest legal aid funder in the U.S., told Law360 that the group sees the portal as a way for its grantee organizations to get additional help ahead of an expected surge in demand for services in response to the pandemic.

"Our programs are on the front lines ... of providing legal services to people living in poverty," Flagg said. "They've got lots of challenges these days. They could use more money, which we're trying to get, and they could use more pro bono help."

Groups are already seeing an uptick in need for legal help related to domestic violence and unemployment claims since the start of the outbreak, Flagg said, and as time goes on, they expect to see a surge in issues related to debt collection and consumer scams, as well as an "enormous volume" of eviction cases once state moratoriums expire.

"In all of those areas, there is either now ... or shortly will be an enormous increase in demand," he said. "By every indication we've seen so far, the effect is going to be greater than the 2008 recession."

As with most disaster-related legal aid, he added, the need for services will likely go on long after the pandemic is over.

Kristen Sonday, Paladin's co-founder and chief operating officer, said the company and the team behind the portal are already thinking about ways to keep attorneys engaged for the long term, and that the team sees the portal as a way of making it as easy as possible for attorneys to channel their interest in providing aid post-disaster.

Paladin develops software for firms to use in their own pro bono programs, but Sonday said the company sees the portal as a way to also draw in solo practitioners and attorneys from smaller firms that might not have formal pro bono programs.

"Large firms ... already have [pro bono] programs and are already working on COVID disaster relief initiatives, so we see ourselves as a way to at least technically support the 80% of lawyers who don't have access to someone in-house to help them find and manage pro bono and facilitate the connection with legal services organizations," she said.

Just as attorneys at firms with robust pro bono programs can easily plug into existing projects or put their names down for certain types of pro bono work, the portal will hopefully make it simple for all attorneys to find opportunities to aid victims of disasters, Sonday said.

"Conditions are so tough," she said, "so hopefully this is a bright spot for people."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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