Overcoming The Pandemic's Hurdles To Pro Bono Work

By Sarah McLean
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Law360 (October 2, 2020, 3:33 PM EDT) --
Sarah McLean
Sarah McLean
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives and jobs, we have seen it pose novel challenges to providing legal services to those in need, especially low-income individuals and the nonprofits that serve them.

The demand for pro bono legal assistance has climbed markedly in the past six months, especially with respect to small businesses, housing, family law, unemployment insurance and other public benefits. Further, since 2020 is a key election year, the pandemic has raised critical questions among voters about how their ballots will be cast and counted, leading many to seek legal advice on how to avoid being disenfranchised in the political process.

Given the ongoing and increased demand for pro bono legal services, attorneys and legal professionals can and have devised creative and resourceful solutions to overcome the unique hurdles resulting from the pandemic and allow them to continue serving their pro bono clients.

Leveraging and Expanding Existing Resources

With in-person meetings almost entirely curtailed, firms can lean on their internal network and existing resources to efficiently provide service to pro bono clients.

For example, in-person translation services, which are frequently needed for clients who are first-generation immigrants, have been challenging to provide in the current environment. In response, law firms can take advantage of their international resources and collaborate with their regional counterparts in Asia, Latin America and Europe to provide translation services to clients and help them understand their rights.

As with all lawyer-client relationships, there is a practical benefit to in-person meetings where lawyers can not only gather important case information from clients, but also build mutual trust. In finding alternate solutions to the physical limitations posed by the pandemic, firms have been accelerating their digital initiatives and expanding their existing technology.

E-signatures and e-signings have quickly become the norm and are being used for pro bono work as well. A number of state and local governments, including New York, have adopted alternative ways to notarize documents when in-person notarization is not possible. Additionally, the use of videoconferencing platforms, which enables an establishment of trust between attorney-client relationships and provides clients with a sense of support and tangible relief, has increased markedly.

Transferring Legal Institutional Knowledge

Lawyers working in large law firms do not regularly practice in areas relating to tenant rights, family law, consumer credit or unemployment insurance and benefits and require training in order to effectively represent pro bono clients in these areas. Legal services organizations provide volunteer attorneys with training and mentoring and connect pro bono clients with these attorneys.

Due to the limitations these organizations have faced as a result of the pandemic, the training for volunteers has been made available digitally and mentoring is provided by phone, significantly increasing access for volunteer attorneys to training opportunities and thus increasing their ability to represent pro bono clients.

With business and government closures or work-from-home policies, legal services organizations have been working with volunteer lawyers to provide online, limited-scope pro bono advice to individuals, small businesses and nonprofits. 

Business owners have myriad questions related to their businesses, from reopening in compliance with regulatory mandates and acquiring the benefits of various state and federal relief programs — i.e., the U.S. Small Business Administration's Payroll Protection Program — to tackling employment law and commercial real estate issues posed by the pandemic.

Attorneys can draw from their knowledge and experience working on complex financial, regulatory, employment, real estate and tax matters to help small businesses and workers who have been impacted by the pandemic.

Harnessing Additional Talent With Caution

A number of law school graduates have had their start dates deferred with their future employers due to the pandemic. These young lawyers are available and eager to provide their services and knowledge to help close the justice gap.

Legal services organizations are leveraging supervisory talent from law firms, law school professors and retired lawyers to guide these new lawyers and resolve as many questions as possible before accessing the expertise at the legal services organizations. In some instances, practice orders can be issued by courts to expand the representation allowed by this talent.

Further, as courts and government organizations reopen, they must — and have — put mechanisms in place to protect all participants in the process, including the attorneys and their staffs, clients and their families, and jurors and other court personnel.

In order to allow the greatest number of participants in the legal process for pro bono clients, courts should continue to allow clients and their attorneys to appear virtually rather than making in-person appearances because many retired lawyers, and others who may be a vulnerable segment of the population with respect to COVID-19, have become dedicated pro bono volunteers and serve as a critical cohort for providing expert legal advice to clients in need.

Election Year and Protecting Voter Rights

The pandemic has deeply impacted election law and policies. Since 2020 is a key election year, the pandemic has caused voters to raise questions about how they will safely vote and how their vote will be counted.

In response, many states have enacted laws allowing for extensive mail-in or absentee ballot voting and extended their in-person early voting. Lawyers can help voters understand absentee voter and vote-by-mail laws, rules and timelines through various ways. For example, lawyers can join a national effort by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to volunteer on remote, nonpartisan, election protection hotlines.

The hotlines allow callers from across the country to gain clarity and enhance their ability to participate in the political process and elect their preferred candidates. Those who answer the hotlines provide answers to caller questions about all stages of voting, from registration to absentee and early voting, to casting a ballot at the polls, and to overcoming obstacles to their participation. 

Some questions are as simple as assisting someone in filling out their absentee ballot request or determining their correct polling location, while some are more challenging, including those related to voter identification requirements or access for persons with disabilities. Since the rules and guidelines differ from state to state, hotline volunteers are required to be able to access and interpret information quickly and concisely.

Law firms and lawyers interested in getting involved in this effort should plug into the Lawyers' Committee's Election Protection Program, where they are still taking volunteers and captains to staff the hotline until Election Day.


Although the pandemic has resulted in a slew of unprecedented challenges and legal questions for individuals and businesses, it is inspiring to see attorneys coming together to take advantage of their collective resources, sharpen their legal skills and partner with one another to support those who need it most.

Sarah McLean is a partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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