How can you increase your pro bono impact?
Do you care about access to justice but aren’t a community lawyer, and want to be more involved with pro bono work, then this opinion feature is for you, writes Andrea Perry-Petersen.
I can understand you wanting to do something. After all, access to justice is fundamental to a properly functioning rule of law. Without it, people struggle with compounding problems, demands on public health and social services increase, and as more people self-represent, courts feel the pressure. Current government funding is not sufficient to meet the growing levels of legal needs. This provides a challenge but also an opportunity.
You don’t have to be a community or government lawyer to act. If you work in BigLaw, as in-house counsel or as a legal operations specialist in NewLaw, there are ways you too can help bridge the justice gap.
Firstly, emerging models such as unbundling, fixed fee, online and productised legal services are all ways that affordable legal assistance may be made available to millions of Australians (not just to start-ups or SMEs). These approaches can make law more accessible to people with disabilities or those in rural, regional and remote areas and more generally to people who look online for information and services.
Did you know that 14 per cent of Australians live under the poverty line, while legal aid is available to just 8 per cent? Due to the high cost of legal advice, many people who do not qualify for free legal assistance understandably approach community legal centres (CLCs). Providing affordable legal services to the missing middle will save CLCs (often considerable) time explaining to someone that despite the solid prospects of their case, they aren’t eligible.
Secondly, sharing resources and information across the private profession, corporations and the legal assistance sector has the potential for major impact.
Collaboration and partnerships that combine a commercial organisation’s strengths and CLCs’ deep knowledge of clients and their issues would expand upon the active pro bono culture we have here in Australia.
While strategic planning, research and development, project and knowledge management and marketing strategies are central to any effective commercial organisation, CLCs in Australia implement such activities on a centre-by-centre basis with very little or no budget. Community lawyers have always practised what is now regarded as innovative human-centred and empathetic approaches to lawyering long before design thinking became popular, but when funding is reliant on providing frontline services, scaling for impact can be a challenge.
Australia doesn’t have an organisation like LawHelp Interactive which is a national non-profit funded by the Legal Services Corporation and California and NY state courts to support poverty law and court access programs to create online documents. Nor do we have a “Legal Tech for a Change” program to “equip legal aid organisations with technology solutions to help increase their capacity to serve the public”.
Nonetheless, here are suggested actions. These views are drawn from my years of experience in the sector although I don’t presume to speak on its behalf. Not every CLC will have the capacity to engage nor will there be a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Share a tech tool you use or have developed, ask your IT providers to extend a license or pay for a license for a CLC such as speech to text tool, an in-house professional development portal that allows staff to track CPD points or a document automation platform that could be applied to an access to justice issue.
With accompanying training and ongoing support this would free up CLC lawyers’ to spend time with vulnerable clients with the most complex legal issues, who would struggle to represent themselves for reasons of mental health or low literacy.
Share knowledge and build capacity – how to approach a new tech challenge, provide training, or sponsor a community lawyer to attend a legal tech or innovation conference.
Volunteer an IT professional or a law and IT graduate to advise on development and web hosting for a community organisation. Provide expertise in event management, social media content or fundraising. Provide graphic design expertise or video editing to transform self-help legal information into formats that reach people with disabilities or low literacy.
Co-design a new legal tech solution with a CLC (just as you do with your commercial clients) or sponsor a university course which educates future lawyers about both digital innovation and social justice and to develop a product of benefit to a CLC.
Host multidisciplinary design thinking workshops which include users of the justice system, health workers, caseworkers, lawyers as well as systems engineers, data analysts and designers – to redesign a process or service or a new legal product.
Volunteer your time to provide legal advice, offer to run legal training for staff or contribute a percentage of your profits to your local community legal centre – or at least get in touch and ask them what would assist.
Thirdly, leadership and advocacy are essential for long-term systemic change.
Consider whether regulatory frameworks require modernisation to facilitate greater access to justice. Rules should strike a balance between the interests of the profession, fostering innovation, protecting consumers and promoting justice.
It remains essential to advocate for increased government funding for CLCs including new streams like Technology Initiative Grants in the US which allow legal aid organisations to leverage technology to meet needs of low-income people. A more efficient and well-supported legal assistance sector will allow more people to be assisted.
As former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby said, “We’ve got to make sure that this country is a country of equal justice for all, no exceptions.”
With creativity and mutual respect; using approaches such as human-centric design, collaboration and digital innovation – there are opportunities to reach a largely untapped consumer market, meaningful ways to engage with the legal assistance sector and to demonstrate leadership for broad scale impact.
If you are reading this, you have the power to be part of the solution.
Andrea Perry-Petersen is a lawyer, consultant, researcher, podcast host and speaker with experience spanning private practice, the legal assistance sector, legal education, innovation and entrepreneurship.