For more than a decade, California legal services providers have discussed the need for a system that could easily connect individual lawyers with the many pro bono opportunities available across the state.
Thanks to a generous $158,000 grant from California Lawyers Foundation (CLF), the first-ever statewide Pro Bono Portal is set to launch in January 2024.
“I think of it like Match.com — a technology platform to connect interested pro bono volunteers with legal services organizations and legal nonprofits for work on cases, clinics, and projects,” said Jenni Gomez, pro bono manager at Legal Services of Northern California.
Gomez serves on the statewide committee that drafted the portal’s specifications and selected a developer. During the process, the committee sought input from stakeholders who may eventually use the portal, including California legal services organizations, pro bono coordinators at law firms and companies, bar associations, law schools, and support centers.
DEMONSTRATION SHOWS PORTAL’S POTENTIAL
More than 130 potential users got their first glimpse at how the portal will work during a pilot demonstration for attendees of OneJustice’s 2023 California Pro Bono Conference, held virtually in January.
Joseph Schieffer, founder and CEO of A2J Tech, the portal’s developer, showed the group how they will be able to input pro bono opportunities into the system for others to see. He demonstrated how users can customize the portal to suit their needs. For example, it can be configured to require volunteers to be approved before they begin their volunteer work and allow users to upload documents. The portal will also allow pro bono managers to upload multiple opportunities at once. If desired, they can use the portal to keep track of all their opportunities and volunteers.
When the portal launches, volunteers will be able to create individual accounts to specify their area of law practice and the types of pro bono engagements they’re interested in. Eventually, the system will be able to send push notifications to volunteers when opportunities arise that match their training and interests. Each volunteer will also have a dashboard they can use to track their engagement.
“With 195,000 active attorneys in California, we’re the largest bar in the country,” Gomez said. “We want to capture that expertise and leverage technology to help address the justice gap.”
The grant covers the development of the pilot and funding for one year of operation. Users won’t have to pay any subscription fees. A fundraising effort is underway to pay for the portal’s ongoing maintenance.
CLA SEEKS TO ENGAGE MORE SOLO AND SMALL FIRM ATTORNEYS
Gomez said she hopes the portal will help facilitate pro bono engagements by California attorneys.
The State Bar of California currently maintains a directory of nonprofit legal services organizations. Attorneys must reach out to individual organizations to find volunteer opportunities.
Many large firms and in-house legal departments have dedicated coordinators to support pro bono engagements. However, a State Bar survey found that 38% of lawyers in California work in small law firms of one or two attorneys.
For that reason, California Lawyers Association (CLA) has advocated for tools to bring more pro bono opportunities to lawyers who work as solo practitioners or in small firms, CLA Initiatives Manager Lauren Oakley said.
In 2020, CLA partnered with Legal Access Alameda to launch Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal advice clinic. She said that a statewide portal will also make it easier for solo and small firm attorneys to find meaningful volunteer work.
WHY SUPPORT THE CALIFORNIA LAWYERS FOUNDATION?
Formed in 2019, the California Lawyers Foundation is the charitable arm and partner of the California Lawyers Association. Both organizations share a joint mission of promoting excellence, diversity, and inclusion in the legal profession and fairness in the administration of justice and the rule of law.
A foundation grant recently helped a coalition of lawyers and judges launch a public education and engagement campaign to help combat one-sided attacks against judges. The campaign aims to demystify the third branch of government, abate unfair criticism of judges and the judiciary, and reinforce the importance of an impartial judiciary. A foundation grant also helped the Legal Education Access Pipeline (LEAP) expand its efforts to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for law school and legal careers.
In its first three years of operation, the foundation awarded more than $450,000. Read more about the foundation’s work.
PARTNERING WITH CLF
CLF welcomes donations from individuals, firms, companies, and foundations to help support its growing list of projects. The foundation has a Gift Acceptance Policy detailing how to contribute and the types of gifts accepted. In addition, CLF is interested in potentially co-sponsoring and supporting projects. To that end, the foundation has created a Co-Sponsorship Policy that outlines the requirements. In addition, there are other ways to support the work CLF does. There are numerous ways to participate in the foundation. Visit the CLF website for more information.