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Enterprising Lawyers

Using Tech to Expand the Pro Bono Provider Pie

By Susan Kostal

When the phrase “legal tech” comes to mind, it’s usually associated with the tools that propel law firm operations, or even automating tasks otherwise performed by lawyers to reduce corporate legal spend.

But what if legal tech ultimately shines the brightest light in the nonprofit sector, helping to solve the access to justice crisis? What if the game-changing advances come from those with the least funding and the most skin in the game?

Florida Pro Bono Matters

Lately, more legal tech entrepreneurs are applying their talents to the justice gap, collaborating with local and national legal aid organizations and bar associations. (Related: “Five Ways to Support Diverse Legal Tech Entrepreneurs“).

The Florida Bar Foundation, for example, has rolled out a product designed by two former legal aid attorneys that has the potential to move the access to justice needle nationwide.

Less than a year old, Florida Pro Bono Matters is an online catalog of pro bono cases available statewide from Florida legal aid organizations. Designed by two Florida A&M College of Law alums who met while working for Brevard County Legal Aid, Florida Pro Bono Matters is a solution to a problem posed by a group of Miami lawyers struggling to more easily find appropriate pro bono cases. Rather than calling legal aid organizations or wading through email lists of available cases, they wanted a technology solution.

If there is a one-click solution to online shopping, dating and loan applications, why not legal aid?

So, the Florida Bar Foundation turned to James Haggard and Sarah Eli Mattern, the practicing lawyers-software developers behind SavvySuit, a Florida-based legal tech firm. The two built Florida Pro Bono Matters — a simple, elegant and easy to navigate platform, searchable by location and type of law, that matches attorneys to existing cases.

What’s most exciting about Florida Pro Bono Matters, though, is that because of its ease of use, it is expanding the pie of pro bono service providers.

“There are about 120 cases available on the site at any given time,” says Mattern, who handles name changes, foreclosure defense and dependency law cases when she’s not designing legal tech solutions.

“We’ve had more than 250 interest forms filled out by attorneys — almost all of them new to the legal aid organizations they were signing up to work with.”

Lawyers can apply online or simply text “Hi” to a chatbot to get started and set their preferences.

The cases are presented simply but compellingly, with a nine-word title and a 250-character description, like these two from Miami-Dade County:

“17-year-old female currently placed in foster care. No siblings. She is diagnosed with persistent mood disorder. She is currently undergoing individual counseling and group therapy. Father resides in Brazil and mother resides in Miami Lakes.”

“This child is a 6-year-old male in the 1st grade. He is placed in a group home and receives CBA services in the group home, but continues to have behavioral issues both at school and in the home. He is also participating in individual therapy.” It’s hard not to click through to learn more to see if one can help.

Mattern and Haggard, who handles domestic violence injunctions when he’s not coding, noticed that most of the interest forms were being submitted by attorneys outside of business hours. This confirmed the need for a 24/7 tech-based solution free from the eight-hour workday constraints of a case management coordinator.

It also indicates that the interested pro bono providers have consuming day jobs, but are looking to give back in their off-hours.

So, what started as a case-distribution solution has become a marketing tool for the legal aid organizations using the platform, amplifying their reach.

Enlarging the Pool of Practitioners for Complicated Cases and Remote Areas

Many cases come with access to a mentor, an enticement to attorneys who may not be familiar with an area of law in need. Some of the cases are snapped up within days of posting.

What’s more, Mattern says, the types of complicated cases that legal aid organizations had trouble placing in the past were consistently picked up once the legal aids were able to access — thanks to the internet — a far larger pool of practitioners.

And in cases where the need for on-site representation is limited, it has leveled the playing field for legal aid organizations in less populated counties that have tapped out the bandwidth of local counsel.

“We have Miami attorneys working on wills for folks across the state,” Mattern notes. “This appears to be helping to solve an attorney distribution problem, and puts smaller counties on equal footing with larger metropolitan areas.”

The site is also a way for a diaspora of Florida-barred attorneys to give back no matter their location. “We’ve heard from out-of-state attorneys who have just gotten out of JAG (Judge Advocate General’s Corps), but are Florida barred, offering to handle cases remotely,” Mattern says.

Could This Be Rolled Out Elsewhere? Yes

At the recent Equal Justice Conference in San Diego, Mattern met other legal aid organizations that want to use the platform to increase access to justice.

Bottom line: The technology to level the pro bono playing field exists, and the cost is not prohibitive. Matching the right case with the right attorney expands the pie, and means clients get qualified counsel. #winwin

More on the Pro Bono Catalog Project

The Pro Bono Catalog is designed to be a one-stop shop to make it easy for lawyers to find appropriate pro bono cases. Plans are underway to add additional states soon. For more information contact Eli Mattern. You can take a look at the catalog on Attorney at Work, here.

Related: “Ann Pruitt of TALS: Promoting Legal Wellness Via Technology” by Mary Juetten

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Susan Kostal Susan Kostal

Susan Kostal is a legal affairs PR, marketing and business development consultant based in San Francisco. She is a contributing editor for Attorney at Work and writes the “Content Under Pressure” column. Susan has covered legal affairs as a journalist for nearly three decades. You can follow her on Twitter @skostal and view more of her content at www.susankostal.com.

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