'Can you see me now?' Bringing technology to the world of pro bono.

Author:Dang, Van
  1. Introduction II. How Does It Work? III. The Challenges of Pro Bono in a Digital Age IV. Successes V. The Future of Wireless Legal Help VI. Conclusion I. Introduction

    Today, technology has become a way of life and a permanent reliance. Not only has it taken over many aspects of how we interact with friends and family, it can also dictate the way we conduct business and provide services to our clients. It is clear that we are moving towards a more technologically advanced legal system, and this applies equally too the world of pro bono work. With the help of technology, the possibilities to enhance the way the legal community performs its pro bono work are boundless.

    Pro bono work is not a new concept in the legal field. Some states even make it a requirement to sit for the bar examination. (1) The American Bar Association's (ABA) model rules recommend that attorneys perform fifty hours of pro bono work each year (2), but few attorneys actually meet this recommendation. (3) Most law firms, particularly larger ones, do encourage their attorneys to perform pro bono work, with some firms requiring a minimum number of pro bono hours. (4) This is less true for small firms and in-house lawyers, but Van Dang, Vice President of Law and Deputy General Counsel at Cisco Systems, has set out to change that standard.

    For many years, attorneys have been volunteering their time to help people in need who cannot afford the basic provisions in life, such as safe and adequate housing, or even basic health care. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 8 million people in California alone live at or below the federal poverty level. (5) Only 28% of the legal needs of those Californians are met. (6) Furthermore, surveys show that only a few pro bono lawyers are located in rural areas where pro bono attorneys are most needed. (7) In addition, the State Bar of California reports that there are more than 6 million indigent Californians who cannot afford legal services. (8) Each year, according to data cited in a 2010 report by the California Commission for Access to Justice, more than one-third of low-income individuals in rural areas need legal services. (9) The need for pro bono representation seems greater than ever, and that is true across the country. Although some 76% of states have a statewide intake hotline for some targeted populations, only about 55% of states have legal information or advice hotlines for low-income populations. (10)

    Fortunately, volunteer attorneys have often stepped forward to lend a helping hand to those in need. However, today's legal needs of the poor far surpass the supply of qualified volunteer attorneys. In the new economic reality, both newly minted and seasoned attorneys are sometimes equally challenged in finding paid work. Those employed are often challenged with increased demands at work, including meeting the required billable hours, making it difficult to find time to do volunteer work. Dang recently noted:

    As lawyers, we know how expensive access to the legal system can be, and few of us can actually afford a good lawyer. That's why it is so important for us as a profession to make justice accessible to as many people as possible, particularly those who are disadvantaged. While most of us have good intentions and we want to use our skills to help the needy, we all have limited time, and that's where technology can play a critical role in bridging the gap between the demand and supply. (11) For over a year, Dang has collaborated with Pro Bono Project Silicon Valley (PBP), Fenwick & West, DLA Piper, Baker Botts, and OneJustice (12) in launching Virtual Legal Clinics to increase free legal services for community members, particularly those in rural areas or isolated communities. Video conferencing technology provides the freedom from traveling that helped create California's first Virtual Legal Clinic. (13)

  2. How Does It Work?

    The Virtual Legal Clinic connects a licensed California volunteer lawyer, who can be anywhere, with a client in a confidential and well-equipped environment using video conferencing technology for a free twenty-minute, limited-scope consultation over a range of topics. (14) The conferences typically include three people--the volunteer attorney, the client, and Cameron Day, (15) the supervising attorney at PBP. Any attorney can volunteer and need not have experience in a particular field. (16) A willingness to learn and help is the only requirement. (17) Each attorney is provided adequate training on the topics that arise most commonly (18) at the Virtual Clinics as well as on non-disclosure and confidentiality. Attorneys may work in teams if they prefer. (19) A supervising attorney from PBP oversees the Virtual Clinic and is...

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