Pro bono experience in the US: The use of virtual models facilitate pro bono

by Dorothy Fernandez- Pro Bono Counsel, Morrison Foerster
Monday, 6 February 2023 10:43 GMT

Law firm pro bono practices have addressed the same realities that everyone else has had to face over the past year, including living with Covid-19.  In 2020, most private law firm attorneys in the U.S. worked virtually, but by 2021, there was a gradual shift to a hybrid workplace schedule.  Not surprisingly, pro bono projects have followed a similar course, and in-person client meetings and court appearances have gradually returned. However, the ever-changing landscape of new Covid variants and fluctuating case counts has, for now, brought a halt to in-person legal clinics. These clinics – events typically held in firm offices in which a number of clients come at a scheduled time to meet with our lawyers for a specified purpose, with support from a legal services organization – were previously a mainstay of our pro bono practice.

Finding ways to provide these same legal services remotely, through “virtual” clinics, has pushed our already close collaborations with our legal services partners to a new level.  The challenges are significant; for example, many of our prospective clients do not have the technology for online video conferences or even a private space to have a call.  For attorneys, especially junior attorneys, confining all client interactions to phone and video contact has made it more difficult to have the human interactions that foster a relationship of trust.  From a logistics standpoint, remote projects have required more planning, strategizing, and more “testing” of processes.  Yet, perhaps because we have all become a bit more used to uncertainty during the pandemic, we have found that when things haven’t gone as planned, we have been able to reflect together on what happened, usually with a healthy dose of good humor, and move forward. 

The pivot to virtual models has allowed some firms, like ours, to participate more broadly in certain efforts than we otherwise could have.  In the fall of 2021, when nearly 80,000 Afghan refugees were evacuated to the United States, the group Human Rights First was deluged with calls from refugees seeking help. Our firm, like several others, joined a screening project to conduct initial interviews with these callers. Over 150 Morrison Foerster attorneys, from nearly all of our U.S. offices, volunteered.  In-house lawyers from several corporate clients even joined our effort.  Most of the refugees who we interviewed were nowhere near our physical office locations.  If this had been an in-person effort, our contribution would have been significantly limited.  The same holds true with our work with Human Rights First to offer additional legal support, including helping asylum-seekers and those seeking to become legal permanent residents.  Virtual models can also help clients who might face travel and childcare challenges if they had to meet with lawyers in person.

Not all work can be done virtually, nor should it be.  We miss having our conference rooms filled with families with young children seeking help with immigration applications, and the coloring books and crayons we stocked up on to entertain kids during these meetings before the pandemic have gotten a lot less use.  But the lessons we have learned out of necessity during these pandemic years have opened up whole new realms of pro bono possibilities, and we are confident that virtual programs will remain as a regular part of our pro bono practice in the years to come.



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