The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
November 15, 2021

Panel Recap: The Chief Legal Officer’s Point of View: Sustainability, Racial Justice, and In-House Pro Bono

By PBI Intern Søren Whiting

On October 21, 2021, at the 2021 Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Annual Meeting, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) hosted an engaging panel discussion on leaders of corporate in-house departments engaging their teams to strengthen their sustainability, racial justice, and in-house pro bono missions. Todd Machtmes, Executive Vice President & General Counsel of Salesforce**, Sandra Phillips Rogers, Group Vice President, General Counsel, Chief Legal Officer, and Chief Diversity Officer of Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; and Allon Stabinsky, Senior Vice President and Chief Deputy General Counsel, of Intel** served as panelists and provided a great discussion. PBI President & CEO Eve Runyon moderated the conversation.

The panel discussed several critical issues that impact mature in-house pro bono programs. For starters, there has been a shift in corporations towards demonstrating sound environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices to investors, redefining how some corporations engage with their communities in a meaningful way. Additionally, the impact of the pandemic paired with the recent calls for racial justice has provided companies with a unique opportunity to use pro bono to advance initiatives that aim to better their local community and the broader planet as a whole. As a result, more and more companies are looking at the intersection of these various issues and considering the role pro bono plays in addressing them. 

There are many different models that corporations are deploying to create real change within communities. At Intel, pro bono is being deployed through a corporate strategic framework for corporate responsibility called RISE 2030, which is modeled to a large degree off of the United Nations sustainable development goals (UNSDGs). Internal initiatives in the legal department align with the larger corporate goals to accelerate the positive impact of their programs. Through RISE 2030, Intel has committed resources to creating a work environment that is sustainable, responsible, and inclusive through initiatives such as developing carbon-neutral computing and intentionally hiring talent from more diverse backgrounds. Stabinsky expressed that combatting the disproportionate representation of black attorneys within legal fields is a significant objective of Intel’s racial justice mission within the legal department. Noting that roughly 13% of America’s population is Black, but only 5% of lawyers are Black, Stabinsky said that Intel seeks to get to the heart of the problem and improve the pipeline for Black attorneys. Intel has partnered with North Carolina Central University, one of the many Historically Black College & Universities (HBCU)s that are a real source of talent for the Black legal profession in the United States, to launch a new tech law and policy center, with Intel investing $5 million into the program during a five-year partnership. 

Racial justice is also a top priority for Intel when it comes to pro bono work. Most notably, Intel has created a full-time racial justice pro bono counsel position that is responsible for advancing Intel’s racial justice values through pro bono work. This position has enabled Intel’s legal department to effectively mobilize around hosting “second chance expungement” clinics and advocating for second chance laws. This year, Intel has hosted multiple expungement clinics and is working toward a goal of dedicating 1000 hours to pro bono. 

Salesforce has also aligned pro bono with the corporation’s ESG corporate goals. Salesforce has set a framework for addressing racial equality and justice and continues to drive racial equality and an inclusive employee experience through four pillars: people, philanthropy, purchasing, and policy. In particular, Machtmes stated that their in-house legal department has a unique role in implementing ESG practices, including by working closely with the legal department’s pro bono steering committee. One strategy that Salesforce’s legal team deploys to increase pro bono in conjunction with ESG is to mobilize around the Salesforce practice that gives all employees seven days of volunteer time off (VTO). Members of the legal departments commit at least five hours of their volunteer time to pro bono work, having attorneys use their skills as legal professionals to help others. There are many ways in which attorneys may spend their hours, including serving organizations that support diverse communities, participating in bail clinics, and helping small business owners from marginalized communities. 

Additionally, outside of pro bono hours, attorneys also use their legal skills to help Salesforce’s government relations branch advance priorities for durable policy reform. For attorneys at Salesforce, this includes evaluating proposed legislation language, joining amicus briefs, and providing pro bono legal help to those working on services for immigration and homelessness. Attorneys also serve as poll watchers and legal counselors for polling places during elections. Machtmes shared that this combination of pro bono and ESG goals stems from a shared understanding of the importance of giving back and being active in our communities.

Toyota Motors North America also has had success aligning pro bono and ESG. Phillips Rogers shared that her legal team has had a leadership role in helping facilitate conversations around corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as well as ESG. She noted that sustainability goals are the “north star” for the company, including enhancing the environment in which team members live and work, reducing inequality, building sustainable cities and communities, working toward gender equality and the elimination of poverty, and building strong institutions. All of these issues flow nicely into pro bono efforts that the legal team is pursuing. Pre-pandemic, the legal department aligned its pro bono opportunities with corporate goals such as helping veterans; since the pandemic, the team has focused on social justice issues. 

In fact, Phillips Rogers shared that the impact of the pandemic and the renewed focus on racial and social justice issues has invigorated her team to be more engaged in pro bono. Despite the many work environment roadblocks such as virtual meetings, burnout, and fatigue, the pro bono program has never been more active. The legal team has been energized to do the work and sees pro bono as a rallying call, invigorating the team to get further involved in the company’s global communities. A few initiatives that have emerged from the intersection of ESG, racial justice, and pro bono include the creation of routine expungement clinics, involvement in the non-unanimous jury verdict project to challenge convictions in Louisiana without a unanimous verdict, training law enforcement to be active bystanders, and involvement in non-partisan election protection hotlines. Moreover, by using the virtual meeting space intentionally, pro bono efforts have become more efficient. For example, rather than holding a two-day expunction expo that requires travel, Toyota hosted a virtual expo over several weeks. It was easier for attorneys to book pro bono hours at their convenience, and they did not have to incur travel time to be physically present at a clinic, resulting in greater participation and more clients served—a true silver lining. 

The panel conveyed that this is a unique moment for increased community engagement of corporate legal departments, including through pro bono legal services. By aligning with the broader corporation’s sustainability and racial justice goals, the legal department can strengthen its pro bono program and even increase engagement. Pro bono is an excellent opportunity for legal departments to mobilize around these critical objectives and meaningfully serve the communities in which their employees live and work.  

**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

October 20, 2021

Pro Bono Week 2021

by PBI Intern Søren Whiting

While carving pumpkins with your families or loved ones this fall, why not carve out time to celebrate pro bono?! As the season changes, pro bono practice is also transitioning into the start of a post-pandemic world. Despite the many obstacles over the past two years, pro bono endured, and that is worth celebrating and recognizing. 

This October 24-30, 2021 marks the American Bar Association’s (ABA) 13th Annual Celebration of Pro Bono. The event is an opportunity to celebrate the perseverance of pro bono and recognize the work that still needs to be done to strengthen access to justice. This year’s theme for the Annual Celebration of Pro Bono is “Moving Forward in a Post-Pandemic World” —  a theme that acknowledges the resiliency of pro bono and how the need for equal opportunities to access justice has only grown through the pandemic. There are so many opportunities to assist the millions of people now vulnerable to eviction, unemployment, bankruptcy, and countless other legal challenges brought forward by the pandemic. The Annual Celebration of Pro Bono is a unique way to connect with pro bono leaders across the country and learn the best practices that endured through COVID-19. 

Many local bar associations, firms, and legal departments organize a “Pro Bono Week” or “Pro Bono Month” concurrent with the ABA’s Celebration. There are events, trainings, and opportunities to serve planned around the country, including: 

  • CLE training on trauma-informed care to domestic violence survivors in restraining order hearings in Orange County, California, hosted by Human Options and the Public Law Center.
  • workshop hosted by the Georgia Justice Project on understanding Georgia’s criminal record clearing laws, including a recently passed bill that greatly expands expungement opportunities for the 4.2 million people who have a Georgia criminal record.  
  • A small business legal clinic where pro bono attorneys will hold one-on-one conversations with small businesses about their legal needs, hosted by Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston.
  • The Minnesota Collaborative Justice Project, for which PBI is the backbone organization, is hosting a Reentry Justice Volunteer Engagement Event to introduce prospective volunteers to the Project’s Civil Legal Needs Initiative which provides pro bono legal assistance to formerly incarcerated Minnesotans to address barriers to successful reentry. 

You can learn about more events and opportunities hosted across the U.S. by accessing this calendar and event map

Back in Washington DC, the Washington Council of Lawyers has put together a committee of public and private attorneys to organize DC Pro Bono Week 2021, featuring free virtual clinics, webinars, and interdisciplinary events including: 

All DC Pro Bono week events are free but require registration.

Pro Bono Week is not limited to the United States. There are events around the globe. For example, during National Pro Bono Week in the UK, which is held from November 1 – 5, 2021, the In House Pro Bono Group is holding a webinar with Clifford Chance and Ropes & Gray on “In House Counsel and Law Firm Doing Pro Bono Together.” The session will discuss developing a partnership with an in house team and law firm, considerations when working on a pro bono project together, and overcoming challenges in a partnership.  

Pro Bono Week is not only an opportunity to celebrate volunteer service but also a chance to launch new pro bono projects for your company or firm in the year ahead. Be part of a growing community of pro bono advocates seeking to redefine and advance access to justice. 

September 29, 2021

The Homeless Court Movement

By Kristen Bolster, PBI Intern

On any given night there are roughly 580,500 people experiencing homelessness in the United States (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). People who experience homelessness may be penalized and charged with civil offenses for trespassing, and receive fines and fees for actions including living in a vehicle, blocking the sidewalk, and smoking, urinating, drinking or sleeping in public. These acts can be categorized as ‘public nuisance offenses,’ which many people experiencing homelessness oftentimes have little option but to commit. Nonpayment of fines and fees can lead to collection agencies getting involved and tacking on hundreds of dollars to what is already owed. The inability to afford transportation can further compound the difficulties of homelessness by leading to missed court dates and default warrants. These penalties are piled on to already existing legal and societal barriers that the homeless face when trying to find a place to live, gain employment, receive public assistance, or get or reinstate a driver’s license. 

Some jurisdictions are examining policies that deepen the cycle of homelessness and have begun to treat people experiencing homelessness with compassion and understanding, instead of hostility and contempt. The American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness & Poverty seeks to decriminalize homelessness by establishing homeless courts, where homeless defendants can receive legal aid that helps to break down the barriers that homeless individuals face when trying to create stability and maintain self-sufficiency in their lives. The ABA’s Commission and its Homeless Court Advisory Committee aid in the work of homeless courts by developing resources and best practices that courts can follow, offering training and technical assistance, and facilitating the creation of new homeless courts throughout the country. So far, the ABA has helped to establish roughly 70 homeless court programs operating across 21 states

How Homeless Courts Work

While each homeless court is different, all of the courts rely on collaboration with local homeless service agencies and homeless shelters. Resorting to homeless courts is voluntary, and accessibility is emphasized to facilitate their use. (Generally, homeless people are able to sign up at their local shelter.) The courts focus is on resolving common legal issues, such as outstanding misdemeanor offenses, traffic citations and warrants. After signing up, case workers meet withprospective participants to discuss the legal barriers that they face and to create a plan for a more stable future. 

The sentencing structure of homeless courts is designed to help assist those experiencing homelessness reintegrate into society.  It does this by stripping away punitive and coercive measures that traditional courts often utilize. In traditional court, municipal code violations typically are addressed with a fine that can be settled through ‘credit’ that is earned by spending days in custody. For example, traditional San Diego courts offer a “$50 credit” for each day spent in custody, so a $300 fine could be settled by spending 6 days in custody. Homeless courts have worked to improve upon this model by offering “credit for time served” for participants who complete activities offered through their shelter programs. According to the ABA, activities like life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer and literacy classes, training or searching for employment, medical care, counseling, and volunteer work may be used as credit depending on the housing court. 

Potential homeless court participants typically have the opportunity to begin these activities within the shelter or agency before they see a judge at homeless court. Oftentimes, individuals are able to accumulate enough credit by the time of their hearing date to satisfy the penalty associated with the alleged committed violation(s). Further, by ensuring that homeless court participants are already on the path to success by the time of their hearing, fewer hearings are required and less time is spent in the court, thereby reducing court costs. 

The Impact of Homeless Courts

The following example showcases how homeless courts work with communities to reduce homelessness and give participants the tools they need to create stability in their lives. 

San Diego

San Diego is home to the oldest rotating homeless court in the country and has continued to be a leader in the homeless court movement. The homeless court began in 1989 as part of a Stand Down event hosted by the Veterans Village of San Diego. In that very first homeless court session, 116 homeless veterans said that their biggest barrier to stability was outstanding legal issues. The Homeless Court Program (HCP) began as an annual event. However, because of need, the program turned to a quarterly schedule, and today the HCP runs on a monthly basis. 

The impact of San Diego’s HCP has been tremendous. Even when the program was only running annually (circa 1989-1992) the HCP was able to help 942 homeless veterans resolve 4,895 cases. Today the court has expanded to helping all individuals experiencing homelessness and has helped over 10,000 participants. Many of the cases brought to homeless court involve collection of fees that most HCP participants would never be able to pay back. For example, in 2018, San Diego’s HCP was able to satisfy $2,038,100 in fines and fees spread over 3,272 cases through alternative sentencing. The total number of cases that the HCP processed in 2018 was 4,226, split between 720 clients. 

San Diego’s Homeless Court Program has been streamlined, so that, when a participant goes before a judge, the resolution of their case has already been agreed upon and the hearing is mainly a formality. Those who would like to participate in the homeless court program are first paired up with an HCP provider who will refer them to the homeless court program only if they have completed the program’s requirements, which include “credit for time served” activities. This way the “sentence” that the participant receives is already completed prior to the time they will appear in court.

Many other homeless courts have modeled themselves off of the evolving practices of the HCP in San Diego. The Commission on Homelessness and Poverty of the American Bar Association, along with San Diego’s HCP has curated the San Diego Service Provider Toolkit that documents how providers can best implement homeless courts in their communities. The San Diego HCP was also highlighted in the Homeless and Community Court Blueprint, a document that outlines best practices for an effective homeless court.

Pro Bono and Homelessness 

There are many avenues for pro bono attorneys to play a part in reducing homelessness. Homeless courts often rely on the volunteer efforts of pro bono lawyers. For example, the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz(Baker Donelson) has many attorneys who actively volunteer with the Homeless Experience Legal Protection (HELP)program. The HELP program offers legal clinics for the homeless where pro bono lawyers address legal obstacles preventing participants from finding housing, obtaining employment, or accessing public assistance. Baker Donelson was also a key player in the organization and implementation of the homeless court program located in New Orleans in 2010, and more recently a homeless court in Nashville in 2019. There are also other opportunities pro bono volunteers can work towards the prevention of homelessness. Along with their other efforts, Baker Donelson attorneys devoted nearly 500 pro bono hours of research contributing to the 2020 State Index on Youth Homelessness. The report, from the National Homelessness Law Center and True Colors United, evaluates all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. By utilizing the Index, states can better allocate resources to prevent youth homelessness. PBI interviewed Jonathan Cole, a partner with Baker Donelson, on the firm’s pro bono efforts to reduce homelessness. Cole shared that “[i]t’s been very fruitful for our firm. I always just really enjoyed it, and it’s nice making a significant impact on a big issue like that, that’s present in all our cities that we have offices.” To access the interview, click here. 

The firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (Nelson Mullins) has helped to create multiple homeless courts throughout South Carolina. The first designated homeless court in the State started in Columbia, SC in 2015 and came about through a collaboration between Nelson Mullins, dedicated judges, the Richland County Solicitor’s Office, the Richland County Public Defender’s Office, the South Carolina Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and several other nonprofits. Nelson Mullins has also been involved in the creation of homeless court programs in Myrtle BeachFlorence, and Spartanburg. Similarly to Baker Donelson, Nelson Mullins is active in the HELP program and was a part of the movement to set up the program in Columbia, contributing both funding and pro bono attorneys to support bi-monthly legal clinics aiding the homeless. 

Helping the homeless with legal matters is not limited to law firms or jurisdictions that have active homeless courts. In 2020, the PBI recognized Amazon (in partnership with K&L Gates LLP) for providing services to Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that provides safe, inclusive shelters and services to support women, children, and families on their journey out of homelessness. Lawyers from Amazon and K&L Gates provide legal advice to Mary’s Place staff on corporate matters, in addition to guests at Mary’s Place shelters during legal clinics. Further, in 2020, Amazon provided space within one of its buildings to a new Mary’s Place family. Pro bono volunteers from Amazon’s Legal Department are able to meet with Mary’s Place guests in a legal office that will serve as a permanent clinic within the shelter. 

There are many ways for firms and corporations to help end the cycle of homelessness, whether it’s pro bono assistanceinvolving changing laws that criminalize homelessness, researching ways that states can better aid their homeless population, participating in clinics, or establishing homeless courts. The American Bar Association encourages new attorneys who are interested in becoming involved with homeless courts to learn more about the Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, join the ABA’s Advisory Committee, or to take advantage of free technical assistance training provided by the Commission to start a homeless court program in their community. 

Conclusion

With homelessness anticipated to skyrocket, it is imperative now more than ever that law firms and corporations involve their pro bono volunteers and choose a path to address homelessness in their communities.  Many people have been unable to work due to the pandemic, making it impossible for them to pay their rent or mortgage fees, and creating a grave threat of eviction and possibly homelessness. 

To combat this and decrease the spread of COVID-19, the federal government announced a temporary moratorium on evictions for missed rent payments. Roughly 6.5 million renters are currently behind on rent or mortgage payments, and it is expected that the end of the moratorium  will result in a tsunami of evictions and foreclosures. 

Homeless courts present one option for dealing with the current crisis in a constructive manner that benefits many.


August 30, 2021

Help us reach our goal of 200 signatories to the CPBO Challenge® initiative

PBI’s Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® (CPBO) initiative is celebrating its 15th Anniversary this year! 

Since 2006, more than 185 legal departments have signed the CPBO Challenge statement and committed to encouraging their legal staff to use their unique skills to provide pro bono legal services to those in need. We thank our many signatories, which include departments with longstanding pro bono programs and departments that have recently started programs, for their commitment to improving access to justice through pro bono. 

This year, CPBO staff and members of the CPBO Advisory Board are calling on General Counsels and Chief Legal Officers to sign onto the CPBO Challenge initiative on behalf of their legal departments. Please make a public commitment to supporting access to justice through pro bono. We hope to meet a goal of 200 signatories by the end of 2021, to increase the amount of available pro bono services for those who need it most.

Interested in joining the Challenge, but not sure where to begin? Over the years, we have helped many CPBO signatories start new in-house pro bono programs, or grow and professionalize existing programs. We have many resources, guides, and templates, to help, and CPBO staff are available for complimentary consultations.

The Challenge sets an aspirational goal that one-half of the department attorneys and staff will participate in pro bono annually. However, as our annual CPBO Challenge Report shows, many signatories are still working toward that goal! This aspirational goal is intended as a helpful target and a way to benchmark progress. It is not a barrier to joining the Challenge.

Are you ready to become a CPBO Challenge signatory, or interested in learning more? To join the Challenge, please complete this sign-on form, or email Corporate Pro Bono Director Alyssa Saunders for more information.

July 26, 2021

Lifted Eviction Moratorium Will Lead to Thousands of Renters Facing Eviction Without Representation

By Kristen Bolster

Over the past few years there has been action at the local level and increasingly at the state level to implement the right to counsel in eviction cases. This action most recently has occurred against the backdrop of COVID-19, at a time when many low-income renters were unable to work and faced the threat of being evicted during a global pandemic. To aid tenants during the pandemic, the federal government announced a national eviction moratorium to stop landlords from evicting tenants for missed rent payments. However, with the moratorium now expiring on July 31, 2021 and roughly 4.1 million renters not current on rent or mortgage payments, eviction or foreclosure in the coming months is likely for millions of Americans. Housing court will soon be filled with tenants trying to plead their case, many without representation from an attorney.

The movement for a right to counsel in eviction cases seeks to redress the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords in housing court. Having the assistance of a lawyer in housing court can mean the difference between staying in one’s home or being forced out. One study found that two-thirds of tenants who had an attorney were able to stay in their homes, compared with one-third of tenants who represented themselves in housing court. Yet, in jurisdictions across the U.S., the majority of tenants face evictions without a lawyer, while the vast majority of landlords, 85 to 90 percent in some housing courts, are represented. 

Not only is the right to counsel in housing an issue of income inequality, as renters typically have less than half the income of homeowners and therefore have less funds to pay for representation, but there is also a racial justice component. Black and Hispanic tenants are disproportionately affected by eviction; this impact has been heightened during the pandemic. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that Hispanic and Black renters were more likely to lose employment income during the pandemic than other renters, and the share of Hispanic and Black renter households reporting they are likely to be evicted in the next two months is twice as high as that of White or Asian renters. 

Realizing the large increase in homelessness that could result from lifting the eviction moratorium, cities and states across the U.S. have done combinations of passing legislation, passing ballot measures, enacting city ordinances, and creating pilot programs to give more tenants access to counsel when their home is at stake. Even before the pandemic and the greater need for a right to counsel, pro bono attorneys have been and continue to be leaders in eviction defense cases. They have been the backbone of pilot programs that in many cases have eventually led to fully funded programs. 

In our paper on The Movement to Secure Right to Counsel in Housing, Pro Bono Institute has been tracking the right to counsel movement from cities that started out with pilot programs, to cities that created fully implemented and funded programs, to states that have now implemented the statewide right to counsel in eviction cases. 

The right to counsel movement began at the citywide level in New York City and San Francisco and has expanded from there. As the right to counsel in housing has become more prominent, more cities have begun to follow the lead and pass their own legislation. Cities that have secured the right to counsel have done so through a variety of ways, including contracting with nonprofit organizations to manage a right to counsel program or directly funding and managing a program. Each right to counsel city has different qualifications that tenants facing eviction must meet to receive counsel, such as having a certain median household income, being able to qualify for public assistance, or in some cases, having children in the household. 

Not only have cities begun to realize the disparities in representation that tenants face in housing court when they are not able to access an attorney, but several states–Washington, Maryland, and Connecticut–have stepped up to secure the right to counsel in eviction cases. Many cities have also created pilot programs that rely on a combination of city-funded support and pro bono representation to serve low-income tenants and provide counsel to meet the needs of underserved individuals. 

While these cities and states have made great strides to establish a right to counsel in housing, there are thousands of other locales where tenants who cannot afford representation enter housing court, facing eviction, with no legal assistance. Once the eviction moratorium expires at the end of July, many low-income renters will face this reality. Homelessness may become a greater problem in many cities, as having an eviction filing on record can make it much harder for an evicted renter to find a new place to live because some landlords refuse to rent to individuals with an eviction record.

Now more than ever, it is important that pro bono attorneys prepare to get involved and volunteer so that renters have a fair opportunity to make their case before being forced from their home. 

See The Movement to Secure Right to Counsel in Housing to learn more about the right to counsel movement.

States with Right to Counsel Laws Cities with Right to Counsel LawsCities with Right to Counsel Pilot ProgramsStates that have Bills Pending or are Considering Legislation
WashingtonBoulder, COSanta Monica, CANebraska
MarylandLouisville, KYHouston, TXMinnesota
ConnecticutPhiladelphia, PAMinneapolis, MNSouth Carolina
 New York City, NYMultiple Cities in New JerseyNew Jersey
 San Francisco, CARochester, NYNew York
 Newark, NJ Massachusetts
 Cleveland, OH  
July 8, 2021

COVID-19’s Lasting Impact on Small Businesses

by Ron Kharmach, PBI Intern

On May 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear masks or socially distance in most circumstances. This milestone is a leap forward toward a sense of normalcy in the United States that has been eroded this past year due to COVID-19. Yet the widespread economic damage—including to small businesses—that the global pandemic caused, and the related need for legal services, is likely to outlast mask mandates. The loss of income and customer base prompted many small businesses to close temporarily. Others have shut their doors forever.

From the first U.S. COVID-19 case on January 20, 2020 to May 5, 2021, the number of open small businesses decreased by 33.8% in the United States. However, the national percentage doesn’t tell the full story: small business closures have disproportionally affected certain states, economic sectors, and minority groups. 

By geographic location, the decrease in the number of small businesses open as of May 5, 2021 is -34.9% in New York, -36.6% in California, -39.8% in Michigan, and -43.7% in the District of Columbia. This decrease, across the board, represents the lost livelihoods and incomes of the workers who are the cornerstone of the U.S. economy. For example, in California, small businesses employ nearly half of the state’s private workforce. The consequences are not isolated; rather they compound to create further financial losses and uncertainty, including bankruptcy, relocation, and increased debt, for business owners and their employees. 

The declines in small businesses are starker when accounting for differences across demographic groups. Metropolitan areas, such as New York and San Francisco, with a high concentration of Asian and Black communities, have witnessed sharp declines in Asian- and Black-owned businesses in proportion to overall business closures. The percentage of minority-owned businesses also declined in non-metropolitan locales. These closures not only impact business owners, but also employees of shuttered businesses and their families. They may face crises like eviction, food insecurity, lack of health care, and other hardships, which, during the pandemic, have disproportionately impacted Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households.

By industry, the leisure and hospitality small business sector was one of the hardest hit with a 50.7% decrease from January 20, 2020. Its decline has probably been the most visible with local restaurants and traditional bed-and-breakfast locations putting up “Closed” and “For Sale” signs on their front doors. The retail and transportation small business sector was also affected with a 29.9% decrease, following the transition to remote work and an increase in online purchases. There is hope for a rebound after the pandemic, but no guarantee that laid off workers will get their old jobs back. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that at as of the end of May 2021, 3.2 million Americans have been permanently laid off and 1.8 million are experiencing temporary unemployment from a total of 9.3 unemployed persons.

The decline in small businesses across industries also reflects the ways in which Covid-19 affects diverse communities differently. Within the restaurant and food services industry, the decline of 31% includes a high concentration of Asian owners (20%). In the taxi and limousine services industry, the decline of 73% includes a significant concentration of Black small business owners (31%). Whether the data is reflective of disproportionate minority business closures across industries is uncertain because of limited information regarding industry composition. It is likely that as the impacts of the pandemic continue to be documented, pertinent data to that effect will be released. 

However, there are still two key takeaways about minority-owned small business closures. First, the constitution of minority-owned small businesses across industries is closely tied with the proportion of business closures—which have disproportionally affected Asian and Black communities. Second, regardless of the proportion of minority-owned small businesses that have closed, the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Black communities are experiencing critical financial difficulties due to the pandemic. 

The optimistic news about the end of the pandemic being around the bend can still feel distant to struggling small business owners and their staff. The legal community can have an impact in supporting small businesses through pro bono work. Programs such as the Lawyers for Good Government COVID-19 Small Business Remote Legal Clinic have helped hundreds of microbusiness owners and nonprofits over the past year. These and other virtual clinics have been tailored to help small business owners address a number of issues, including applying for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans, which have an outsized impact in helping a small business remain open and pay their staff. Recent research has shown a positive correlation between government relief packages, such as the CARES Act, and increasing Black entrepreneurship in startup formation. These results magnify the social value created beyond the storefront to the families relying on their loved ones who own and work at small businesses to buy groceries, medicine, and school supplies. To find out more information about pro bono opportunities to support small businesses in your area, please contact Pro Bono Institute

June 8, 2021

Looking Back While Looking Forward

Revisiting the PBI 2021 Annual Conference

The cicadas are chirping and the humid, hot days have arrived here in D.C., yet it doesn’t feel so long ago that PBI hosted its springtime Annual Conference. From March 23 – 26, 2021, PBI virtually welcomed hundreds of pro bono leaders from the in-house, law firm, and public interest sectors. Here are a few takeaways that reflect back on the Conference while also speaking to the future of pro bono:

  1. Pro bono lawyers are innovating and collaborating to address the crises of our time. During a year that changed the way we practice law, pro bono leaders and volunteers stepped up to start new programs necessitated by the pandemic. For instance, back when “social distance” was still a new phrase in our lexicon, a coalition of nonprofits — recognizing that social distance is impossible in prison — efficiently organized a robust Compassionate Release Clearinghouse to represent prisoners seeking compassionate release from incarceration. The project, which went from inception to securing the release of its first two clients in just forty days, drew strength from many participating firms, allowing it to serve more clients, at a time when every delay meant the increased spread of Covid-19 through the facility. 

    As we confront societal crises in the future, consider how coalitions across the nonprofit and private sectors can magnify their impact by working together. (To learn more, check out How We Raised An Army: The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse COVID-19 Project.)

  2. The future is (not only) virtual. Many session speakers and attendees discussed how their program transitioned to remote pro bono over the past year. This change had some benefits, such as eliminating transportation and childcare barriers for clients seeking to attend a clinic. Attorneys can also deliver services far across the state in which they are licensed, particularly in rural communities and other neighborhoods that have fewer local legal aid and pro bono attorneys. However, a significant problem is that clients who lack access to the requisite technology – be it a computer, a data plan or Wifi to use Zoom, or minutes on a prepaid phone – are not being served. (Many volunteers missed the opportunity to get to know their client in person, too.) 

    In the coming months, we expect to see organizations developing a mix of in-person and virtual pro bono programs, retaining remote delivery for clients who benefit while ensuring that clients who require in-person services do not fall through the cracks. (For more best practices and lessons learned, check out Pro Bono Zooms Into the Future: An Interactive Workshop.)


  3. Check in with your colleagues – and yourself – to curb compassion fatigue. During a session with expert Dr. Tracey Meyers, Psy.D. of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Massachusetts, attendees learned to recognize the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, a condition that can afflict those in the helping professions who serve an at-risk population. Attorneys experience anxiety and stress at higher rates than the general population already; the onset of compassion fatigue can harm their professional and personal lives. 

    Even with the hopeful reduction of pandemic-exacerbated anxiety and stress, pro bono volunteers serving vulnerable populations — and pro bono program leaders who support them — benefit from the tools and support systems to address compassion fatigue. (To learn more about causes and symptoms of, and solutions to, compassion fatigue, check out Running on Empty: How to Reduce Compassion Fatigue for Legal Professionals.)

  4. Companies and firms are making actionable their commitment to advance racial equity – including through pro bono. Over the past year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many companies and firms made public commitments to work toward racial equity. PBI worked with many law firm and in-house pro bono programs seeking to implement a racial equity lens to their pro bono program. During a Conference session, several expert panelists discussed how a system of discriminatory housing policies over many decades laid the groundwork for ongoing racial disparities in housing today. These inequities include: Black households are at far greater risk of eviction; Black people and other people of color are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness; Black families are more likely to live in low-opportunity areas (lacking equal access to quality housing, schooling, job opportunities, health care, and nutritious food); and Black people are less likely to own a home. 

    There is a pressing need for pro bono attorneys to help not only with dismantling racist policies, but also serving individual clients who are harmed by these policies. For example, we expect to see pro bono attorneys getting trained to volunteer for eviction defense, as the pandemic-related eviction moratoria come to an end. (To learn more, check out Housing and Racial Justice.)

  5. In turbulent times, PBI continues to forge meaningful connections among in-house, law firm, and public interest pro bono leaders. Though we missed gathering in person in Washington, D.C., Annual Conference attendees took advantage of the many virtual networking and roundtable sessions to share triumphs, empathize over common challenges, crowdsource solutions, brainstorm innovations, and create new partnerships. Attendees also visited virtually with legal services and public interest organizations from across the country, to learn about pro bono opportunities and how they can serve.

    If you’d like PBI to help facilitate an introduction within the pro bono community, or if you’d like to reconnect with a fellow Conference attendee or PBI staff, please drop us a line. We look forward to seeing friends old and new at the 2022 PBI Annual Conference. 

Did you miss any of the programs from the 2021 PBI Annual Conference? Many sessions can be accessed on demand on West LegalEdcenter. Search for programming by Pro Bono Institute under “Content Provider.” Paid 2021 Annual Conference registrants should contact PBI for more information about how to revisit the Conference programs at no additional charge.

May 27, 2021

200+ Legal Department Leaders Call on Congress to Increase Funding for the Legal Services Corporation

For the fifth year in a row, legal department leaders have come together to support funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States. 

Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and its global in-house project, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), along with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), recently circulated a letter inviting General Counsel and Chief Legal Officers to sign on in support of increased funding for LSC for Fiscal Year 2022. 

The GCs and CLOs of 207 corporations of all sizes, representing a range of industries, and from locations across the country, signed on to the letter, delivered to Congress on May 25, 2021, calling for an increase in funding for LSC. The letter from the business community’s legal leaders also draws the media’s and public’s attention to the chronic underfunding of civil legal aid in the U.S. 

LSC is the cornerstone of ensuring access to justice in the U.S., providing resources and financial support to legal aid organizations around the country that serve individuals and communities in need, as well as structure and resources for pro bono volunteers from law firms and legal departments. Yet LSC has been historically underfunded. LSC’s FY2021 appropriation level is $465 million. Had LSC funding simply kept pace with inflation from its peak in FY1980, it would be around $1 billion today.[1]

Support from America’s corporate leaders historically has made a difference in securing funding for LSC when that funding was threatened.

Their continued support is critically important this year, because the COVID-19 pandemic has created an access to justice crisis. Due to the pandemic, client eligibility for civil legal aid services, those whose income is at or near the poverty level, has grown, with the poverty rate projected to be around 13.7 percent in 2021. In July 2020, LSC grantees reported an average 18 percent increase in the number of clients seeking help. The incidence of legal problems has also increased, with more than 85 percent of LSC grantees reporting an increase in requests for assistance in each of the areas of housing, income, and domestic violence. Prior to the pandemic, roughly 40 percent of eligible people seeking help from an LSC grantee were turned away because the organization lacked sufficient resources to assist them; the pandemic has made this problem more dire. 

On May 28, LSC requested an appropriation of $1.018 billion for FY 2022.  This request includes funds to enable LSC grantees to address 60% more civil legal problems than they served before the pandemic, and also to respond to the increased demand for civil legal services due to the impact of COIVD-19 on low-income communities. Also on May 28, the White House proposed a $6 trillion budget for 2022, which included $600 million for LSC. LSC called this request the largest ever proposed by an administration but still insufficient to meet the civil legal needs of low-income Americans.

CPBO is proud to support this effort to secure funding for LSC and thanks the GCs and CLOs for demonstrating their commitment to legal aid, access to justice, and pro bono legal services. For more information, please contact CPBO at cpbo@probonoinst.org. Read the full letter here.


[1] In FY1980, funding for LSC was $300 million (Department of State, Justice, and Commerce, the Judiciary and Related Agencies Appropriation Act, 1980. (Public Law 96-68). Inflation was calculated using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator (https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm). 

May 18, 2021

COVID-19 and Housing Insecurity

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, housing insecurity has increased. With over 20 million Americans having lost jobs or experienced pay cuts, access to stable and affordable housing has become increasingly important. Housing insecurity is defined by the Urban Institute as missing or deferring rent or mortgage payments or having little confidence in one’s ability to make rent or mortgage payments. An August 2020 study by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) reported that nearly one in three renters experienced housing insecurity each week from late April 2020 to July 2020. With approximately 3.3 million renters receiving an eviction notice or being threatened with eviction since the beginning of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic marks what could be the most severe housing eviction crisis in American history. Housing insecurity is not equally distributed across the population, and there is a dire need for local, state, and federal assistance for those living in particularly vulnerable communities. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, the CARES Act required landlords to issue a 30-day notice to renters before eviction and offered temporary federal rental assistance programs for those experiencing wage loss. However, this measure and all other relief initiatives have been temporary and partial in addressing the need for housing assistance. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) initiated an eviction moratorium in September, which temporarily prevents some eligible renters from being evicted. This moratorium, now set to expire in June 2021, has protected about 30 percent of renters as a short-term solution to the national housing eviction crisis. However, it does not prevent eviction proceedings from occurring altogether, nor does it absolve ongoing rent payment obligations of tenants. 

The COVID-19 Relief Bill was signed into law in late December, extending the federal eviction moratorium and providing $25 billion through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) towards emergency rental and utility assistance. Combined, federal and state-specific measures have prevented about 1.6 million evictions since the start of the pandemic. However, only a fraction of the need has been addressed. According to Princeton Eviction lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, in some states, including South Carolina, Illinois, Texas, and Georgia, many tenants are unaware of their rights under the eviction moratorium, leading to a continuation of proceedings in eviction courts despite the pandemic. There is an estimated $70 billion in back-rent payments owed by renters across the country with limited resources or income. Additionally, 30-40 million Americans now face immediate risk of eviction upon the expiration of the moratorium in June. Thus, there is a pressing need to provide long-term housing assistance to prevent a massive wave of cases overwhelming eviction courts.

Housing Insecurity’s Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Communities 
Discriminatory housing practices have consistently targeted communities of color in the United States, and these communities have faced unequal eviction practices long before the pandemic. This global health crisis has continued to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities, particularly those within low-income Black and Latinx communities. Though progress was made with the passage of the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act banning housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and marital status, advancements have been largely undermined by ongoing inequities in access to affordable and stable housing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although the current economic crisis is universally impacting millions of Americans, there are clear disparities in housing insecurity impacts along racial and ethnic lines. Renters of color have experienced more difficulty with mortgage payments, homelessness, and evictions in comparison to White Americans. When the pandemic first emerged within the United States, an estimated 34 million individuals were already living under the poverty threshold with 3.7 million eviction cases filed each year by landlords. These numbers were disproportionately higher for Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. A September 2020 tracking survey by the  Urban Institute found that nearly 45% of Black and Latinx renters nationwide have experienced housing insecurity since the start of the pandemic—a 13% increase since 2019. Another study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 78% of eviction filings within the first months of the pandemic in Boston occurred in communities of color. While an estimated 3.3 million renters had received an eviction notice by September, Black and Latinx renters were nearly four times more likely to be threatened with eviction or receive an eviction notice in comparison to white renters. 

Housing insecurity and rising unemployment create an ongoing, vicious cycle for renters facing eviction, since job and housing insecurity impact all other aspects of life. Throughout the pandemic, unemployment and housing insecurity have been mutually linked, as renters and mortgage holders who lost jobs and earnings are nearly three times more likely to experience housing insecurity in comparison to job secure households. Housing insecurity also makes it difficult for renters to maintain employment, and lease violations and evictions remain on tenants’ housing records which negatively impacts a renter’s ability to secure housing in the future. Racially disproportionate housing impacts and evictions also translate to profoundly different outcomes and negative consequences for vulnerable communities. Housing insecurity ultimately leads to limited access to education and increased chances of homelessness, lower income levels and homeownership, food insecurity, and poor health outcomes. 

With limited access to quarantine and isolation protections, people experiencing housing instability are more at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. A study by UCLA and Johns Hopkins researchers found that an estimated 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 deaths occurred after state eviction protections expired over the summer. The impact of lifting eviction moratoriums does not only cost Americans their homes and savings, but it also may cost them their lives. The long-lasting impact of the eviction process among households of color contributes to enduring racial inequalities in social, economic, and health outcomes. Federal, state, and legal aid assistance is desperately needed to confront these disparities through racially equitable approaches to securing housing stability. 

Pro Bono Opportunities to Address Housing Insecurity
As federal eviction moratorium deadlines are rapidly approaching, there is a critical need for pro bono lawyers to step up and provide access to affordable legal services for low-income renters facing evictions throughout the pandemic. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, approximately 90 percent of landlords have access to adequate legal representation throughout eviction proceedings in comparison to just 10 percent of renters. This lack of representation contributes to an overwhelming majority of renters losing eviction cases in courts, further contributing to the displacement of vulnerable renters.  For example, according to a 2016 study by The New York Times surrounding the legal right to counsel in eviction courts, eviction rates reduce from 90 percent to 50 percent when a renter has adequate legal representation. 

Pro bono attorneys can act in a variety of ways including interviewing clients, negotiating settlements, drafting and settling motions, conducting bench trials, advocating for sealing the client eviction records, and even litigating to prevent a client from reaching eviction courts altogether. For vulnerable renters facing eviction, this assistance can be the critical difference between displacement (and a downward spiral in quality of life) and stability (with an opportunity to build better futures). Linked below is a list of suggested resources and outlets for attorneys looking for ways to get directly involved in the pro bono efforts towards housing stability.

Thank you to PBI interns Nena Burgess and Robin Reikes for writing this blog.

Click here for ways to get involved in addressing housing insecurity through pro bono work.

April 21, 2021

A Holistic Approach to Second Chances

My First Visit to Minnesota Reentry Court
by Grace Dodig, PBI Intern

When imagining a courtroom, one word that comes to mind is intimidating. Even as an observer, I can feel my body stiffen when walking into a court. The security guards seem to watch like hawks, the judge presides above you, the attorneys appear cold and stern, and the courtroom itself feels sterile and detached. This reality can leave those participating in and observing court feeling isolated and nervous.

These preconceived notions about what a courtroom is like are anything but true when it comes to the District of Minnesota’s Reentry Court program. Twice a month the courtroom reconfigures itself into a warm, inviting, and supportive environment where formerly incarcerated individuals join a team of prosecutors, federal defenders, mentors, probation officers, and a judge to try and lessen the likelihood of returning to prison.

For formerly incarcerated individuals, this program serves as an alternative for traditional post-conviction supervision. The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism by providing a plethora of resources and people that can aid individuals with their transition back to the community. With 25% of adults in Minnesota returning to prison for a new felony conviction and 50% returning for a technical violation, programs that support successful reentry are much needed.

Pro Bono Institute was introduced to the District of Minnesota Reentry Court program through the Minnesota Collaborative Justice Project (MNCJP), a project of PBI and dozens of organizations in Minnesota to improve the experiences and outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals in Minnesota, thus enabling them to lead full and productive lives in the community. MNCJP offers pro bono legal assistance on civil matters to participants in Reentry Court and is one of the many programs that engages with and supports Minnesota’s Reentry Court.

As an intern at PBI, I had the opportunity to observe Reentry Court and witness firsthand the comfort and help this program provides its participants. Normally, the Reentry Court team and the program participants would join the judge in the courtroom. They all would convene around one table to establish a feeling of equality, rather than the typical superiority afforded to the judge when they are elevated and presiding over the courtroom. However, due to the pandemic, the meetings are now virtual and, like so many others, the leaders of Reentry Court have made a nearly flawless transition to life online. Instead of gathering around a table, participants and the Reentry Court team meet in gallery view via Zoom.

My visit began with a pre-meeting that the court holds prior to participants joining the Zoom call. For 50 minutes, I listened as the probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, health professionals, and judges discussed the progress many participants had made, as well as the setbacks some had experienced in the two weeks since the last session. With every bit of good news, there was a celebratory feeling that was tangible, even through the computer screen. With every challenge faced by a participant, there was immediate brainstorming about what to do moving forward. It was clear how important the participants’ success was to those involved with the program. Once Judge Nelson, one of the two judges who spearheaded this program, had been updated on the status of the participants, the mentors joined the call.

Reentry Court mentors are trained members of the community who are there to provide additional support to the participants. Some of the mentors have served time in prison and struggled to adjust once released. Being able to rely on someone who has been where you are is a type of support that cannot be replaced. For the next 10 minutes, the mentors contributed thoughts or updates they had regarding the participants. Once the mentors finished their discussion, the judge admitted the participants onto the Zoom call.

Reentry Court is all about collaboration, which means that all of the participants listen to one another. At one point, a participant was expressing frustration over something they were having trouble with and were wondering what they could do to address the issue. Without a beat, another participant quickly unmuted themself and offered advice. This type of transparent engagement has fostered a feeling of community that is strong. One participant even remarked that the communal aspect of the program helped them realize that they “were not the only one trying to make it.”

Reentry Court consists of four phases, completed over 12-18 months. During the session I attended, the program promoted a participant to the next phase. The look on that person’s face, as well as the faces of their peers and the team, was reason enough to support this program. Another reason is that participants in Reentry Court have a 40 percent lower rate of recidivism in comparison to formerly incarcerated individuals who do not participate in the program.

For far too many years, our justice system has focused on punishment, with the overarching mantra of being “tough on crime.”  But the District of Minnesota’s Reentry Court program is a step in the right direction and should serve as a model for other states moving forward.

Minnesota’s Reentry Court helps formerly incarcerated individuals adjust back into society by addressing not only the direct consequences of imprisonment, but the collateral consequences as well. Collateral consequences are the informal social and civil restrictions people face when returning to the community. Reentry Court aims to provide participants with the support and safety net they need to be successful. The program emphasizes honesty and accountability. In exchange, the program offers substantial resources. The program’s approach is holistic. It does not target one specific difficulty with regards to reentering society. The team makes it their mission to address all the difficulties individuals may face. They offer help with employment, obtention of identification, substance abuse, housing issues, mental health, and general guidance. The Reentry Court team treats participants like human beings that are worthy of a good life; while this may seem like the bare minimum, many aspects of our justice system have dehumanized those with criminal records.

Observing Reentry Court reminded me that everyone shares fundamental desires and struggles, and those who have a criminal record are facing the same issues the rest of us are, but for them, the stakes are higher. I am a second semester senior in college: all of my friends and peers are concerned about job prospects. Many of the participants of Reentry Court were also concerned about job prospects. However, if my friends don’t secure a job, most of them will be okay. They have families and networks to support them. If an individual on parole does not find a job, they may lose their parole eligibility and end up back in prison.

There are many seemingly simple and mundane tasks that many of us complete as a matter of course and with a boatload of help. We take for granted the small things in life, and we never take the time to think about those who are not offered constant help and assistance. Observing Reentry Court, I realized one big difference between myself and the participants is privilege. When you have privilege, a bad day or an unfortunate occurrence is just that. It is one small event in a lifetime of ease. When you don’t have privilege, a broken-down car leads to missing work, which leads to losing your job, which leads to you unable to support yourself, and can often land the formerly incarcerated right back in jail.

People are quick to avoid what is difficult. Sitting in on Reentry Court reminded me of how many people are left behind without a second thought and without help. I think this program forces those in positions of power to look into the eyes of those who have been caught in of our justice system, and I think this country would be a better place if everybody had to look, instead of turning a blind eye.

Grace Dodig is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who will attend Suffolk University Law School beginning in August 2021.

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