The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
December 8, 2020

Serving Immigrants Through Pro Bono in a Pandemic

As the pandemic and election results continue to headline newspapers and networks, pressing humanitarian issues remain at the Southern U.S.-Mexico border. In 2018, approximately 2,800 families were separated under the “zero-tolerance” policy. Separated children are treated by the immigration system as unaccompanied children[1] while their parents were deported awaiting their claims pending in the US. Although the family separation policy was rescindedagencies including the Office of Refugee Settlement (ORR), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have failed to establish a successful reunification system. 

Recent news reported that lawyers are unable to identify parents of 545 children, two-thirds of whom have already been deported to Central America. Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations have been trying to reunify these children with their families, language barriers, travel restrictions, and difficulties in reaching remote villages have hindered efforts. These difficulties are exacerbated due to the pandemic with containment measures across much of Central America. 

Since the pandemic, certain immigration courts have begun resuming non-detained hearings. However, as of November 30, non-detained cases without an announced date are generally postponed through December 18, 2020, a date that has been repeatedly extended this year (and likely will continue to be pushed back). Also as of November 30, the current number of active court cases backlogged is 1,273,885, with cases that may not be heard until 2024. Also as of November 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports that there are 16,614 individuals detained, including adults and juveniles, of whom 350 are currently under isolation or monitoring for COVID-19.[2] Data updated as of November 27 shows there have been 7,476COVID-19 positive cases among ICE detainees and 8 detainee deaths overall.[3] Freedom for Immigrants also provides a Detention Map that shows reports of COVID-19 cases and conditions in ICE detention. It’s dire. There have been reports of no social distancing, not enough hand sanitizer, and protective gear – or even medical staff and quarantine space in case of outbreaks.  

Both recent policies and the pandemic have contributed to the tremendous need for pro bono legal assistance for immigrants in the United States, who are not appointed counsel in their immigration court proceedings (unlike criminal defendants). If your firm or legal department is interested in getting involved with pro bono work serving immigrants during COVID-19, there are many resources and opportunities for remote pro bono work available, including the following:

  • The American Bar Association’s national Immigration Justice Project (IJP) provides insurance and training for lawyers interested in getting involved. They are encouraging release work through bond and parole representation, which can help to limit or shorten detention, alleviating risk of contracting COVID-19. They are looking for individuals to collect sponsor documents and petition to ICE through mail and email. Bond requires appearance before a judge but there is a COVID-19 standing order for telephonic representation. To volunteer, click here
  • Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition ensures equal justice for immigrant adult and children at risk of detention and deportation in Virginia and Maryland. During the pandemic, they are prioritizing certain services such as telephonic and video legal services, advocating for humanitarian release of detained immigrants through bond and parole, and working on ongoing legislation and advocacy efforts. They provide a mentorship program with CAIR Coalition attorneys supporting pro bono volunteers. To volunteer, click here
  • South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) serves immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley border region with a particular focus on the legal needs of adults and unaccompanied children in federal custody. They are looking for individuals to write parole requests, start habeas cases, write appeals, represent clients, and/or research actual conditions of home countries. To volunteer, click here.
  • Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA) is a legal resource centered created by the ABA that provides training and resources to support individuals representing children in immigration-related proceedings. In Texas, they provide more technical assistance and Texas-specific resources. CILA’s Pro Bono Portal is a national platform with varying options to do pro bono work among the youth. 
  • OneJustice provides skills, training, resources, and support to organizations to resolve legal problems for at-risk low-income people. Their Immigration Pro Bono Network provides a Training Calendar to connect attorneys, law students, and legal advocates to free immigration law trainings.
  • Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has opportunities for volunteers to assist children in need of protection by taking on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) cases, filing asylum applications, representing children in hearings, and more. KIND has been working closely with separated families affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy. No immigration experience is necessary. KIND provides training, mentoring and resources to represent children.

These are some recent examples of firms and organizations engaging in immigration pro bono work. 

  • PBI’s 2020 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award recipients, Amazon**, in partnership with KIND, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP*, and Bet Tzedek, represent unaccompanied migrant children seeking to remain in the U.S. due to conditions in their home countries. They represent more than 28 immigrant children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in hopes of obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) or asylum. So far, they have successful obtained SIJS status for 19 children and are continuing to make progress in other cases.
  • Freddie Mac’s** pro bono program has worked with CAIR Coalition to obtain court orders for individuals and families granting asylum and/or special visa in immigration-related proceedings in Virginia. The pro bono team fought for immigrants from El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • Kirkland & Ellis*, in partnership with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), has worked to provide pro bono counsel to immigrant families in need. Through Project Corazon, lawyers have been active in various levels of the immigration hearing process. Kirkland & Ellis has also provided immediate relief to families by advocating for asylum seekers in their credible fear interview (CFI), the first assessment of claims of immigrants seeking asylum in the US.  
  • Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo*, in partnership with the Political Asylum Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project, has provided extensive immigration work representing asylum seekers and children classified as Special Immigrant Juveniles. In addition, Mintz filed and won a lawsuit on behalf of immigrants who were jailed due to flawed detention hearings.

Are you working on an immigration pro bono project? Let us know at

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

Hat tip to PBI intern Emily Tran for drafting this blog. 

Interested in learning more about pro bono and immigration? Join us at PBI’s Annual Conference in March. Details coming soon!

[1] Unaccompanied children are screened and detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). If they pass certain conditions, they are placed under Human and Health Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)’s custody while their case is processed in immigration court. ORR manages the children until they can be released to family members or other individuals or organizations (sponsor). 

[2] ICE’s Average Daily Population in 2019 was 50,165.

[3] Deaths include detainees who have died after testing positive for COVID-19 while in ICE custody; COVID-19 may not be the official cause.

November 16, 2020

Advancing Environmental Justice Through Pro Bono

“Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” 
Dr. Robert Bullard

The coronavirus has laid bare the urgent need for environmental justice and its relevance in combating institutional racism. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other people of color and low-income communities. The institutional and structural inequalities in this country have put certain communities at a disadvantage to combat this virus.[1]

What is Environmental Justice?

During the 1980s, grassroots environmental organizations recognized disparities in the location of pollution and toxic wastes. Policymakers and corporations, choosing certain geographical areas to place polluting and waste disposal facilities, made decisions that prioritized their economic benefit to the detriment of communities of color and low-income communities. These intentional decisions were facilitated by discriminatory practices and policies, such as housing segregationracist zoning practices, and infrastructure development (or the lack thereof) that marginalized and oppressed Black and Brown people. Although racially discriminatory environmental practices are currently addressed through a patchwork of  federal laws and policies, including the Fair Housing ActTitle VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Executive Order 12898 (February, 1994)National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and 42 U.S. Code § 4332, the legacy of discriminatory policies continue and still affect communities of color today. 

Due to increased exposure to toxins, communities of color and low-income communities experience adverse health outcomes with less access to care. These concerns led to the development of the term, “environmental justice,” and the rise of the environmental justice movement to better protect marginalized communities.  

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment[2] and meaningful involvement[3] of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  

Examples of environmental issues relating to environmental justice include “any environmental pollutant, hazard or disadvantage that compromises the health of a community or its residents.” Frequent environmental issues relate to: 

Pro Bono & Environmental Justice

Several law firms have become active in environmental justice pro bono work and have made a significant impact on communities of color and low-income communities. Below are some victories achieved by pro bono lawyers:

  • Housing: Proskauer’s* pro bono team, contributed to the attainment of the federal order that required the New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”) to “implement enhanced procedures to ensure the effective and timely remediation of mold and excessive moisture.” This order impacts more than 400,000 New Yorkers who live in the NYCHA apartments, the largest public housing authority in the country – 150,000 of whom live in areas that experience the highest rates of asthma in NYC.
  • Waste: Hughes Hubbard & Reed*, co-counsel for several local New York communities, successfully defended New York City’s “waste equity law” against a challenge from the waste industry by filing an amicus brief. The city ignored environmental reviews to pass a law that would increase traffic and air pollution.
  • Water: White & Case* successfully reached a settlement for students in Flint, Michigan. The children have been exposed to lead in their drinking water for 18 months during the Flint Water Crisis. 

Examples of Partner Organizations

Sample organizations that directly work on environmental justice pro bono matters:

  • Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment (CRPE) is a national environmental justice organization providing legal, organizing, and technical assistance to grassroots groups in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest environmental law organization working to protect people’s health, preserve places and wildlife, advance clean energy, and combat climate change.
  • Green Pro Bono offers pro bono legal help for green social entrepreneurs. They connect attorneys with different climate change NGOs based on their preferred area of law.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) is a non-profit organization fighting for racial justice through litigation, advocacy, and public education. 
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) is a non-profit organization that helps eliminate the unfair burden of environmental hazards in low-income communities and communities of color. 

Sample organizations that do not provide legal services, but work to further equity in the environment:

  • MN350’s mission is to unite Minnesotans to bring about sustainable energy and create “a just and healthy future for all.” Their vision also seeks to dismantle “systems of racism, gender oppression, the dispossession of indigenous people, and predatory capitalism.”
  • OPAL works to advance environmental justice in areas such as transportation, air quality, energy, and housing in Oregon. 
  • Urban Sprouts provides safe, low-barrier pathways to improving the health of San Francisco communities.
  • Louisiana Bucket Brigade fights to free neighborhoods from industrial pollution and advance the transition towards clean energy. 
  • Community to Community works to empower under-represented people and restore justice to food, land, and cultural practices.

For more information about advancing environmental justice through pro bono, please contact PBI at

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

** The information contained within is for informational purposes only. The organizations listed have not been vetted or endorsed by Pro Bono Institute.

Hat tip to PBI intern Emily Tran for her significant assistance.

[1] For example, low-income communities and communities of color are often located in areas with heavy industry, coal-fired power plants, and highly trafficked roads, which tend to have lower air quality, including higher concentrations of small particulates (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns across or PM2.5). Science has shown that exposure to higher PM 2.5 levels contribute to higher incidences of asthma, heart disease, and other health conditions that increase a person’s COVID-19 mortality rate. Thus, it is not surprising that there is a strong correlation between higher COVID-19 higher mortality rates and those exposed relatively high levels of PM2.5. Studies have shown that those in poverty had a 1.35 times higher burden from the emissions than the overall population. Health disparities for Blacks revealed a 1.54 times higher burden than the overall population.

[2] Fair treatment means “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”

[3] Meaningful involvement means:

  • “People have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health.
  • The public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision.
  • Community concerns will be considered in the decision-making process.”
October 13, 2020

Get Ready to Celebrate a Virtual Pro Bono Week

This year marks the American Bar Association’s (ABA) 12th Annual Celebration of Pro Bono. This event is meant to encourage local communities to plan events that focus on pro bono work and celebrate the lawyers who have donated their time to provide legal services to those unfortunate. During these pressing times of COVID-19, it is even more important to highlight the pro bono work individuals and organizations are doing. This year’s theme, aligning with current events, is “Rising to Meet the Challenge: Pro Bono Response to COVID-19”. This event will last from October 21 – 31, 2020, with many bar associations, legal departments, law firms, and other groups hosting their own Pro Bono Week events throughout the country. This is a unique opportunity to explore events across the country. Some of the virtual events include:

  • panel on the history of voting rights in San Diego, CA that touches on topics such as the 15th Amendment, current barriers for citizens to vote, and how COVID-19 challenges affect elections.
  • legal advice hotline in Houston, TX where individuals could receive legal advice from a volunteer attorney at no cost. 
  • webinar on the best practices representing immigrant clients in Bismarck, ND.
  • An expungement training seminar in Woodbury, NJ, organized by South Jersey Legal Services. 

Check out this map or this calendar provided by the ABA for events available to you.

Here in Washington, D.C., the Washington Council of Lawyers is presenting DC Pro Bono Week (Oct 25-31) with clinics, webinars, luncheons, and more, including:

  • Coding Justice, a collaborative event that explores creative solutions to traditional legal problems. This year, there will be a group o professional outside the legal sector that will lead a discussion on serving clients remotely.
  • Pro Bono Goes Green, hosted by the Environmental Law Institute and featuring a panel to discuss opportunities for involvement in environmental and climate change initiatives.
  • Small Business Brief Advice Legal Clinic, allows current and small business owners to speak with an attorney about their legal problems. Volunteers can shadow veteran volunteers during their first consultations. 
  • Advancing Racial Justice and Equity, a webinar with experts in the field and attorneys who work on these issues.

With most of this year’s events online, you can find many opportunities to kickstart or further develop your pro bono work. How are you participating in Pro Bono Week? Let us know at

September 30, 2020

Pro Bono Fairs Then and Now: Don’t Let Distance Interfere with Your Fair!

PBI’s Corporate Pro Bono project (CPBO) has worked with legal departments and Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) chapters over the years to host in-house pro bono fairs.  Pro bono fairs are a great opportunity to introduce in-house attorneys and legal department staff to local legal services organizations that offer pro bono opportunities.  In-house attorneys and staff interested in pro bono participate in presentations by local legal services organizations about pro bono opportunities, and networking with pro bono peers.  Historically, coffee and croissants were on the menu, too.

For example, in December 2019, CPBO partnered with Bank of America* to host an in-house pro bono fair for the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) region.  At the pro bono fair, held in Bank of America’s D.C. office, representatives from the following organizations participated to share information about their organizations and available pro bono opportunities: Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE), Legal Services of Northern Virginia, and Wills for Heroes.  The event included a networking breakfast for local in-house pro bono leaders; a program featuring brief presentations by in-house volunteers who discussed their work, and by representatives of local legal services organizations; and then an opportunity for volunteers to connect with organization representatives at a networking fair.  

Similarly, earlier last year, CPBO was one of many participating organizations in an In-House Pro Bono Breakfast & Fair coordinated by the ACC National Capital Region (NCR) chapter, held at the D.C. Bar’s offices.

However, as we all know, 2020 looks very different than 2019!  What’s a department to do?  One solution is to have a virtual pro bono fair.  (Attendees just have to provide their own caffeine and snacks.)  

Inviting local organizations to call in to a pro bono fair or participate in a fair through video-conferencing can be an effective way to learn about pro bono service opportunities in a particular location or on particular issues.  

Additionally, many organizations have already created the raw materials needed for a virtual fair. For example, the DC Virtual Pro Bono Fair is an online video directory of legal services providers in the Washington metropolitan area hosted by Pro Bono Net.  This allows organizations to reach a wide audience at any time convenient for the attendees.  

Live virtual fairs are also an option! On September 23, 2020, CPBO, along with ACC NCR, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, and Washington Council of Lawyers (WCL), co-sponsored the In-House Pro Bono in the Time of Covid-19 virtual pro bono event. Pat McGlone, general counsel of Ullico*, and former DC bar president, moderated the virtual fair. Representatives from D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), and Maryland Legal Services each pitched their pro bono opportunities. Many also provided a volunteer’s perspective on key issues like training, mentoring, time commitment, and why the work is meaningful. 

Attorneys from law firms, public interest organizations, and in-house counsel from around the region attended the one-hour Zoom webinar. The panel highlighted a wealth of manageable pro bono legal services opportunities for attorneys to provide during the COVID‑19 public health crisis. Transactional work, litigation, wills, voting rights, immigration, and brief advice clinical opportunities were among the types of opportunities shared. 

In-House Pro Bono in the Time of COVID-19 proved to be successful and effective, even though the format was different than a traditional in-person pro bono fair. To learn more about this virtual pro bono fair, check out Washington Council of Lawyers’ blog recapping the webinar. 

Don’t let social distancing interfere with your fair!  If your legal department needs help coordinating a virtual pro bono fair, please reach out to CPBO at

*Indicates Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® Signatory

September 24, 2020


Anyone following pro bono is well aware that COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for access to justice. Just as during the Great Recession (December 2007 through 2009), millions of Americans, who would otherwise have jobs, find themselves unemployed. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many Americans found themselves out of work after the first three months of the pandemic as were unemployed after three years of the Great Recession. (20.5 million Americans were out of work at the end of May 2020 compared to 6.2 million in February of 2020 — an increase of 14.3 million, whereas the Great Recession increased joblessness by 8.8 million.[1])  This alone creates a one-two punch to the gut of access to justice by increasing the need for legal services and reducing the public’s ability to pay for such services. 

However, COVID-19 complicates matters another two-fold. First, it has produced a novel situation accompanied by new legal rights and obligations (e.g., laws and regulations providing compensation related to the pandemic and proscribing various actions by landlords, lenders, and employers), which result in a new legal maze that those affected are forced to navigate. Second, it raises many hurdles to the provision of legal services (e.g., closed courts and other forums, the inability to meet directly with clients, an increased reliance on technology). Those wishing to better understand the challenges to access to justice during the pandemic are encouraged to listen to the Pro Bono Institute (PBI)[2] podcast series:  The Challenge of COVID-19:  Legal Community in Action

Those following the legal industry will also know that many law firms have seen a substantial reduction in business. A large number of law firms took swift action to rebalance staffing to match reduced demand, and even more firms adjusted attorney compensation to account for the reduced productivity of lawyers. According to our review of information published by Law360[3] regarding 142 of the largest firms in the U.S.:

  • Fifteen percent of firms have engaged in layoffs.
  • Twenty-five percent of firms have furloughed employees.
  • Fifty-two percent of firms have imposed pay cuts (about one-sixth of which have been subsequently moderated).
  • Forty-five percent of firms either dropped or shortened their summer associate programs.

These statistics understate the true over-capacity situation, as some firms view mandatory reductions in force (RIFs) as purely a reaction to under productivity of some of their employees and do not associate such RIFs with COVID-19. Still other firms have offered lawyers voluntary packages (e.g., reduced hours for reduced pay) that are not counted in these numbers.  

            With regard to start dates for spring 2020 law school graduates, a survey by the National Association for Law Placement[4] found that 62 percent of law firms with established start dates have pushed such dates back from the fall of 2020 to January 2021, and 50 percent of all firms had yet to set a start date as of the time of the survey. While we have heard reports of numerous firms rolling back pay reductions, there has not been a similar flurry of reports of firms pushing start dates back up. It seems safe to conclude that we are still more than three months away from most firms’ anticipated new attorney start dates, and, as the pandemic rolls on, many firms may be looking for ways to postpone back start dates even further.

In response to the Great Recession, 44 of the country’s 50 most profitable firms offered or imposed delayed start dates for the would-be fall of 2009 class of associates. About 60 percent of those firms delayed start dates until 2010, with a few pushing back start dates a full year or later.[5]  About half of these firms provided their deferred associates with stipends, and the stipends offered by firms with the lengthier delays were largely tied to the deferred associates accepting some form of pro bono work during the deferral period (i.e., “Deferred Associates Programs”). For its part, PBI issued a paper titled: Law Firm Attorneys Displaced by the Economic Downturn: Best Practices and Guidance for Effective Pro Bono Engagement, which provided guidance and direction to firms developing and implementing Deferred Associate Programs.  

One consistent element of the Great Recession-era Deferred Associates Program was program duration. In that instance, firms adopting Deferred Associates Programs frequently delayed attorney start dates for a full year. Today, the uncertainty of the duration of pandemic-related impacts on law firms and the ability of firms to properly integrate new hires are complicating factors in relaunching a Deferred Associates Program. However, law firms are gaining a longer-term perspective after having dealt with the initiation pandemic shock, as evidenced by 1) numerous firms announcing roll backs of some of the austerity measures initiated in the spring, and 2) some firms returning a portion of their employees to in-office based work, at least part time. This should help with program planning, though considerable uncertainty remains.  

Further, there is general recognition that a return to some form of normalcy cannot be expected with a high degree of confidence before 2021. As a result, there is sufficient time for firms who promptly take up the Deferred Associates Program mantle to implement and complete a successful program before business demands create a scarcity in available associate resources.

Needs of Legal Service and Public Defender Organizations 

With law firms paring back associate hours in a variety of ways while the need for pro bono legal assistance is growing, the PBI Law Firm Pro Bono Project® initiative launched an investigation as to whether the time is ripe for revival of deferred and loaned associates programs. Such loaned talent would remain on the lending law firm’s payroll but be committed at a mutually agreed upon level (normally full time) to assisting a specific legal services or other public interest organization (collectively, Public Interest Organizations or PIOs).  To understand the Public Interest Organization point of view, we collaborated with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) to poll legal services organizations and public defenders (collectively, Legal Services Providers or LSPs) regarding (1) their interest in a Deferred Associates Program, and (2) how such a program would need to be structured to make a positive contribution to their programs. (PBI is grateful to LSC and NLADA for their irreplaceable assistance with our polling.) 

 A few key facts developed from our poll evidence a convincing case for law firms to consider implementing a Deferred Associate Program that fits their current circumstances:

  • Program Duration. There was significant interest in programs that lend associates to LSPs for periods consistent with the likely remaining duration of the pandemic’s greatest impacts.
    • About 33 percent of the LSPs were open to programs as short as three months.
    • Interest jumps to over 80 percent for programs running for at least six months.
  • Location. Work-from-home policies would not be an impediment to successful Deferred Associate Programs. 
    • Less than 40 percent of LSPs would prefer the borrowed associates to be physically placed in their offices.  
    • Twenty-five percent of the LSPs expressed a preference that the borrowed associates work from outside the LSP’s offices.
  • Bar Admission. Many LSPs would welcome deferred associates regardless of bar admission status. 
    •  More than 40 percent of LSPs would welcome assistance from lawyers that are either (1) not admitted in the state where the LSP (or the LSP’s client) is located, or (2) have yet to be admitted anywhere (i.e., newly graduated law students who have yet to gain bar admission).
  • Value of Program. Deferred associates were judged to be very useful overall.
    • Sixty percent of respondents rated usefulness as a five on a scale of one to five.
    • Another 30 percent rated usefulness as a four, with the remaining 10 percent rating usefulness at three.

Access PBI’s Deferred Associates Survey Response Summary.


Based on these key findings and the other findings from our survey, PBI believes Deferred Associate Programs would be beneficial and practicable for law firms to implement and a valuable tool for enhancing access to justice at a time of particular need. One of our LSP survey respondents noted:  “It was great for us last time around.” And with the experience gained from firms that adopted Deferred Associate Programs in response to the Great Recession and the greater sophistication of today’s law firm pro bono programs and PIOs, law firms can be confident that they will reap the benefits of such programs. As one survey respondent said: “I will be willing to make this work in any form possible.”

In designing Deferred Associate Programs, law firms should consider the number of associates they are willing to lend, how long they are willing to commit associates to legal services organizations, the level of training the associates will have, the bar admission status of those associates, and what additional support the law firm can provide beyond providing a stipend to the participating associates.[6]  Such details are crucial to determining whether they are truly prepared to implement a Deferred Associates Program and finding the right PIO with which to partner.

Of course, the more attorneys a law firm can spare, the longer each lawyer is available, the more flexibility lawyers have as to working location, and the more focus given on PIOs located in the jurisdictions where the lawyers are admitted, the easier it will be to find opportunities. However, the range of needs of PIOs spans a broad gamut. For example, a few LSPs were only looking for help from one attorney, but about five percent could use the assistance of 10 or more loaned associates. As a general matter, many good matches should exist for firms willing to loan two associates for six months, particularly where such associates are based in markets where numerous LSPs are located.  With regard to the latter consideration, public defenders tend to find it particularly important for loaned associates to be able to be physically present. On the other hand, they expressed much greater openness to working with recent law school graduates who have yet to be admitted to any bar compared to legal services organizations.

In addition, law firms should consider the following considerations:

  • Cultural compatibility between the PIO and the loaned associate(s) is essential.
  • To that end, best practices would include providing partner PIOs an opportunity to screen candidates.
  • Provide PIOs with meaningful assurances of commitment to the agreed upon length of the loan and take steps to shield loaned attorneys from requests to prioritize billable firm work whenever partners might find it expedient to “recall’ associates.
  • Create robust pathways between the firm, loaned lawyers, and the PIO for coordination, communications, and reporting.
  • Clearly establish whether attorney travel or on-site work is contemplated and under what conditions travel or on-site work may be added or subtracted to account for change.

PBI encourages law firms to adopt Deferred Associate Programs tailored to their needs and the needs of participating PIOs. One recent example is Ropes & Gray,[7] which announced that it is stepping forward with a current, timely and committed Deferred Associate Program that offers an optional deferral year to incoming and existing associates. Under the Ropes & Gray program, associates can choose to work for a nonprofit, public interest organization or approved government entity for a year and will receive a pre-tax stipend of $80,000 from the firm and eligibility for the firm’s health insurance.[8]  

As PBI continues to work on its Deferred Associate Program initiative, we invite law firms and interested PIOs to express their interest in such programs by emailing us at PBI staff stands ready to assist firms and PIOs develop programs tailored to their individual circumstances. 

[1] The unemployment rate has fallen each month since May, but, as of August, still stood at twice as high as pre-pandemic levels. These unemployment statistics do not include individuals looking for jobs and an increasing portion of the jobless that have stopped looking for employment.

[2] Pro Bono Institute® and PBI® are registered trademarks of Pro Bono Institute.

[3]  (Note: this page is updated periodically. Current statistics are likely to vary slightly from those set forth in this PBI article.)



[6] For example, some survey respondents indicated that it would be helpful for law firms to provide laptops and technical support required for loaned associates to work remotely.

[7] Ropes & Gray LLP is a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member and a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory.


September 22, 2020

NY COVID-19 Pro Bono Task Force Channels the Spirit of Volunteerism

PBI recently spoke with former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, of counsel at Latham & Watkins and chair of the NYC Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, to hear more about what the task force has been up to since its establishment in April and his debut on PBI’s podcast in July.

The NYC COVID-19 Pro Bono Recovery Task Force was created by Chief Judge Janet DiFiori and Hank Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA).  Members include leaders from major NYC law firms, legal service organizations, corporations, courts, and law schools.  This partnership with the New York State Court System is charged with overseeing the pro bono network of lawyers and organizations assisting in immediate and long-term recovery pro bono efforts to effectively and efficiently meet the surging legal demands of the pandemic.

The following are updates from Judge Lippman and Latham about the work of the Task Force:

What has the task force been focused on since we last spoke in April? 

Lots! Since April, the Task Force has created sub-groups, or modules, for each of the major areas of substantive legal work being affected by the pandemic. These groups have or are in the process of identifying pro bono projects that can help alleviate the burden on legal services organizations and operational improvements to make providers and client’s lives easier. 

A few success stories include helping well over 1,000 people with unemployment insurance issues, the launch of a surrogate’s court initiative to help process small estates of people who died from COVID-19, the launch of a project to assist with guardianship/adoption issues for children of parents who died of COVID-19, a training series on diversity and cultural humility geared towards pro bono volunteers, a report to the Chief Judge regarding procedural and administrative changes to help alleviate the surge of eviction and housing cases (some of which have already been adopted), and an initiative to second (extern) law firm associates to legal services organizations for 3-6 month periods that is getting off the ground now. 

What are some notable updates that the task force has discovered on the type of legal demands and/or challenges that are arising now and demands and/or challenges that are expected to increase in the future? 

Working with clients and the courts remotely as a result of social distancing practices and general health concerns has been and will continue to be a significant challenge. Several of our modules are identifying ways to better connect pro bono attorneys with their clients remotely. For example, the report I mentioned earlier to the Chief Judge regarding procedural and administrative changes to help alleviate the surge of eviction cases included recommendations to have mandatory adjournment periods when the parties are both represented by counsel during which the parties can assess housing assistance options and pursue settlement in order to avoid going to the courthouse. We are also looking to find ways to leverage the remote working trends by connecting clients in so-called legal “deserts” with pro bono attorneys from more populous areas (in particular from NYC).

What are some collaborations or partnership efforts that have come out the task force formation? 

Each module is a fully collaborative effort that is led by a task force member, in most cases supported by a law firm team, and the modules typically meet with legal services organizations, law schools, in house counsel, local bar association leadership, etc. to get their input into the projects they are creating. 

How can attorneys get involved now, either through pro bono, or to help prepare for the increased demand in legal services? 

Individual attorneys are encouraged to volunteer on the Network’s website.

If you are part of an organization that is interested in getting involved, you can reach out to and our team will try to help connect you with projects you might be interested in.

How well is the NY court system doing with its reopening?  How has the reopening of the courts affected the need for pro bono assistance? 

I think the courts themselves are better positioned than I to assess how the reopening is going. That being said, we do expect and to some extent are already seeing, that the reopening of the courts will to lead to a significant surge in civil cases in a range of substantive areas. Legal services organizations that provide free legal services to those in need are working tirelessly to help meet this need, but with limited resources. This is where pro bono attorneys can provide important support. However, the capacity for pro bono attorneys to contribute varies for each substantive area. For example, housing cases require a significant amount of time, substantive expertise, and in-person court appearances that have historically made it a challenge for pro bon counsel to provide these services. This is why we have developed the module approach to address the unique issues for each major substantive area. 

Has learning to overcome COVID-19’s impact on the justice system had any sort of silver lining that can contribute to combatting racial injustice or is COVID-19 just one more hurdle to be dealt with in seeking to promote racial justice? 

Sadly, COVID-19 as both a disease and societal problem has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority groups. This is resulting in disproportionate legal issues as well. I don’t think that we can say we’ve learned to overcome COVID-19’s impact on the justice system yet, but I do think that this pandemic and events that have occurred during the pandemic have brought much needed attention to the disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minority groups that I hope will bring about significant positive change in the future.

To hear what Judge Lippman had to share on PBI’s podcast, listen and subscribe to the Pro Bono Happy Hour on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsiHeartRadioSpotifyStitcherYouTube, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you to Katie Marren, associate at Latham, for her contributions in this update. 

September 10, 2020

A Second Chance through Expungement

With the pro bono legal community’s recent increased focus on racial justice and criminal justice, Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and its Corporate Pro Bono project (CPBO) have seen a growing interest in pro bono work related to criminal expungement. Pro bono work includes both direct legal services to low-income individuals with criminal records and advancing progressive policy reform.  

A criminal record — including an arrest record that did not result in conviction, an old conviction, and a conviction for a misdemeanor – is often a barrier to obtaining employment, housing, education, public benefits, and other necessities, and can have collateral damage  that impact communities, including children.  Expungement, or removal, of arrests or convictions from a person’s criminal record, and sealing criminal records from public view, can help people who have been in the criminal justice system to get a second chance. 

There is systemic racial bias resulting in disproportionate representation of Black and Brown people in the criminal justice system. Working on expungement policy reform and helping people of color to seek expungement of their criminal records is a way to contribute to advancement of racial justice.

If your firm or legal department is interested in getting involved with expungement pro bono work, there are many helpful resources to learn more about the issue, including the following:

  • The Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) has many excellent resources related to expungement, including legal analyses, model laws, and practice guides. CCRC recently published a National Survey of Restoration Laws regarding the laws aimed at restoring rights and opportunities after arrest or conviction. CCRC, working with lawyers, judges, lawmakers, academics, policy experts, and advocates, produced a Model Law on Non-Conviction Records with the objective of limiting access to and use of criminal records from arrests and criminal prosecutions that do not result in conviction. 
  • CCRC also houses the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP), in partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National HIRE Network, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The RRP has analyses of the law and policy in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to restoration of rights following arrest or conviction. This provides a 50-state comparison of policies on expungement, sealing and other record relief. Most states provide for expungement or sealing of some certain types of criminal records, though the federal government does not.
  • The Clean Slate Initiative is a national bipartisan coalition advancing policies to automatically clear all eligible criminal records across the United States.  They provide in-kind policy, technical, and advocacy assistance to state and local partners.
  • The National Record Clearing Project, launched by Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, is working to increase and improve record clearing around the country, to close the second chance gap.  Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate law made it the first state in the nation to seal records by automation, without the need to file a petition in court.  This rule change has increased momentum for a federal clean slate bill.
  • The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) produced a webinar about expungement reform and the real-world impact these reforms have on formerly convicted individuals who received a second chance through expungement.

PBI and CPBO see tremendous potential for firms and legal departments to have an impact on this critical issue. By working together, we can help effect change on this systemic criminal justice issue. If you’re interested in getting involved in criminal expungement representation or in policy reform, please let us know at probono@probonoinst.orgor

September 1, 2020

Voting for Racial Justice: How Pro Bono and Voting Rights Align

“My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” –Rep. John Lewis

Voting is one of the most valued rights in America today, and as the Supreme Court noted more than a century ago, it is “preservative of all rights.” However, the battle for enfranchisement has been anything but straightforward. When America was founded, the right to vote was determined by the states and largely the exclusive province of white, property-owning men over the age of 21. It wasn’t until 1856 that all white men were given the right to vote, and it took another 14 years for men of color to gain the right to vote by law. However, laws are no better than their implementation, and our history is rich with examples of prejudicial barriers designed to keep eligible voters of color from the polls (e.g. poll taxes, literacy tests, and impersonation/intimidation) for generations after the U.S. Constitution was amended to proscribe racial discrimination at the state level regarding voting rights. Women didn’t gain the right to vote nationwide until 1920, followed by Native Americans, who were granted citizenship (and therefore the right to vote) with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, and finally Asian Americans in 1952. 

Voting activism found a long overdue victory with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of sex, race, religion, or education to all citizens over the age of 21. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) eliminated literacy tests in the U.S. and provided for federal enforcement of voter registration and voting rights. Finally, in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, a response to public outcry that 18-year-olds were old enough to die for their country but not old enough to cast their ballot.

 In 2013, the Supreme Court found in Shelby County v. Holder that a part of the Voting Rights Act—that required jurisdictions with a history of suppressing voting rights to seek preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice prior to making changes in their election laws —was unconstitutional, which has led to voter suppression of minorities due to a massive-scale closing of polling places, among other practices, making it harder for minority and low-income communities to vote. Add the COVID-19 pandemic, which also disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities, to the existing voting system and voter participation is unlikely to be fairly reflective of those who are entitled to vote. 

As legal professionals, we are called to advocate for and uphold the right to vote, the linchpin to all other rights bestowed under law—whether that be mitigating the effects of burdensome voter ID laws by helping individuals, or advocating for voting-by-mail which has become increasingly popular in recent years and could be a critical alternative to in-person voting this fall.

Examples of Types of Pro Bono Opportunities relating to Voting Rights:

  • Assist voters with registration, including developing information on required information and obtaining necessary proof of identity and residency for applicable jurisdictions. 
  • Represent litigants challenging voter registration laws.
  • Counsel potential voters with respect to absentee and early voting opportunities.
  • Observe polls and assisting would-be voters seeking to lodge provisional ballots or encountering other difficulties in the voting process.   
  • Voter hotlines.
  • Voter education.
  • Represent litigants challenging gerrymandering practices.
  • Develop reports, talking points, facts sheets and state voter guides.
  • Assist with preparation and submission of testimony to state legislatures on voting matters.     
  • Conduct training and seminars for voting rights organization employees and volunteers.
  • Advise organizations engaging in canvassing and voter registration with respect to liability and other issues.
  • Aid in the corporate formation and development of governance documents for voter rights organizations.

In addition to pro bono efforts, each step of the voting process is important, so even small steps will make a significant impact. Helping individuals from underrepresented communities get registered to vote is a good first step. Currently, 39 states and D.C. allow for online voter registration. Unfortunately, registering to vote is not the only hurdle to actually casting a ballot.  Legal professionals can help with the voting process by manning hotlines designed to educate voters, acting as observers at local voting precincts to confirm proper procedures are followed, or by advising individuals with respects to their rights (e.g., which voting sites they may use, what forms of ID are sufficient and under what circumstances they may cast a provisional ballot) if they are turned away while trying to cast their ballot. There is a special need for such professionals who can speak other languages, especially in locations where translation services may be less available. Lawyers are encouraged to work with local and national leading organizations working directly on voting-related pro bono matters. 

The following is a short list of organizations with voting rights pro bono opportunities that illustrates the range of organizations working in this area [1]

  • Arab American Institute Established in 1985 and based in Washington, DC, AAI is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization created to nurture and encourage the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life in the United States. Their #YallaVote is the foundation of the Institute’s grassroots voter mobilization and education campaign. With high concentrations of Arab Americans living in some of the largest and most politically contested states, they make a difference on issues that matter. 
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Rooted in the dreams of immigrants and inspired by the promise of opportunity, Asian Americans Advancing Justice advocates for an America in which all Americans can benefit equally from, and contribute to, the American dream.  AAJC advocates for the restoration and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), facilitates training, education, and advocacy around voter-related issues that affect Asian Americans like language assistance, voter suppression, and election reform, to strengthen all communities’ ability to participate in the democratic process. They also operate a hotline and work with individuals who have been subject to voter discrimination. To learn about getting involved, click here.
  • Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote) runs a year-round hotline for constituents, particularly those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, and needs volunteers who are fluent in languages such a Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese (among many others). They also do field volunteering at polls on the day of to ensure voters who may not speak English well/at all can access information in their native language.  To sign up, click here
  • Brennan Center for Justice. The Center works with dozens of lawyers from more than 30 law firms on a variety of projects that further litigation, research, and public advocacy efforts related to voting rights and other issues. To learn about opportunities to join in this work, click here.
  • The Center for Secure and Modern Elections supports bipartisan reforms at all levels of government and provides support to lawmakers, advocates, and businesses who share the goal of a modern democracy where all voters, regardless of party, can have their voice heard. They believe in small policy reforms that have big impacts on voter turnout, such as automatic voter registration updates with official change of address forms. They have also created a 50-state digital resource center to help ensure the secure functioning of the 2020 elections in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
  • Election Protection works a year-round hotline to ensure voters get the information they need to make an informed decision at the polls. They also have field programs the day of elections nationwide, where they send volunteers to the voting precincts to assist voters in person. These opportunities help ensure citizens have the knowledge and protection they need to vote and solve any problem that could arise at the polls. Sign up, here.
  • Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform 501(c)(3) organization based in Washington, D.C. whose mission is to use litigation and advocacy to remove barriers to registration and voting, particularly those disenfranchising underrepresented and marginalized communities, and to improve election administration. To contact, email
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Committee is part of the Election Protection Coalition and has a Voting Rights Project. Through coordinated and integrated programs of litigation, voter protection, advocacy, and education, the Voting Rights Project has had a tremendous positive impact on communities of color and other traditionally disenfranchised populations. They litigate issues regarding voter registration, voter purges, barriers to voting, districting/gerrymandering, and suits against the federal government.
  • Rock the Vote is an organization designed by young people, for young people whose goal is to educate young people on the importance of voting and helping them register. This is an organization that lawyers can help both with their legal expertise and their vast network of communication. To volunteer, click here.
  • We The Action allows volunteer lawyers to help safeguard democracy by identifying critical election administration problems in key states, helping their partners register voters and recruit poll workers, powering large-scale voter protection efforts at polling places and call centers nationwide, and more, so that the voice of every eligible voter is heard. For a list of programs and to volunteer, click here.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of organizations or opportunities for lawyers to advocate for the right to vote and racial equity.  If you have any questions regarding pro bono opportunities, please contact PBI at

Hat tip to PBI intern Samantha Hamilton for drafting this blog.

[1] **  The information contained within is for informational purposes only. The organizations listed have not been vetted or endorsed by Pro Bono Institute.  

July 30, 2020

PBI’s First Ever Virtual Conference Calls on Pro Bono Attorneys to Advance Racial Justice

The year 2020 have been a whirlwind for the entire globe, and specifically for the United States. Beginning in March, the spread of COVID-19 has kept approximately one-third of Americans working from home and the entire nation social distancing from friends and family. During this already historic moment, we arrived at another important chapter in the history of the United States. The murder of George Floyd awakened much of our country to the fight for racial justice and need for police reform. We have watched, and many of us have participated, as protestors take to the streets in cities and towns all across America and the world to demand racial equality, racial justice, and the end of police action that brutalizes Black Americans and people of color. 

As pro bono professionals, leaders, and volunteers, we continuously look to the communities in which we live and work to identify issues and individuals in need of legal assistance. Communities across the country need pro bono services to advance racial equity. When PBI began planning its first ever virtual conference in March, the emerging pro bono needs brought on by the pandemic were front and center. After the killing of George Floyd in May, addressing systemic racism  became a vital focus.

Creating opportunities to address racial injustice in this country, PBI was fortunate to present three exceptional keynote speakers to our conference:  Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, political leader and nonprofit CEO Stacey Abrams, and Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke.

Attorney General Keith Ellison shared his unique perspective and spoke about police brutality, the history of policing and racial disparities, and what pro bono volunteers can do to address these issues. Ellison said that the first question we must ask is, “Do we want liberty and justice for all or not?” He advised us to convene small groups and tackle ways to make sure that we provide equal opportunities for all in large corporations, nonprofits, and small businesses alike. 

The attorney general called on lawyers to address public housing, criminal justice reform, and police accountability.  Ellison discussed the need for reform throughout the entire criminal justice system, from arrests, to bail, to courtrooms, to sentencing. These are the kind of changes that can only be made if we as citizens tell our state legislators what we want. Ellison made it clear that in reaching out to our legislators and pushing for legislation reform, we will evoke change. 

Bestselling author, social entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO, and political leader, Stacey Abrams, spoke about the need for fair elections. Abrams has started two organizations to combat voter suppression. Fair Fight tackles the issues and challenges of voter suppression throughout the country, and Fair Count focuses on the census to ensure that that the hardest-to-count communities nationwide will be represented. Abrams also launched the Southern Economic Advancement Project, which “partners with policy thinkers and doers to amplify their efforts and bridge gaps in policy infrastructure” in southern America. 

Abrams discussed growing up with parents who, despite limited financial resources, encouraged service, believing that regardless of one’s circumstance, we are responsible for ourselves and our community. Her parents also taught her and her siblings the importance of voter engagement, in particular for marginalized communities and those whose vote has been denied. As Abrams started her career as a lawyer, she continued to push for voter engagement and expanded her efforts to include the fight against voter suppression. 

Abrams encouraged pro bono attorneys, armed with knowledge about voting rules and regulations, to work with those who are continue to be stripped of their right to vote and help them to register to vote, obtain a ballot, and cast their vote. There is also a need for attorneys on election days to assist voters who might encounter push-back at the polls. Abrams urged pro bono professionals to fight for the rights of low-income voters and voters of color in registration, ballot access, and ballot counting. Click here to learn more about the legal action that Abrams is taking through her organization, Fair Fight.

Kristen Clarke, the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, spoke about the importance of seizing the moment to truly affect change in our democracy. 

Clarke began her remarks by paying respect to lives lost at the hands of police –  George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others – and shared that this moment has brought opportunity to make change. For example, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in June. Clarke highlighted the importance of changes in legislation such as this, because, “it provides an opportunity for lawyers to plug-in and provide support to lawmakers, officials, and activists who are trying to figure out how we can make our justice system better, more equitable, and reform policing in a way that produces safer outcomes for communities.” 

Clarke also discussed the serious issues involving voter suppression in our country, which have been intensified by the pandemic and include acts by state officials who have been restricting access to absentee ballots for voters. Lastly, Clarke addressed the work that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is doing to make sure that people who are peacefully exercising their first amendment right to speak out, demonstrate, and protest are able to do so. Some peaceful protestors calling for racial justice and police reform have been assaulted and attacked by the military and police. Clarke reminded us that as lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to bring about reform and change, but also that lawyers are not expected to make those changes alone.  

In closing, before a robust question and answer portion with PBI’s President and CEO, Eve Runyon, Clarke reminded us that since the 1960s we have made great progress in our nation, but there is still much to be done to make our democracy fair, open, and equitable for all communities. 

In addition to inspiring keynote addresses, PBI hosted several programs that addressed racial justice issues. For example, during the “Sustainability and Pro Bono: Learn How to Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk” session for in-house counsel, Pro Bono Counsel Christy Kane discussed Entergy Corporation’s** work developing pro bono projects through a racial justice and equity lens, like addressing systemic inequities with drivers’ license suspensions, fines, and fees, which have a disparate impact on communities of color. Additionally, Laura Holland, Staff Attorney, from North Carolina Justice Center, B. Leigh Wicclair, Senior Staff Attorney of North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center, and Norah Rogers, the firm-wide pro bono administrator at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough*, led a session entitled, “The Poverty Penalty: The Criminalization of Poverty Through Drivers’ License Suspension.” They also discussed how more than 40 states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, authorize the suspension of a driver’s license for unpaid traffic fines, which penalizes economically vulnerable individuals, disproportionately affecting communities of color.  

Sessions like these in combination with PBI’s keynote addresses made it possible for PBI’s first ever virtual conference to highlight the need for racial justice and access to justice in the United States. We hope that PBI’s virtual conference amplified the call to action to address racial justice within our country, and we look forward to partnering with our community to contribute to this effort.

*  denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

July 24, 2020

Helping Survivors of Sexual Violence and Intimate Partner Violence in the Time of #MeToo and COVID-19

While pro bono volunteers positively impact clients across all fields, pro bono legal services can make an especially strong impact on the lives of survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence. After Tarana Burke created the ‘Me Too’ movement and the popularization of the #MeToo hashtag spread virally on social media in late 2017, awareness and action towards sexual violence have increased in many spaces across the United States and the world. This post examines issues of sexual violence and intimate partner violence (“IPV’) and their relation to the field of pro bono legal services, touching on why access to legal services is important for survivors of this violence, what pro bono opportunities exist to address these issues, and how sexual violence/IPV and related pro bono opportunities have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is sexual violence and intimate partner violence?

To discuss these issues, it is important to understand a few key terms and statistics:

Sexual violence is an “all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.” Examples of forms of sexual violence include sexual assault, incest, intimate partner sexual violence, child sexual abuse, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual assault of men and boys, etc. However, other crimes and forms of violence often occur in conjunction with these things, including (but not limited to): stalking, elder abuse, sexual harassment, cyber harassment, human trafficking, abuse of people with disabilities, and abuse by medical or other helping professionals.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to “any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm.” While the term “domestic violence” is commonly used to refer to partner violence, the term “intimate partner violence” is used to acknowledge a broader understanding of relationship violence and how it can occur in partnerships of varying genders, sexual orientations, and marital statuses. IPV, like sexual violence, can also appear as many different forms of abuse within a partnership. Examples of IPV include:

  • Physical violence, such as beating, hitting, slapping, kicking, etc.
  • Sexual violence, such as forced sexual intercourse, unwanted/uncomfortable touching, repeated unwanted sexual advances, etc.
  • Emotional abuse, such as name calling, humiliation, brainwashing, screaming, etc.
  • Economic abuse/exploitation, such as restricting access to financial resources, taking money, etc.
  • Isolation, such as restricting access to family and friends, controlling who a person communicates with, taking away access to technology, etc.
  • Intimidation, such as stalking, threats, displaying weapons, etc.
  • Coercion and threats, such as sexual coercion, threatening to take away children/restricting visitation, etc.

“Survivor”/“victim” refers to people who have experienced sexual violence/IPV, but serve entirely different purposes. The term “victim” often refers to an individual who has been subjected to and harmed by violence, and is more often used within the context of the criminal justice system. However, the term “survivor” refers to an individual who is going through or has gone through the recovery process after surviving sexual violence/IPV and is more often used by community-based advocacy groups and service providers.

Additionally, sexual violence is an issue that affects members of different communities at varying rates. While approximately 1 out of every 6 women and girls and 1 out of every 33 men and boys in the U.S. have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, young people are the most at-risk for sexual violence, with the majority of sexual assault victims being under 30 years old. Other factors like race and gender identity also inform rates of sexual violence, with TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students being at a higher risk of sexual violence than their non-TGQN peers and Native Americans being at the highest risk for sexual violence compared to all races.

Why is legal assistance important for survivors of sexual violence?

Access to legal services is especially important for sexual violence survivors for a number of reasons. After medical services, legal services are the most-requested need for those affected by sexual violence and IPV. However, despite this large demand for legal services among survivors, approximately 64% of women report not receiving any kind of legal services after incidents of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. This number poses a huge problem especially when considering the effectiveness of legal services on situations of sexual violence and IPV. As noted by Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler in Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence, legal services help survivors navigate practical matters like custody, child support, protective orders, etc., ultimately appearing to “present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” The relationship between access to legal services and protective orders is particularly strong, with approximately 83% of survivors represented by an attorney successfully obtaining protective orders compared to only 32% of protective orders issued to survivors without legal representation. Additionally, abuse has been shown to stop or greatly decline in 86% of cases where protective orders are successfully obtained for survivors. 

What kinds of related pro bono programs exist for sexual violence/IPV? 

Many programs are available for attorneys and legal professionals wanting to volunteer to assist survivors of IPV and sexual violence. As types of cases for sexual violence and IPV range from focuses like immigration, employment, and family law to more specific matters like civil protection orders, divorce & property division, and child custody & support, there is a large demand for legal professionals across many different interests.

Legal opportunities in this sphere include: 

  • Advice clinics and hotlines for those impacted by sexual violence/IPV
  • Legal representation 
  • Impact litigation and policy advocacy
  • Community outreach and education
  • Litigation support
  • Mentoring other volunteers
  • Legal assistance for non-profit organizations

In the United States, many pro bono projects focused on tackling IPV and sexual violence exist at state-wide and national levels, ranging from opportunities by non-profit legal and advocacy organizations to projects organized by private law firms.

Many of the nonprofit organizations across the U.S. with sexual violence and IPV-related pro bono opportunities are often devoted to legal areas that intersect greatly with issues like sexual violence, such as immigration law, family law, civil rights, housing, employment, and many more. In California, the Immigration Center for Women and Children provides legal services to underrepresented immigrants in California and Nevada, with services including assistance with obtaining U and T visas (for victims of trafficking and violence), as well as SIJS status (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status), probate guardianships, and DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) is another regional example of anti-violence services intertwining with related legal areas, as AVP provides free, holistic legal services to LGBTQ and HIV-affected survivors in New York City Family Court, Housing Court, and Civil Court, as well as assisting with immigration matters. Other nonprofit organizations, such as the Victim Rights Law Center, may focus specifically on issues of sexual violence and IPV, providing free, trauma-informed civil legal services to sexual violence survivors in Massachusetts and Oregon.

Coordinated initiatives may also exist at the state-wide and national levels to address sexual violence and IPV through the lens of pro bono. One example of pro bono legal services centralized at the state level is the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), a nonprofit organization that works to support 21 domestic violence and sexual assault programs around the state of Alaska through legislative and legal advocacy, pro bono legal services, and statewide coordination for various types of advocacy and violence prevention programming. Through coordination between trained legal advocates statewide who refer cases to the legal program and their network of staff and pro bono attorneys, the ANDVSA Legal Program provides free assistance to low-income sexual violence survivors in civil proceedings as well as mentorship, resources, and training materials for new volunteers. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence also has a variety of initiatives and resources to address sexual violence and IPV through pro bono, such as their toolkit for implementing the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act of 2018, the Survivor Reentry Project (SRP) to train and assist attorneys working with human trafficking survivors convicted of crimes resulting from their victimization, and the LGBT+ Legal Access Project to provide support, training, and technical assistance to address domestic and sexual violence in LGBT+ communities.

Individual law firms may also develop sexual violence and IPV-related pro bono opportunities such as the Domestic Violence Project at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo*, an ongoing, nearly 30 year-long pro bono project comprised of firm attorneys, paraprofessionals, and staff members working on behalf of individual domestic violence survivors and serving as legal counsel for over 25 organizations devoted to combatting sexual violence. A program that continues to operate and expand across several of Mintz’s offices, Mintz and many of its individual attorneys have been recognized by organizations such as the American, Massachusetts, and Boston Bar Associations, National Network to End Domestic Violence, Victim Rights Law Center, and many others for their representation of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors through the Domestic Violence Project.

What are challenges and strategies for providing legal assistance to survivors during COVID-19? 

On top of the existing challenges of sexual violence and IPV for survivors and advocates, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many additional obstacles for these groups and larger organizations. Due to the CDC’s constantly developing quarantine and social distancing protocols, survivors may be forced into heightened contact with their abusers and experience increased levels of violence during the pandemic. 

In addition to the devastating health effects of COVID-19, the pandemic has presented widespread uncertainty for many across the globe, with the existence of new difficulties related to decline in income, lack of access to healthcare and mental health services, food insecurity, loss of employment, among many others, creating or exacerbating potentially harmful situations. The National Women’s Law Center warns that the health and economic crises caused by COIVD increase the risk of domestic and sexual violence, and that many survivors of violence now lack a safe haven outside of the home. Concerns are not solely limited to the U.S., as the dramatic increase in suspected domestic homicides in places like the United Kingdom compounded with delayed government responses to abuse during the pandemic have raised concerns among advocacy groups and many Members of Parliament.

Fortunately, many organizations dedicated to fighting sexual violence and IPV have transitioned to remote services during this time while creating new services such as hotlines or virtual resource hubs with COVID-19-specific information. Listed below are a few examples of how the above organizations have adapted their services during the pandemic:

In addition to volunteer lawyers representing individual survivors during COVID-19, there are opportunities to work remotely on policy and advocacy to support survivors. Even while COVID-19 continues to devastate lives and disrupt societal systems and norms, it is critical to find ways to assist survivors and victims whose support systems have become complicated or are failing. As the Victim Rights Law Center says, a pro bono attorney is ‘a powerful legal ally in a sexual assault survivor’s recovery.’

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory  

Hat tip to PBI intern Brooke Weichel for drafting this blog. 

Interested in learning more about #MeToo and TIME’s UP? Check out PBI’s virtual conference webinar, now available on demandUsing Media in Your Cases: Perspectives from the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.