The Paladin team recently joined the ABA/NLADA’s Equal Justice Conference to hear the latest about how organizations are managing legal aid in the time of COVID-19. Here are a few takeaways from a powerful event:

  1. Transformation was the theme of “Innovative Pro Bono Program — The Elusive Unicorn or an Attainable Goal?” Jeff Harvey, CEO of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, with Gretchen Slusser and Beth Johnson of consulting firm thredpartners, gave us a close-up look at CLSMF’s pro bono program transformation process. Facing staff dissatisfaction, uneven volunteer experiences, and missed funder goals, CLSMF began its work with internal and peer-led assessments. (Thredpartners shared its self-guided Pro Bono Assessment Tool, which gives programs a “maturity score” in seven areas.) Then, using a transformation framework, CLSMF identified the goals of program integration and volunteer retention, and journey-mapped the experience of staff, volunteer attorneys, and pro bono clients to identify objectives, obstacles, and opportunities. An in-person retreat brought together internal and external stakeholders, and opened up fresh perspectives and ideas, like creating a peer leadership program to mentor a pipeline of new pro bono volunteers. Beyond innovating the organization’s program, the process had an added benefit: with increased efficiency, structure, and resources already in place, staff were able to seamlessly transition pro bono services to remote delivery during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel left us with these lessons learned for successful transformation: Identify the needs of your organization, bring team members and external stakeholders to the table, be user-centric in process design, and set benchmarks to measure implementation success.
  2. “Why We Can’t Wait: Training Pro Bono Volunteers on Institutional, Structural, and Systemic Racism” called on law firms and pro bono lawyers to effect change from within. The Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance was born out of a consensus that law firms needed to do more on racial justice. Firms looked inward and asked: How can we leverage pro bono for anti-racist work? What needs to change internally to align with these values? How do we reckon with the racial, economic, and cultural divides of pro bono lawyering? Ben Weinberg, Global Pro Bono Partner at Dentons, says that firms in the Alliance are ready to do things differently. The Alliance is focused on impact work, such as civil rights litigation and class actions, as well as increasing pro bono representation of individual clients. The Systemic Racism Legal Inventory, a new project by the Alliance, will identify laws that contribute to discrimination and systemic barriers. The panel also encouraged firm pro bono counsel and committees to refocus on community needs and serving pro bono clients, rather than asking legal service organizations to cater to lawyers’ convenience. And firms can support racial justice efforts by bringing much-needed cultural humility and systemic racism training to their own pro bono lawyers. As always, resourcing is key; by supporting the legal service organizations that work directly with communities, firms can also benefit from LSOs’ expertise on client-centered lawyering and cross-cultural pro bono representation. The Alliance’s goal is to effect change from within — building diversity in law firms, educating lawyers on systemic racism — and from without — challenging racist laws, committing resources to civil legal services, and ensuring that dismantling racial inequity in our legal system remains a pro bono priority for the long term.
  3. We need to empower communities to “Reach the Other 80%.” Those who would increase access to justice in communities that most need it face strong headwinds. About 80% of people are disconnected from current access to justice efforts, not only due to a lack of legal resources, but also from a fear of the legal system, disenfranchisement, discrimination, their feeling that no fair resolution is possible, or their belief that the law is largely only used against them — not to assert or defend their rights. And, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to legal empowerment: each community has its own history, needs, strengths, and challenges. As a result, we need a community-centric, sustained effort to build trust, provide knowledge, share experiences, and build power. We’ve learned that top-down, expert-led efforts generally are unsuccessful; effective initiatives involve outreach via social media, clinics, direct contact with community members and leaders, and digitalized tools designed in concert with communities to inform, organize, and empower them.
  4. “Untangling Racial Equity with a Systems Thinking Model” taught us how multi-layered racial bias can be, and how we can only fix it with a multi-pronged approach. This panel was illuminating, as it identified the various layers of the system that supports conscious, unconscious, and institutional racism in our society. Only by first acknowledging these different levels of racism can we understand the difficulties BIPOC face and begin to find solutions toward a more equitable society. Examining the “Iceberg Model” below can help codify these different layers, and the video the panel shared about a child named Tony put a face to the myriad discriminations BIPOC children face in our public school system. Having attended this lecture, we’re slower to point to a single point of failure in our system, and more open to understanding that racial inequity comes from a variety of places all at once.

5. Equity and inclusion, and privacy tools, stood out in “50 Tech Tips.” As the panel pointed out, too often in our work, imagery of women in need focuses on their struggles rather than their strengths. Images of Empowerment, a free library of images celebrating women’s lives and their work in 11 countries around the world, is a powerful alternative. We also found Rooted in Rights, which tells authentic, accessible stories to challenge stigma and redefine narratives around disability, mental health, and chronic illness, an exceptional resource to view the effects of COVID-19 through the lens of disability. In addition to representing clients with integrity, keeping their information private is paramount, of course, so we appreciated that the group emphasized the value of tech tools like 1password, an app to create complex, unique passwords, and others like CleanMyMac, to keep their records encrypted, virus free, and running smoothly.

There were, of course, many other terrific sessions at this year’s conference that we couldn’t cover, but we hope this overview is helpful and provides a bit of motivation for next year’s EJC — we hope to all be able to gather in person then in Dallas, Texas!

Equal Justice Conference 2020 Takeaways was originally published in Paladin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.