Pro Bono, High Tech:
Not-for-Profit Sector Needs to GetWired Soon
Representing the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, would be easier if more information were online. People seeking political asylum in the United States frequently turn to the Open Society Institute in New York for legal counsel. "We open a big, big book of lawyers," says Allison E. Mindel, the information officer of the institute's Forced Migration Projects. "It would be great if that information were online," she says, or in a searchable data base. Lawyers representing political refugees also call the institute seeking information on their clients' countries of origin. Again, Ms. Mindel says, she turns to a big book.
For lawyers representing the disadvantaged, technology's potential to revolutionize client service is tantalizingly close. "Advocacy is all about getting the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time," says Tigran Eldred, the national outreach coordinator for New York's Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "If we can eliminate the inefficiencies in information distribution, and instead get timely and credible data about human rights violations to American lawyers, we will go a long way in enhancing the advocacy capacity of the bar."
But financial, training and time pressures--issues not unknown to lawyers in the private sector--complicate matters for organizations dependent on uneven or targeted foundation funding and the work of hundreds of attorneys working pro bono on many different computer systems. "Targeted information distribution, based upon up-to-date user profiles, is the key," says Mr. Eldred.
The Internet, which spans geography and software specifics, may hold the answer. Just having a common repository for research, forms and pleadings would be a giant step forward, especially for small groups working with a large number of outside attorneys, says Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, housed at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. "You wouldn't see five groups doing a manual on welfare reform," she says, if there was one, up-to-date manual on the 'Net.
E-mail links would facilitate the sharing of expertise and help reduce the isolation many lawyers in big firms feel as they work on pro bono matters referred from a non-profit agency.
E-mail can also help publicize a firm's pro bono work. Cindy A. Cohn, of San Mateo, Calif.'s McGlashan & Sarrail P.C., has represented Daniel J. Bernstein pro bono for three years in San Francisco federal court in Bernstein v. U.S. Department of State, C-95-0582, involving Prof. Bernstein's fight to publish his encryption software on the 'Net and to teach encryption. Because of the technical and high-profile nature of the case, Ms. Cohn and the Electronic Frontier Foundation send regular e-mail updates to those interested. It is considerably harder to get comment from the government.
But many non-profit organizations, including government agencies, do not yet have e-mail, or Internet access, or computers at all. Among those that do, confidentiality and security loom large, and legal training, until very recently, did not include technology training. As in a private firm, the oldest and most experienced attorneys are frequently the least technologically sophisticated.
Training is key. But some non-profits say they can't dedicate charitable contributions and shrinking government funds to computer classes or firewall construction, or to scanning paper files into an electronic data base. "The legal services providers are dealing with many [government] cutbacks, not with enhancing their technology," says Barbara J. Dawson, a partner at Phoenix's Snell & Wilmer L.L.P. who chairs the Arizona state bar's Legal Services Committee. Many legal service agencies just refer complicated cases to law firms, says Ms. Dawson, to tap the private sector's technical and research resources.
Thus, private sector attorneys, who may have far less experience in the area at issue than their non-profit counterparts, are given the most complicated cases to work on in their spare time.
But for the well-equipped attorney, the Internet is already an improvement over existing resources, at least in one respect. Ivan K. Fong, vice chair of the public service committee at Washington, D.C.'s Covington & Burling, notes that much domestic relations pro bono work involves finding people. "There's often a need to track down individuals in a child custody or adoption case," he says. "There are so many ways online" to find people, from worldwide phone books to specialized locator services.
As non-profits move to the Web, Covington finds its pro bono work involves giving home page legal advice to non-profits, says Mr. Fong. "We review agreements with the non-profit's Web provider, tell them what kind of disclaimers there should be on the page, and analyze copyright issues surrounding what information can be displayed on the site," he says.
The firm's pro bono clients are more tech-savvy, on the whole, than many of the firm's paying clients, says Mr. Fong. "The staff of non-profits tends to be a bit younger, and most of the public interest groups seem to be receptive to technology," he says. But that is not generally the case on Capitol Hill.
The 'Net and Your Rep
A relatively new kid on the Infobahn is Highway 1, a non-profit group launched in 1995 to help government agencies and Congress understand technology and use it to communicate with their constituents. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., says most members of Congress are "low-tech legislators making high-tech decisions."
Highway 1's executive director, Dr. Kimberly J. Jenkins, is trying to change that. Highway 1's Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters showcases new technology in a center funded by tech companies. But the road is rough. Ms. Jenkins says many government officials are "reluctant" to embrace technology, adding: "Many of them are lawyers." In a technique emulated by techies in both private and public sectors, she focuses on the users' interests: e-mailing children at college, accessing sports information and, for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., architecture on the 'Net.
This article is reprinted with permission from the October 13, 1997 edition of The National Law Journal. © 1997 NLP IP Company. LawNewsNetwork.com.