The advent of online legal matching services demonstrates how technology is transforming the practice of law. There are already a growing number of online initiatives pairing lawyers with employers and clients. It’s good for business – but what can it do for pro bono?
Legal matching services are user-friendly. Lawyers and firms register by creating a profile, selecting their areas of expertise and availability. Clients post projects, detailing their needs, and the platform alerts registered lawyers of relevant projects requiring assistance. Lawyers express their interest in a project, and the platform makes a match to connect each client with a suitable lawyer.
In a crowded marketplace, matching services help clients to filter their options based on their needs. A user is able to search a database of lawyers by experience, case type, geographical area and price.
In fact this aspect of a matching service already exists in the Australian context. For example, the NSW and Victorian Bars both have a searchable online database where barristers can be searched for by area of practice, gender and specialisation. This is an important step in obtaining pro bono support.
Also, the Australian Pro Bono Centre has a National Law Firm Directory – accessible only by referral agencies and the law firms it lists – that provides contact details for a firm’s pro bono practice, its areas of focus, the areas of law and practice where it is willing to consider taking on a pro bono matter, and likely conflicts it may have.
Relatively new in this space are services that try to make a complete match between pro bono seeker (or referral agency) and pro bono provider. These services often remove intermediaries, allowing clients to quickly find a suitable lawyer. It’s an example of what Rachel Botsman terms the “collaborative economy”.
Several such services exist globally. TrustLaw is the biggest global legal pro bono network, with more than 3,500 members in over 175 countries, who partner on social, humanitarian and environmental projects. Members receive a regular email advising them of pro bono projects available across the global network. Pro bono providers can choose to investigate further or not.
iProbono is similar but member legal professionals register their interest in a project and the platform also provides opportunities for law students. Meanwhile, Advocates For International Development (A4ID) matches lawyers with NFPs specifically addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). LexMundi focuses on social enterprises, matching them to lawyers within the same jurisdiction.
A newer player, Paladin, operates only in the United States but offers the additional feature of personalised analytics, so that pro bono practitioners can measure their impact and not-for-profits can analyse the pro bono activity of lawyers and law firms.
Also in the US, progressive lawyers concerned about the potential impact of Trump policies on access to justice have launched We the Action. This new online portal facilitates pro bono work by connecting legal volunteers with not-for-profits.
In Australia, Justice Connect’s Legal Help Gateway is a promising initiative. With funding from Google (Justice Connect were finalists in the 2016 Google Impact Challenge), the aim is to implement a platform – similar to the one offered by Paladin – that uses algorithms to match pro bono lawyers with clients.
Legal matching services improve access to justice by making it easier for vulnerable individuals and groups to find pro bono representation. Since clients can be paired with a legal assistance provider without the need to travel to an office or clinic during business hours, this removes a significant barrier for those seeking legal help. It’s user-friendly for an increasingly internet-savvy society.
The electronic and online nature of a matching service also relieves the load on existing referral staff, whether they work for a clearing house like Justice Connect, for Legal Aid or for a community legal centre. The use of profiles and algorithms automates the referral service so that clients and pro bono lawyers can connect more quickly, and referral staff spend less time on ineligible cases, saving precious hours for other work that can’t be automated.
Another benefit is that in an automated system, lawyers and clients can manage their own information, enhancing the currency and reliability of the information provided.
At a policy level, the data that can be captured in a system such as the one envisaged for Justice Connect’s Legal Help Gateway would greatly enrich the pro bono landscape in Australia. Aggregated data can provide insights into the impact of pro bono legal work, as well as identify areas of unmet legal need. What’s more, over time the data could indicate what types of pro bono partnerships work best – and why.
Airbnb has changed the way we travel, Airtasker and Upwork have altered the way we work. How will online matching reform the way we do pro bono?
Summary of potential benefits of legal matching services:
- Easier access to justice for those seeking pro bono legal assistance – no more queuing up, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- Automation frees up referral staff to perform other tasks
- Improved accuracy and currency of information on lawyers and pro bono opportunities, because the information is managed directly by the relevant parties
- Enriched understanding of the state of pro bono in Australia, including areas of unmet legal need, to guide further research and policy decisions
- Evidence of successful pro bono partnerships