New pro bono website puts lawyers in the driver’s seat
Lawyers in Miami-Dade County who want to volunteer their services will soon have an easy way to find just the right case through an interactive website funded by The Florida Bar Foundation.
“This system puts pro bono attorneys in the driver’s seat, giving them a user-friendly way to filter and search for cases that suit their interests,” said Ericka Garcia, the Foundation’s statewide director of Pro Bono Partnerships. “Pro bono attorneys I’ve met with from across the state over the last year have all been telling me this is exactly the tool they want. It enables them to see in real time what pro bono cases are available and creates efficiencies for both the attorney and the legal aid organization.”
Florida Pro Bono Matters is being piloted right now with Legal Services of Greater Miami, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Legal Services. All are displaying the cases for which they are seeking pro bono attorneys. It will soon involve virtually all of the county’s pro bono programs for civil legal aid.
Miami’s Hilarie Bass, the ABA president-elect, has spearheaded planning meetings with the Foundation and Miami-Dade legal aid organizations, more than 10 of which will participate in the pilot project.
“With a limited amount of legal aid funding available, it is critical that The Florida Bar Foundation and local legal aid organizations find more efficient and effective ways to deliver pro bono services,” Bass said.
“Technology like this interactive pro bono website will help more Floridians gain access to justice. The key is making it easier for pro bono attorneys to see the need and answer the call for help.”
FloridaProBonoMatters.org, which can also be accessed through FloridaProBono.org, serves as a marketing tool for specific pro bono cases. Lawyers can filter available cases by practice area, location, and participating organization, and with the click of a button they can register their interest in taking on a particular case.
It is designed to allow any organization that wants to advertise pro bono opportunities — whether a law school, law firm, or legal aid organization — to display specific cases. Developed by Wiedza Creations LLC, a company based within the University of Central Florida’s Business Incubation Program, the site can easily be expanded to include additional organizations. The Foundation hopes to take it statewide once it is established in Miami-Dade County.
U.S. District Court Judge Patricia A. Seitz, who led the planning meetings along with Bass, said she has seen first-hand through her work as a federal judge the multiple issues faced by those recently released from prison.
“I have long thought it would be wonderful if there were a direct and easy way to share with lawyers the life-impacting legal needs facing these individuals who lack the means and knowledge to hire a lawyer,” Seitz said. “I am very optimistic that it will make a difference. We now have a way to connect dedicated and skilled lawyers with our community’s poor and disadvantaged members, including ex-offenders, who need their pro bono help.”
Eli Mattern of Wiedza Creations LLC knows full well the benefit to the attorney, as she and her business partner James Haggard are both experienced legal aid attorneys in addition to being the co-founders of the legal tech start-up.
“This website takes away a common fear among attorneys, which is that legal aid may send them a pro bono case that they aren’t comfortable handling,” Mattern said. “By letting the pro bono attorney choose the case, we’re prioritizing the pro bono attorney’s time and input in a way the legal aid system hasn’t been able to do before. To do this, we used cutting-edge technology to curate the cases, so that we can display them on any website that wants to advertise pro bono opportunities. We want to make it easy to find a case and help a person with his or her legal issue.”
Miami-Dade attorneys also can sign up on FloridaProBonoMatters.org to volunteer for Everyone Counts Day, March 20. On that day volunteer lawyers will be observing court proceedings in up to 10 courthouses in Miami-Dade County with a focus on uncovering the needs of those who are representing themselves in court. The information gathered will be useful to groups working to expand access to justice. The idea for Everyone Counts Day came from Florida Bar Foundation board member Angela Vigil of Baker & Mackenzie in Miami and grew out of discussions involving The Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and all of the Pro Bono Circuit Committees, whose members have been looking for ways to identify the needs of self-represented litigants. It’s believed to be the first project of its kind.