In the late 1990s, in the midst of the technology boom, the legal aid community in Massachusetts sat down to talk about the need for statewide websites. They planned to have three websites: MassLegalServices, to support legal aid advocates; MassLegalHelp, to provide general legal information to the public; and MassProBono, to connect private attorneys to volunteer opportunities. MassLegalServices and MassLegalHelp were built into successful sites over the years. While the URL for MassProBono was reserved, the site never came to fruition.
MassProBono, a site 15 years in the making, launched in late April. Barbara Siegel, Project Manager at the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, discussed with us the history behind the site and the exciting plans for how it will bolster legal services in the Commonwealth.
Three years ago, legal aid coordinators from across the state began meeting together again after a long hiatus. The renewed idea for MassProBono grew out of these conversations, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) received a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation to help the idea finally become a reality. Pro Bono Net was the natural choice to help build the site. While Massachusetts has a strong existing legal services network, MassProBono will fill a critical void in pro bono needs, efficiently matching volunteer lawyers with legal services organizations across the state.
The site is also a product of coordination with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), which for years has maintained a pro bono opportunities guide that lists organizations needing volunteers. However, the MBA was using an antiquated listing system and agreed to collaborate with VLP on an Opportunities Guide for MassProBono that will encompass all existing listings from the decommissioned MBA guide.
The new MassProBono site will serve primarily to match pro bono volunteers with opportunities. “It’s giving pro bono programs a forum where they can be very visible to a wide population,” explained Siegel. “The other side of that,” she noted, “is letting people out there who are interested in pro bono really see the wide array of what is available and the different ways that they might be able to volunteer based on their background and how much time they have.” Like other Pro Bono Net sites, MassProBono will also raise awareness of the need for pro bono and highlight the great work that the legal community is undertaking.
MassProBono will strive to involve organizations from across the state. The Greater Boston area is typically well served thanks to easy access to a large legal community; however, other areas of the state have the potential to gain great benefits from the new site. Siegel explained that the site also makes geography less of a barrier through online mentoring functions and pooled resources.
In addition to an attractive new layout, Pro Bono Net developed several exciting features for the Massachusetts site. Resources can now be directly submitted to the site library using an email form, allowing for easier and more efficient sharing. The site also features a new projects tool that allows volunteers to find short-term pro bono opportunities such as walk-in legal clinics. This tool grew out of a shift in the pro bono field towards more unbundled and limited assistance representation. The availability of these short-term opportunities has proliferated and the projects tool on MassProBono will connect volunteers with limited available time to these projects. The opportunities guide for the site has also been integrated with the projects and cases tools, allowing members to quickly discover all available opportunities.
The legal community in Massachusetts is excited about the recent launch of the site. Programs that are not already tied into the legal community are particularly eager to begin utilizing the new site, according to Siegel. These programs will now be able to connect with the greater pro bono community in Massachusetts and gain access to the wealth of available resources. On the other side of the equation, lawyers in the community are also looking forward to the new site – particularly those not employed by large firms. “A lot of pro bono is done by people in small firms and people who are unemployed and they don’t have access to a pro bono coordinator who will give them a list of opportunities,” said Siegel. “I’m really excited about what the site can do for those folks.”