In last week’s post, we encouraged first time attendees of the Equal Justice Conference to take advantage of the incredible community of pro bono leaders who will be joining us in St. Louis. One such leader is Lisa Borden, Pro Bono Shareholder of the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. We had the chance to chat with Ms. Borden about her work and pro bono – part I of our interview is below:
Describe the firm’s pro bono practice and your role as the shareholder.
Our firm is geographically diverse – we have about 650 lawyers in 18 offices spread across the Southeast. I work with some offices that have 100 or more lawyers, and others that have only a handful. We’ve had our current, formal pro bono structure for 5 years – I have been in my current position that whole time. Prior to this structure, we had a committee of people who had their own practices, but we found we couldn’t make the progress we wanted to because the people on the committee didn’t have the time required to bring in opportunities or to try to match lawyers’ skills and interests. So that’s what I do – I go into our communities and even nationally to find opportunities for lawyers to do things that they feel passionate about and that match their skill set (or even take them out of their comfort zones). I find out what our lawyers want and then go out and find opportunities.
What is the biggest challenge you see to the delivery of pro bono services?
Being in the Southeastern part of the country, our challenges may be different than in other areas of the country. Everyone has funding problems, it’s universal, but in most of the South there’s not a developed pro bono culture. That lack of a pro bono culture is combined with a lot of population being in the rural parts of the states. In all the states where our firm has offices, there are concentrations of people who need pro bono help, but huge swaths of these states are very underserved. They have very few lawyers and no access to pro bono programs.
What steps have you taken to address this challenge?
This is an ongoing challenge but we have done some work in this area. In Tennessee, some Baker Donelson attorneys and IT staff developed Online Tennessee Justice – it was rolled out by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Access to Justice Commission last year. It’s an online secure web portal that people can access from anywhere they have internet access; they can qualify for services through income qualification online. If they qualify, they can post their legal problem and volunteer lawyers will get on and take questions and can interact with the client. This service has given a lot of people in rural areas access to legal assistance, and has also brought in a lot of lawyers who weren’t volunteering before – in house lawyers who may not have had time, retired attorneys, stay at home moms, etc. This program is being licensed to other states’ Access to Justice Commissions without charge and will be implemented soon in several additional states. We think this can really be a game changer for legal assistance in rural areas.
Check back tomorrow for Part II of our interview, where Ms. Borden addresses recent trends in pro bono delivery and offers advice from her years of service.