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Law Office of Robert J. Ambrogi
16 McKay's Drive
Rockport, MA 01966
(978) 546-7898


August 2001

The Public Good: Pro Bono and Public Interest

First of two parts
(Go to part two)

By Robert J. Ambrogi
Though often portrayed as greedy and self-serving, lawyers unselfishly and routinely provide their services on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, understanding pro bono and public service work to be part and parcel of the privilege of practicing law.

For these lawyers, the Web provides critical support, with sites - often focusing on particular areas of practice such as housing, welfare or health - offering practice guides, advocacy tools and legal updates. A growing number of sites even help match pro bono lawyers with needy clients.

The number of Web sites catering to pro bono and public-service lawyers is large. This month's column, the first of two parts, looks at some of the sites that are national in their focus. Next month, we will review some of the more narrowly focused sites.

Promoting Pro Bono

When it launched in 1998, ProBono.net created a genre all its own, one that immediately seemed indispensable. Developed as a means of enlisting Internet technology in efforts to enhance the legal services for the poor, the site was spearheaded by Michael Hertz, then a lawyer with New York's Latham & Watkins and now executive director, working under a fellowship from the Open Society Institute.

ProBono.net is a virtual network over which pro-bono lawyers can exchange practice materials, volunteer opportunities and related information. Initially, it focused on New York City, and on the areas of family law, domestic violence, disability rights, community development and criminal appeals. It now also includes Minnesota, San Francisco and Rochester, N.Y., as well as two national practice-area sections, for asylum and death penalty cases.

Each section provides training and practice materials, listings of cases needing volunteers, message boards and other resources. Lawyers interested in a particular section must first register in order to gain access, but there is no cost.

Another innovative program is CorporateProBono.org, designed to match in-house counsel with pro-bono opportunities in legal services and public interest programs. Created jointly by the American Corporate Counsel Association and the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, CorporateProBono.org allows corporate counsel to search for volunteer opportunities and locate tools, information and resources concerning pro bono participation. The site features a database of pro bono opportunities, supplemented by a library of publications such as best-practice guides and monographs.

National Support Organizations

The Equal Justice Network describes itself as an online meeting place, information source and connection mechanism for lawyers who provide civil legal assistance to low-income people. Its site has nine main components - Training, Changing Needs, Innovative Services, State Level Advocacy, Technology, Resource Development, and State Planning Partnerships, Visions, and Communication Center - each with an array of linked articles and original materials. The Communication Center hosts online discussion boards, e-mail discussion lists and online conferences. The Technology area includes a survey of innovative ways legal services organizations around the country are using the Web. The links page is a comprehensive guide to national, state and local legal services and advocacy organizations on the Web.

Part think-tank, part advocacy group, the Center for Law and Social Policy is a national organization with expertise in both law and policy affecting the poor. Its Web site features CLASP Update, a monthly report on welfare reform developments. It also maintains an extensive library of articles on legal services for the poor, child support enforcement, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, and other topics. The site includes an overview of CLASP's national and state projects, as well as its organization and staff.

The National Center on Poverty Law is perhaps most widely known for its bimonthly legal publication, Clearinghouse Review, featuring in-depth articles and analysis on topics such as civil rights, family law, disability, domestic violence, housing, elder law, employment, health, and welfare reform. The Review also features abstracts of case reports in poverty law cases from across the country. These case reports are available here, through the site's Poverty Law Library, which contains more than 500,000 case documents, from over 50,000 cases spanning 30 years.

Visitors to the site can read many of the case abstracts, but access to the full text of the cases and to articles from the Review requires a subscription. Browse the abstracts by area of law, search them by key words, or view only the most recently added cases. The Web site also offers a series of practice-area pages focusing on food programs, health, housing, immigration and welfare.

A national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Justice works to strengthen the capacity of public-interest groups to influence public policy. To this end, its Nonprofit Advocacy Project produces legal guides to help non-profits plan advocacy campaigns while navigating the laws that govern lobbying, fundraising and related issues. These guides can be ordered from the site, some free, some not. The alliance's Judicial Selection Project monitors the judicial selection process nationwide, and, through this site, provides a database of federal judges that can be sorted by race, gender and court.

Named for the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice seeks to promote equality and human dignity through its work in four areas: democracy, poverty, civil liberties and criminal justice. Its programs tackle campaign finance reform, judicial independence and community justice, among other topics. In the legal services arena, it has produced a series of fact sheets, available on its Web site, designed to illuminate how restrictions on legal services programs interfere with zealous advocacy. Its Legal Services E-lert summarizing news articles and opinion pieces from the media that discuss legal services for the poor. It, too, is available here, along with an archive of past issues.

The Southern Poverty Law Center uses education and litigation to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination. It is widely known for its Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups and extremist activity throughout the U.S., and its Teaching Tolerance program, which supports educational efforts to tackle hate crime among young people. Visitors to its Web site can read about current litigation and courtroom victories over the years. The site includes a list of hate groups categorized by type - i.e., Klan, skinhead, neo-Nazi - and searchable by state, and a similar list of "patriot" groups. Hate incidents are also listed, sorted by state.

The Legal Services Corporation is a private, non-profit corporation established by Congress in 1974 to assure equal access to justice for all Americans. It does this primarily through its support of some 300 legal aid programs serving every county in the U.S. Through this Web site, users can read LSC's governing statutes, bylaws and regulations, review its budget and case statistics, and see the text of its reports to Congress and testimony it has given to congressional committees. Visitors can locate local legal-aid programs by clicking on a map of the U.S. or searching by county name.

Robert J. Ambrogi, rambrogi@amlaw.com, is author of "The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Web Sites," available through www.lawcatalog.com.

© 2005 Robert J. Ambrogi.