Background to Admin Pro Bono

The idea for Administrative-focused Pro Bono programs emerged out of the Spring 2015 class at Stanford Law School/, Intro to Legal Design. A group of 4 students — Sam Schroeder, John Moghtader, Ryan Hollander, and Sebastian Alvarado — worked for 8 weeks on the question of how to improve Pro Bono participation in family law matters. This page summarizes their work & shows the process they used.
New Modes of Pro Bono - background header longer-09We began with a challenge from the group OneJustice, to consider how we can increase the capacity of private attorneys to take on family law cases pro bono. Through our Spring 2015 design process, we moved from this initial challenge to a more specific proposition: can we meaningfully support legal aid groups (including those working on family law cases, but not exclusively) by helping them outsource their administrative work to private legal actors?

Our big insight was that instead of simply throwing more private attorneys at legal aids’ case load, we might be able to increase value and efficiency by diverting law firms & private legal vendors’ expertise at filing documents, managing a legal organization, and other administrative tasks to the legal aid groups. Currently, lawyers at legal aid orgs are diverting much of their daily time to these admin tasks, time that they could have been spending doing substantive legal work for their clients. And legal aid groups typically can’t get funds to cover additional staff or admin support, so admin work ends up as the lawyers’ work.

Understanding the Challenge Area

In the Spring 2015 Stanford class Intro to Legal Design, a group of students was paired with the partner organization OneJustice. They had approached the class to tackle a central problem they’ve seen as a wicked one, that there is no good or clear solution to the question of getting more legal access to people with family law problems.

New Modes of Pro Bono - challenge question from OneJustice-07

OneJustice is the anchor for California’s network of nonprofit legal organizations. OneJustice helps more than 100 organizations sustain and expand their impact. Among OneJustice’s many initiatives is the Justice Bus Project, which brings teams of urban volunteers to rural areas to set up one- and two-day mobile legal clinics.

The student group was drawn to this challenge because it impacts hundreds of thousands of people in a personal and deeply influential way. Every year more than 4 million litigants navigate court cases without representation, often because representation is prohibitively expensive.  In family law, the number of parties who cannot afford legal representation is particularly startling.  More than 70% of California litigants in family law matters begin cases unrepresented. Of the remaining 30%, many cannot afford representation for the entire duration of litigation.  Family law matters, which include divorce and custody issues, tend to be emotionally draining for the parties and carry lifelong consequences.

The stakeholders

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The following stakeholders play key roles in California family law services.

  1. Parties in family law matters
  1. Employees at courthouses
  • Family law judges
  • Family law facilitators: In California, one is placed in a court in every California county.  They help unrepresented litigants connect with legal aid resources and other self-help resources like Judicial Council forms.
  • Other: Social workers and other community members who work with unrepresented persons
  1. Legal service providers
  • Legal aid agencies: These organizations provide free or low cost legal services.  Bay Area Legal Aid is one of the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Their staffs include lawyers, volunteers, and sometimes paralegals.
  • Private law firms: Attorneys at law firms, including both partners and associates work on family law cases on a pro bono, part-time basis.  Often they are not experts in family law.  Also at private law firms is the pro bono coordinator, who receives case referrals from legal aid agencies and pitches the cases to attorneys within the firm.
  1. Other
  • Stakeholder network facilitators: Facilitators such as OneJustice connect and support various stakeholders.
  • The Judicial Council of California: The policymaking body of the California courts, The Judicial Council has created online self-help resources for parties to legal cases.

A typical low-income family law litigant will appear in court, will be directed to the family law facilitator, and then will be directed to a legal aid agency.  In most cases legal aid agencies provide services directly.  However, in some cases, attorneys at private firms serve clients on a pro bono basis.

Stakeholder interviews

The student team interviewed a range of stakeholders who are involved in pro bono work, to get their perspective on what challenge was worth tackling — and what kinds of solutions to consider. Here are some of the highlights.

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Stakeholder 1: National pro bono coordinator, large private law firm

  • When asked why attorneys take on pro bono cases, Stakeholder 1 explained that attorneys in his firm are attracted to cases when those cases provide key experience necessary for that attorney’s career development and advancement within the firm.  For example, a case may offer a certain type of trial experience, evidentiary hearing, negotiation, or other experience that may be missing in the attorney’s background.
  • When deciding whether to take a case, attorneys are generally less motivated by the emotional appeal of the client’s story.  Initially our team hypothesized the opposite—that attorneys are highly motivated by “storytelling” in the pitch to the attorneys.
  • When offered the choice between a family law pro bono case and a non-family law pro bono case, attorneys generally chose the case not related to family law.  This is because family law is not related to most of their practices, and the attorneys feel unqualified to take on the cases.  Furthermore, the cases tend to be long, and can run for indeterminate lengths of time.  They also can be emotionally draining.
  • Firms care about pro bono representation and the recognition that comes along with it.  However, pro bono cases work cannot be allowed to interfere with duties to paying clients.

Stakeholder 2: Director of pro bono activities, Legal aid organization doing family law

  • Stakeholder 2 created and ran a program to recruit private attorneys to support legal aid cases on a pro bono basis.  More than 40 attorneys joined.  Only a minority continued after the initial obligation.  This was because the legal matters were very challenging and also stressful.  Most of the attorneys were solo attorneys with no family law experience.
  • Most large law firms avoid the family law category altogether.  Only one large firm takes family law matters regularly in California.
  • Given limited resources, legal aid organizations prioritize hiring attorneys above paralegals and administrative resources.  They use volunteers to assist with as much paperwork as possible.
  • A very large portion of attorneys’ time is spent on administrative matters, including:
    • 1. Preparing judicial council forms, which involves rote copying from the intake questionnaires into the spaces in the form.  This is very time consuming, and there is little creative or persuasive writing.
    • 2. Driving documents from the clinic to court.
    • 3. Clerical matters, including copying and printing.

Stakeholder 3: Family law attorney, Legal aid organization

  • In most cases, private bar attorneys are ill-equipped to handle most family law matters.  The cases are complex, require specialized knowledge, and can drag on for long periods of time.
  • There are a limited number of places where private bar attorneys can step in successfully.  These include default judgments and restraining order hearings.
  • Stakeholder 3 spends more time than desired on administrative or non-legal matters.  These include preparing financial disclosures, which include income and expense declarations.

Stakeholder 4: Managing attorney, Public interest organization

  • Stakeholder 4 oversees a project to assist social services to identify legal issues and refer their clients to legal aid resources.
  • Stakeholder 4 wants to set up clinics where a private family law attorney could come in once per month and provide free advice and counsel rather than representation.  Many clients need non-legal advice.  Questions include:
    • What should a client do if she is worried about her partner’s leaving town with their child?
    • How might divorce affect certain benefits received?
    • A client wants to report her partner’s illicit activity to the police, but she is concerned about retribution by her partner.
    • How will family law litigation affect a client’s immigration status?


Possible design problems

Based on the stakeholder interviews, the student team considered working on the following design challenges:

  • How might we reduce the time that legal aid attorneys spend on administrative tasks?
  • How might we create information sessions focused on non-legal advice to serve clients as a substitute for legal representation?
  • How might we encourage more attorneys to specialize in family law?
  • How might we help unrepresented litigants locate and access the disparate family law resources that are currently available (e.g., pro bono attorneys, private family law attorneys, social workers, self-help court forms, private solutions like TurboCourt, or SupportPay, etc)?
  • How might we encourage more big law firms to provide pro bono assistance?

Narrowing our focus

Ultimately, the group decided to focus on legal aid attorneys rather than private law firm attorneys working on a pro bono basis. The domain-specific expertise of legal aid attorneys positions them better to serve low income family law clients than private attorneys, specializing in other areas of law, working on a pro bono basis.

Perhaps the most important challenge for legal aid attorneys is that a significant portion of their time is spent on administrative matters, leaving them less time to provide strategic and legal guidance to clients. Accordingly, the team settled on the following design problem:

New Modes of Pro Bono - challenge question 3-08

Our Target User

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The group chose to design for a target user who is an attorney, specialized in family law, at a legal aid organization such as Bay Area Legal Aid.  This person has the following characteristics.

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