One of the most difficult challenges of managing the pro bono practice of Winston & Strawn‘s national, multi-office firm is organizing and distributing current information to our 800 U.S. attorneys about available opportunities. Often, this challenge plays out with a simple question from an interested, but unfocused, volunteer attorney: “What is there for me to do?”
We viewed this as an information management hurdle � one that could be harnessed by an appropriately designed technology tool. Because, at the time, no such software tool existed, we created our own application, working with our existing software, which included our intranet software suite, IBM’s Lotus Notes Domino, and Microsoft Corp. systems.
To understand the breadth of the effort, consider that each of the large markets in which our firm maintains offices (New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles) is home to as many as 40 nonprofit legal assistance programs that refer client cases to volunteer attorneys. In addition, there are multiple national legal assistance programs that refer case opportunities.
Most of these legal assistance programs offer multiple case types that involve separate and distinct areas of law or client groups. Our pro bono practice could make available to our attorneys as many as 1,000 distinct opportunities.
Like any good story about a new program, this one began with an idea scratched out on a napkin ( . . . the napkin was actually a blank piece of printer paper but the scratched out part is completely true).
In June 2004, as Winston’s pro bono director, I suggested to firm leadership that we completely revamp our pro bono intranet page � so that it would not only contain standard resources (calendar, news, forms file and library), but also feature a new innovation: a search tool that could identify available opportunities.
The idea had a secondary advantage: it would draw more users to our intranet, where we offered an array of substantive information.
Within three months, the firm’s technology leadership approved the project.
With that approval, in September 2004, our key IT staff, including senior programmer Cheryl Garrett and project manager Nick Welham, met to examine the various elements of the page and create a development plan.
I sketched a crude visual layout of the site and opportunities tool � i.e., the above-referenced scratches on a piece of printer paper.
A key premise was that most attorneys would not have a clear idea of their own interests. In fact, that would be the very reason they would use the search tool.
Soon, the IT staff had developed a two-part project design, and mocked up two screenshots:
1. A straightforward home page, containing basic elements (a calendar, library and news features).
2. A more complex “opportunities” template, that would help users sort and filter the various pro bono offerings. Users could narrow selections using pre-set identifiers, thereby avoiding the need for precise search terms.
The mock-up incorporated the key philosophical aspects of our pro bono practice: Attorneys would be more likely to accept a particular matter if they understood the nature of the representation. In other words, what they will actually do during the assignment. It also shows prospective counsel that they will have easy access to resources, such as forms, manuals and mentors (firm attorneys who previously accepted similar matters).
The templates include:
� a description of the work involved;
� an estimate of the amount of time required;
� information about recent and upcoming training sessions;
� contact information for the referring legal assistance organization;
� a list of other attorneys who accepted similar matters;
� a list of currently available client matters; and
� a link to applicable form and material resources.
The sort component also incorporates the factors that, in our experience, attract attorneys to pro bono work.
Viewers can choose among five filter criteria, set out in a tab format: practice area, time required, public interest law area, client type and skills development.
Applying the assumption that most attorneys will be drawn to matters that fit within their existing skill set, each attorney’s default view reveals opportunities available in their practice group.
Thereafter, the view can be sorted by choosing from among increasingly more specific category groups.
For example, an attorney who selects the “client type” tab will view 17 discrete client groups including children, disabled, elderly, homeless, etc. When selected, each category group opens to display the title and brief description of every applicable opportunity. Another click reveals the complete template described above.
We also developed features designed to manage the posted data, and to increase the ease and volume of attorney use. Each opportunity contains an “I’m interested” icon that, when clicked, sends a message directly to me. That way, I know that the viewer wants to learn more and can follow up.
The page design provides “editor access” so that our pro bono director can easily add and remove information, providing content control and removing editorial responsibility from the IT staff.
Another helpful feature is that nearly all information available within the templates is linked to visible portals on the pro bono intranet home page.
For example, the training schedule can be accessed from the pro bono home page. The IT staff also created links to the site from other heavily trafficked areas of the firmwide intranet site � including each attorney’s personalized home page, and every department page.
The entire project was developed within 10 months, (including approval time, testing and graphics work), and went live in March, 2005. Measuring usage through hit counts has proved nearly impossible because of our (successful) efforts to interconnect the site to other pages via open portals � particularly each attorney’s intranet home page. Nonetheless, I received hundreds of “I’m interested” pings (and responded to at least that many informal inquiries generated by the site which are not easily tracked).
Ultimately, it is overly simplistic to say that any particular factor can be singled out as the cause for an increase or decrease in our pro bono productivity. Our commercial activity levels, compensation and pro bono policies, the quality of case referrals and many other issues impact pro bono productivity.
Nonetheless, based on the activity levels on the sites, the firm is convinced that the site has played a strong role in the increase of our hours � from approximately 26,000 in 2002 to in excess of 41,000 in 2006.
And among the accolades we have received, we were delighted to be the recipient of the 2007 Law Technology News Award for Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project.
McConnell is the director of public interest law at Winston & Strawn, basesd in Chicago. IT Director Chip Goodman and Senior Programmer Cheryl Garrett contributed to this article.