Sustaining pro bono services during the pandemic with technical innovation

a globe being held by a young person

Since the launch of Microsoft’s formal pro bono program 17 years ago, our employees have engaged in a diverse range of pro bono activities around the world. The strength of our program is fueled by our employees’ commitment to helping others through pro bono service. Today, we are publishing our Microsoft 2020 Pro Bono Report, highlighting our employees’ work over the past year in partnership with a number of great legal service organizations.

The report spans our past fiscal year, the second half of which fell squarely during the pandemic. In so many ways, there are stark contrasts between life before and during Covid-19, and we’ve felt it within our pro bono program. It really has been a tale of two programs this past year. The first half of the fiscal year looked similar to years past. In contrast, the second half brought a significant increase in need due to the pandemic and at the same time required rapid changes in how pro bono services are provided, leveraging remote service models and technologies in innovative new ways.

The heightened need for pro bono

Over the past year, the pandemic’s impacts on health, the economy, and social interactions have been severe and have rendered society’s most vulnerable even more so. As a result, more people than ever need help navigating public assistance programs and seeking the legal protections that they qualify for, from unemployment claims to debt relief, health benefit claims to eviction assistance and protective orders to protect against domestic violence. Navigating these issues can be very challenging without legal help. Unfortunately, in the current economic environment, an increasing number of people cannot afford the legal counsel they need. Pro bono services can help fill the gap, offering much-needed hope and a lifeline to low-income people who desperately need the protections they qualify for under the law.

Innovating with technology to address today’s challenges and better address tomorrow’s needs

In early spring, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders in effect, many of the traditional ways that pro bono services are delivered ­– face-to-face at clinics, in offices, and in court rooms – were disrupted. Pro bono programs had to pivot quickly to remote service models. I was heartened by how rapidly the pro bono community was able to make the transition and maintain continuity of legal services for people and organizations in need.

These transitions were made possible in large part by using technology in new ways. Once an under-used option, remote legal counseling by video through platforms such as Microsoft Teams has become commonplace. Courts are expanding options for electronic court filings and remote court appearances. Data analytics tools are being developed to generate insights and support advocacy with policymakers on issues like eviction and unemployment trends.

Here are just a few examples of the ways remote pro bono services models are helping those in our communities:

Maintaining support for Dreamers with virtual clinics with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) protects and advocates for immigrant rights. Microsoft has proudly partnered with NWIRP for the past eight years to provide monthly, free in-person clinics for Dreamers who need help with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications. In March, social distancing requirements prevented us from hosting that month’s in-person clinic. Knowing that Dreamers urgently needed these services to secure DACA protections, and the safety and stability DACA provides, NWIRP and Microsoft rapidly looked at options to continue this work. Together, we launched a remote clinic model, connecting pro bono volunteers with DACA applicants by phone and using Microsoft Teams to help volunteers collaborate efficiently and easily with NWIRP staff on cases. Since April, we have hosted eight virtual clinics, and we plan to continue providing DACA support remotely for as long as social distancing is required.

Enabling remote requests for protective orders by domestic violence survivors in King County courts

Before Covid-19, survivors of domestic violence in King County were required to appear in person before a court to obtain a protection order against their abuser. When the state’s Covid-19 response resulted in a government shutdown and stay-at-home orders, the danger presented to domestic abuse victims was twofold – abuse rates were quickly rising, and survivors were no longer able to come to the court to seek protection.

The King County court system quickly developed a pathway for survivors to request protection orders remotely with electronic filings and remote hearing appearances. To provide survivors with legal representation to help navigate this new court process, we partnered with a coalition of government, nonprofits, and law firm partners to create a virtual legal support model that connects pro bono counsel, clients, and the courts by phone. Like NWIRP, the coalition also leverages Microsoft Teams for volunteer training, collaboration, and resource sharing. In April, Microsoft volunteers were able to secure a two-year protective order on behalf of their first pro bono client under this new model.

Providing remote counseling and using data to protect tenants with the Housing Justice Project

The King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP) helps tenants facing eviction. With volunteers, HJP provides legal counseling, representation, and connections to resources that can help tenants stay housed. More than 500,000 King County residents have filed new unemployment claims since March. As job losses have surged, so too have the households in Washington unable to pay their rent fully and on-time. While in-person counseling is not possible, HJP is facilitating remote legal counseling sessions for tenants, as well as remote community education sessions on tenant rights and resources. HJP is using technologies including Microsoft Power BI to aggregate, analyze, and track cross-county data on eviction proceedings. These data analytics tools are making it easier for HJP to identify tenants that may need their help. The tools also provide HJP with a real-time eviction heat map of the county that clearly and easily conveys where evictions are occurring across the region and the scale of eviction notices that have been filed. HJP then uses the map to raise awareness and advocate for tenant support where it’s needed most.

Looking forward

In the 17-year history of Microsoft’s pro bono program, this may be the most challenging year we’ve seen for the pro bono community, with staggering need, resource constraints, and physical restrictions inhibiting traditional service models. At the same time, the work being done by organizations like NWIRP, the King County courts, and HJP have made it an exceptionally heartening year as well. Together, we have learned a lot about resilience, innovation, and embracing change. And we have discovered new ways technology can be deployed to help those in need. Although necessitated by the pandemic, the shift to remote pro bono legal support and the expanded use of technology has the potential to improve pro bono service delivery well beyond the pandemic. Technology provides us with tools to better collaborate, be more efficient in the services we provide, expand the geographies in which we can provide support, and gain new insights about the needs of those we serve.

As we look ahead to the new year – and hopefully at some point in the not-too-distant future returning to a world where we can be in person safely – we’re grateful that this time has resulted in innovations that we, our partners, and the broader pro bono community can continue to use to grow the impact and reach of pro bono services to those who need them.

Tags: , , , ,