The key to running a successful clearinghouse is ensuring lawyers and clients know about it! That may sound obvious, but it will not happen automatically. How the lawyers and clients are selected will make a big difference to the nature of the clearinghouse.
Some clearinghouses help organizations such as charities and other NGOs. Others also help individuals, either directly or through their client NGOs. It is important to be clear about who can receive a clearinghouse’s help ﬁnding lawyers and to set guidelines for deciding whether a particular individual or organization falls within the clearinghouse’s scope.
Some options for deﬁning who can be a client of a clearinghouse include:
A common mechanism used by clearinghouses to assess NGO clients is the “Three Ms”— mission, matter, means.
Screening and vetting is a procedure to select clients and cases based on a set of criteria and overall assessment of the client. Consideration should be given regarding the extent to which the clearinghouse will assess clients, who can be organizations, individuals or both. This should be made clear to the lawyers who may be relying on the clearinghouse to refer only a certain type of client. Clearinghouses should be as transparent as possible about the vetting or screening they do and the criteria that they use.
Screening and vetting is important for a clearinghouse’s legitimacy. Lawyers and law ﬁrms that agree to take on pro bono matters rely heavily on the clearinghouses’ screening function. A clearinghouse, especially a new one, cannot risk damaging its reputation because it did not properly screen a potential client in accordance with a publicized vetting procedure.
For example, when clearinghouses assist organizations, the clearinghouse must decide whether checks will be done on the organizations’:
For an organization to be eligible for pro bono services through a clearinghouse, it may need to meet criteria regarding transparency.
Often, clearinghouses require NGOs to ﬁll out some sort of preliminary intake form that solicits basic information from the NGO, or otherwise conducts basic background research on the organization.
The Pro Bono Alliance (PBA) in the Czech Republic uses several forms. It uses an initial form to be ﬁlled out by the NGOs that have expressed interest in pro bono services and it asks about speciﬁc services they may need help with. PBA also has a second form for NGOs to ﬁll out when an NGO has a particular matter about which to make a request. See Appendix 1, Form for NGOs Interested in Pro Bono; Appendix 2, Pro Bono Request Form for NGOs.
PILnet’s Global Clearinghouse carefully considers each NGO that wants to receive pro bono services through its clearinghouses. It screens potential clients for infrastructure, good business practices, open communication, and professionalism. Generally, when a new client is being considered, PILnet will conduct basic background research on the NGO by checking its website, its donors, annual reports, active projects and partners. Vetting is done on a case by case basis.
The Instituto Pro Bono, the ﬁrst clearinghouse in Brazil, screens its potential NGO clients to ensure that they are “legitimate, committed and ﬁnancially strapped.”
Sometimes clearinghouses place legal matters for individuals. When working with individuals, it also is important to take careful precautions screening the individuals to ensure that they are eligible for pro bono services. Apart from income levels, clearinghouses may choose to examine other criteria, such as whether the person has already received legal advice on the issue. See Appendix 3, Intake Form for NGO Matters.
Clearinghouses may also want to consider:
Some clearinghouses provide services to both individuals and NGOs.
Queensland Public Interest Law Clearinghouse Incorporated (QPILCH), in Australia, has one application form for both individuals and NGOs. For individuals, it asks various questions, including their income, their household gross annual income and their personal net income after taxes. For NGOs, it asks whether they have applied for legal aid before for this matter and who their current and previous legal advisors are, among other items.
On the ﬁrst page of its application form, available on its website www.qpilch.org.au, QPILCH also provides a timeline of what the application process will entail in order to manage the expectations of applicants. The process is as follows:
Step 1 - Complete the application form. Please complete ALL applicable sections.
Step 2 - Return the form along with photocopies (not originals) of any relevant information and supporting documents. In particular, please provide copies of any court or tribunal documents.
Step 3 - QPILCH will acknowledge receipt of your application by letter or email. Step 4 QPILCH will assess your matter based on our eligibility criteria.
Step 5 - If you are eligible for assistance and your matter is successfully referred to a lawyer for pro bono assistance, QPILCH will advise you of the lawyer’s details for you to contact to take the matter further.
Step 6 - If the matter does not ﬁt QPILCH criteria or cannot be referred, we will write to you explaining why we are unable to assist you.
While QPILCH tries to assess applications as quickly as possible, due to limited resources and a high volume of applications, it may take more than two weeks to get back to you.
Some clearinghouses will only seek volunteer lawyers for matters that comply with certain criteria. Some ways of narrowing the work could include:
Additionally, some clearinghouses not only provide access to lawyers willing to take on cases, but they also arrange for lawyers to deliver legal training sessions or workshops for NGOs.
Most people will not know to go straight to a clearinghouse if they need help to ﬁnd a lawyer. In fact, they may not even know they need a lawyer or that some lawyers may be willing to act at no cost. It is, therefore, important to build up strong networks with the people to whom potential clients will go when they are in need, for example, social workers, government agencies (including the courts), professional bodies (e.g., local bar association or law society), NGO umbrella organizations and NGO resource centers, in the case of individuals, and sector- speciﬁc networks, in the case of organizations. The NGO community is usually a small circle of people who know and trust each other. If a clearinghouse is able to ﬁnd a few initial supporters within this community, it will gain legitimacy. Those initial supporters can serve as “agents” of the clearinghouse and can help spread information about it within the NGO community.
A clearinghouse may wish to identify NGOs that it believes are doing good professional work in their respective ﬁelds. Once you have researched these NGOs, you can arrange to meet with them individually and discuss their legal needs with them.
Best practice in making first contact with NGOs:
If the NGO does not respond to the email within ﬁve business days, you may wish to resend the email or telephone the organization directly.
Speaking at conferences, attending NGO events to disseminate information, and distributing newsletters are some ways to promote your clearinghouse. By networking with leaders of the non-proﬁt sector, a clearinghouse should be able to locate and target NGOs that could beneﬁt from lawyers’ pro bono help. However it is done, the task of making contact with those who most need legal assistance is very important and will demonstrate to the community your commitment and legitimacy.
PILnet-Moscow’s Clearinghouse also had a strategic approach to initial NGO outreach:
These efforts promoted the clearinghouse, while also yielding the clearinghouse its ﬁrst requests for pro bono assistance.
How you contact potential clients will also depend on who they are. For example, if you are trying to help communities in ﬁnancial need where there are high levels of illiteracy, relying on email will be ineffective. If you are based far away from those you are helping, you will need to consider what use you can make of the phone and Internet. Consideration should be given to whether clients need to apply in writing and what service will be provided by phone or email. A clearinghouse might consider creating a simple ﬂyer or one-page brochure which outlines how a clearinghouse could help an NGO and whether the NGO is eligible for pro bono assistance.
The legal community plays a critical role in achieving the clearinghouse’s objectives. First, lawyers provide the actual pro bono service—voluntarily agreeing to provide free professional services to NGOs and individuals. Second, they provide essential ﬁnancial, educational and promotional support to the pro bono community.
A clearinghouse may consider the following when reaching out to law ﬁrms
The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) in the United States is dedicated to the support and professional development of full time pro bono counsel and coordinators at commercial law ﬁrms. APBCo currently has more than 120 members from more than 85 law ﬁrms. ABPCo does not provide pro bono legal services or references to pro bono legal service agencies.
Use the legal network that the clearinghouse has already established as your advocates and encourage them to promote to their contacts the value of being involved in the clearinghouse. Personal contacts are crucial. Many large law ﬁrms have pro bono coordinators, or directors of corporate social responsibility who are responsible for screening and disseminating the pro bono matters to the appropriate lawyers in their ﬁrm. Relationships with these individuals should be properly maintained and carefully managed.
A clearinghouse can get lawyers and law ﬁrms involved in other ways:
Pro Bono Declaration
Several clearinghouses have drafted “Pro Bono Declarations,” afﬁrmations of the ethical and professional commitment to advancing the public good through pro bono legal services. A clearinghouse can then use a declaration to reach out to law ﬁrms and encourage them to sign it, as well as a means of promoting the clearinghouse.
Pro Bono Survey
A pro bono survey is another way to reach out to law ﬁrms and assess their interest in pro bono. It is important to make sure the survey is quick and easy to complete. A carefully constructed and narrowly tailored survey allows a clearinghouse to see the kinds of pro bono work in which law ﬁrms are interested. Conclude the survey by asking whether the lawyer would like to take part in pro bono services provided by the clearinghouse. Surveys may be conducted via direct mail, email or online through surveying services like Survey Monkey.
Another approach is to create a pro bono advisory council for your clearinghouse. The advisory council can be drawn from pro bono coordinators or prominent partners of law ﬁrms, who can help guide your future efforts in maintaining and developing your links with local ﬁrms and funders. For example, PILnet’s Pro Bono Advisory Council meets once a year and has an honorary president, co-chairs and members from prominent law ﬁrms. In addition to lawyers, an advisory council could also include judges, academics and senior level representatives from the organizations that the clearinghouse helps.
Each jurisdiction has different rules about how lawyers can operate. For example, in some jurisdictions, lawyers can only give advice as part of their law ﬁrm due to insurance and practice requirements. In other jurisdictions, lawyers are allowed to give pro bono advice in their personal capacity (that is, not through their ﬁrm). The rules in a particular jurisdiction can help a clearinghouse decide whether it will only work through law ﬁrms or also with individual lawyers. Whatever is decided, a clearinghouse should ensure that the lawyers have appropriate expertise, insurance and, if applicable, supervision, to guarantee the pro bono work is done to the same professional standards as fee-earning work and meets all local regulatory standards. Lawyers become involved in pro bono work for many different reasons. Later chapters of this manual offer suggestions for how to promote a pro bono culture within your area.
Upon identifying an NGO with a legal problem and a lawyer able to assist, some clearinghouses will require one or both of these parties enter into an agreement. These agreements generally describe and deﬁne the terms and conditions of the pro bono service between the clearinghouse, the NGO and the lawyers. The advantage of such an agreement is that it builds a consensus on standards and expectations amongst all those working with the clearinghouse. Often, law ﬁrms require the submission of corporate or personal documents as a prerequisite to these agreements.
A4ID asks all its lawyers and clients to sign a letter conﬁrming agreement to its “Governing Code” before ﬁnalizing the allocation of any project.
Law ﬁrms that access Centrum Pro Bono’s program in Poland sign a general agreement that does not commit them to a set number of hours or projects, but allows them to adapt their pro bono commitments to their current workloads. Centrum Pro Bono does not require law ﬁrms or NGOs to sign any additional agreements. Other clearinghouses, like PILnet’s Global Clearinghouse, do not require parties to sign contracts or agreements.
The individuals and organizations being helped can often be unfamiliar with legal processes and concepts. Therefore, they will beneﬁt from assistance on scoping and assessing their legal needs and putting them into language which the legal community will understand. This is a core function of most clearinghouses. If the request falls outside the areas with which lawyers can assist, then ideally a clearinghouse should look to refer them on to another organization. In order to do this, it is important to maintain a good network of contacts. Depending on the client group served, it may be useful to consider training staff on dealing with people who are particularly distressed.
The description of the legal work needed must be clear, carefully written and concise, so that a lawyer can quickly and easily understand the request. PILnet has drafted guidelines for how to summarize NGOs’ legal needs, which it distributes to NGOs when necessary. PILnet also uses this document internally as a guide on how to draft a matter that is sent to law ﬁrms. See Appendix 13, Guideline for NGOs: How to Summarize Your Legal Needs.
When writing the description of the request provided to lawyers, consider the following:
There are many ways in which requests for legal assistance may be made known to participating lawyers. The method chosen will be affected by the number of requests coming through to the clearinghouse. Different models for communicating requests include:
The method by which you distribute requests can also vary from emails, to personal phone calls, to posting requests online. It is important that the method chosen is kept under review and discussed regularly with participating lawyers. It is also important to manage the expectations of participating lawyers as to how often they can undertake a pro bono project and, where multiple lawyers volunteer for the same project, to ensure that the process for selecting a particular lawyer for a particular matter is as transparent as possible.
When sending emails, it is important to keep in mind that lawyers are quite busy juggling many different tasks and communications throughout the day. It is best to
A possible advantage of communicating requests on the same day each week/month is that, over time, lawyers may start to anticipate receiving the emails and it may become a part of their schedules in some way.
Different approaches to communicating about clearinghouse matters suit different organizations.
A4ID sends out a weekly email detailing all project requests and has found this method to be effective.
Centrum Pro Bono, in Poland, posts a list of current matters on its website in order to enable lawyers to review and select matters according to their own schedule.
PILnet’s Global Clearinghouse distributes its matters via email every two weeks. As you can see, different approaches suit different clearinghouses.
In many instances, only one lawyer will volunteer for a matter, and if it is a good match the lawyer gets the case. However, sometimes more than one lawyer will volunteer for a matter and the clearinghouse then has to choose which lawyer or ﬁrm will get the matter. It is important to have a clear policy on how requests are allocated (that is, which lawyers or law ﬁrms are chosen) so that lawyers know what they can expect and to avoid any perception of bias. Different criteria include:
After the clearinghouse has chosen the appropriate lawyer or law ﬁrm to handle the matter, several important communications must take place. First, you must inform the selected lawyer or law ﬁrm that it is getting the case for which it volunteered. It is also important to ask the lawyer or law ﬁrm to conﬁrm that there is no conﬂict of interest that prevents it advising the client. Rules about the implementation of this principle may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is important to understand this well and any other professional standards that apply to the provision of legal services. A clearinghouse should never consider a matter assigned until after the lawyer or law ﬁrm conﬁrms that there are no conﬂicts and conﬁrms that it can take the matter.
Next, the clearinghouse must contact the lawyers who volunteered for the matter, but were not chosen for it. You want to maintain a good relationship with them because you want them to volunteer for matters in the future. Thus, it is very important not to ignore these individuals. Finally, you need to inform the client that a law ﬁrm has agreed to take on its matter. In the event that the clearinghouse is unable to place a matter with a law ﬁrm, the clearinghouse also needs to communicate this to the NGO and ideally suggest other ways in which it might be able to get the needed assistance.
Once the lawyers have been chosen, it is important to consider how the clearinghouse will introduce them to the clients. Options at this stage include:
However you introduce the lawyer and the client, it is important to ensure that everyone involved knows exactly what the lawyer has agreed to do. Many clearinghouses prefer clients to contact the clearinghouse if they need more help after the initial request. This ensures that the lawyers do not get repeatedly contacted by the client after the agreed-upon work has been completed. Depending on the NGO, the law ﬁrm and the clearinghouses’ relationship with each of the parties, it may sometimes be helpful to sit in on the ﬁrst call between them. This is a matter of discretion. It is also important to keep track of the matters in an organized and detailed manner, for example, in a database.
PILnet often introduces parties via email. In this email, PILnet provides everyone’s contact information and usually asks that the law ﬁrm to organize the ﬁrst call.
PILnet also keeps a matters database, which tracks each matter, the NGO, the lawyer(s) that volunteered to take the case, their contact information and even the time, date and substance of the written communications between the clearinghouse and the parties.
After the pro bono work has been allocated, the level of involvement by the clearinghouse depends on the nature of the matter and the parties involved. Generally, a clearinghouse has limited involvement.
For those clearinghouses that choose to limit their involvement after the referral, it may still be beneﬁcial to contact the NGO a month or two after the matter has begun to follow-up and ﬁnd out how the matter is progressing, as problems sometimes arise well after the matter was ﬁrst assigned. It is important to have proper systems, e.g., a “tickler” system that provides calendar reminders for this purpose. Often, as a result of the meeting between the NGO and the law ﬁrm, the content of the original pro bono request changes. For example, previously unknown issues may be discovered, or the NGO and law ﬁrm may sign a long-term cooperation agreement. In this event, the clearinghouse should be kept apprised of the terms of the new relationship and update its database accordingly. Also, a follow-up correspondence allows a clearinghouse to ask whether the NGO has other, new matters for the clearinghouse.
This type of communication serves two purposes. First, it allows the clearinghouse to determine whether the cases it is placing are successfully progressing. Occasionally, an NGO might report a problem such as miscommunication, lack of communication, failure to receive a ﬁnal product, etc. Second, this type of follow-up promotes the maintenance of this relationship and serves as an opportunity to obtain more matters from the NGO.
In the event a problem is reported by the NGO or by the law ﬁrm, it is recommended to communicate with both parties to ﬁx the problem. Do not assume that one side has reported the problem accurately. Clearinghouses have an interest and obligation to ensure that the problem is resolved fairly, there is a good relationship between the parties, the matter is completed in a reasonable time frame and the NGO is satisﬁed. This may not always be possible, but the clearinghouse should always remain professional and ensure that high standards are consistently met by all participants in the clearinghouse.
When the pro bono work has been completed, it is often helpful to assess its impact. This helps demonstrate the value of the clearinghouse and shows whether the clearinghouse is meeting its aims. Collecting feedback on the pro bono work can also encourage more lawyers to get involved. Feedback can be obtained by a survey, email, phone call or in-person meeting, depending on the nature of the clients and the clearinghouse. Law ﬁrms are often very interested in hearing about this feedback as it helps them to continue to promote pro bono work within their ﬁrm and to their fee-paying clients.
QPILCH uses “Matter Closure Reports” to assess the outcome of pro bono matters and how much work was done by the lawyers involved.
Centrum Pro Bono (Poland) has developed a satisfaction questionnaire for clients to evaluate completed projects.
Additionally, a clearinghouse might consider sending thank you letters to the lawyer(s) that took a case through the clearinghouse. Generally, thank you letters should be addressed to the team leader of each pro bono matter. This person is often (but not always) a partner under whose supervision the work was performed, or a lawyer who agreed to take on the speciﬁc matter on behalf of the ﬁrm after it was referred by a pro bono coordinator. All lawyers who worked on the project and relevant law ﬁrm pro bono coordinators should receive a copy of the letter.
It is often the case that pro bono clients do not have experience working with lawyers. Similarly, lawyers may not be accustomed to working with clients that lack basic knowledge about what a lawyer’s role is. Therefore, clearinghouses should consider communicating the following tips to lawyers and clients to help successfully effect communication between lawyers and pro bono clients.
Pro bono clients may have less experience in dealing with lawyers than commercial clients, so lawyers may need to learn new skills to ensure they provide an effective service to them. See Appendix 16, Pro Bono Representations: Tips for Volunteer Lawyers.
The following tips may be helpful for lawyers to consider:
Many NGO staff or individuals have never worked alongside lawyers before accessing a pro bono clearinghouse and will, therefore, have little knowledge or experience of the processes involved in pro bono legal work. A clearinghouse should consider how best to explain to potential clients all that they need to know about working with lawyers. It may be helpful to make a list of points for the client to think about before meeting their lawyer. See Appendix 17, Pro Bono Representations: Tips for Clients.
Lawyers often have professional obligations that require them to obtain certain documents and information from their clients. These may include:
It is important that clients understand that these are regulatory matters about which lawyers tend to have little control.
It should be stressed to clients that their lawyer will need to be in contact with them. As a result, if they are expecting to be away they should let their lawyers know and/or provide details of an alternative contact.