- In 2019, Dentons co-developed and launched a pro bono system with Paladin, a software platform that allows lawyers to more easily access pro bono opportunities.
- Since then, the firm has seen an increase of nearly 40% in pro bono hours than before they implemented the technology.
- Ben Weinberg, who heads the pro bono department at Dentons, spoke with Business Insider about how Paladin solved the problems faced by lawyers at the firm in accessing pro bono work — especially during a time when the country is grappling with a global health pandemic and a racial reckoning.
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Ben Weinberg, pro bono partner at Dentons, remembers just how inefficient the old way of doing the work was.
The basic structure for connecting lawyers with pro bono work was what he called a “phone tree” system: Whenever a legal aid organization needed help, it would typically send an email with the request to a firm’s head pro bono partner, who would then forward the cases as they came to busy corporate lawyers.
“It was like a game of telephone,” Weinberg, who’s managed Dentons’ pro bono program for over 12 years, said. In a normal month, he’d typically field around 100 requests.
Typically, there’s a high volume of relatively straightforward cases that help low-income populations, such as those related to food stamps and evictions, Weinberg explained. “There’s a tremendous need for access to justice, but lawyers didn’t go to law school to focus on these types of easy cases.”
Dentons has since partnered with Paladin, a software-as-service platform that consolidates and personalizes all pro bono opportunities to make it easier for lawyers to find this kind of work. Through the technology, which it implemented in January 2019, the firm has expanded its work in this sphere, seeing an increase of nearly 40% in new pro bono cases from the previous year.
The inefficiency of the old-school system, already exacerbated by the sheer number of legal aid requests, had only worsened as Dentons rapidly expanded across the country. (The firm now has 33 offices in the US, and is the largest in the world by number of lawyers.)
“The real reason pro bono work exists is to pick up the slack in the justice system,” said Weinberg. The slack was just being lost in the shuffle.
Partnering with Paladin to streamline and boost pro bono work
Things changed when Weinberg was connected with Paladin. The software company asked Dentons to co-develop an online live system that would connect their lawyers to pro bono work.
It was during an initial focus group at the firm that Weinberg discovered the biggest obstacle its lawyers faced: “Their reaction was uniform: ‘We hate the emails because they’re random. They’re not targeted at all. And they come in nearly every second of every day.'”
Paladin’s solution is to provide a system that streamlined this process. The platform collects all pro bono requests, and enables lawyers to search and filter for specific cases they’d like to work on.
“Previously, it was like drinking from a firehouse,” described Weinberg. “You had to read every single email to find what you were interested in. But now, you can specifically filter by location, by the kind of work you want to do, whether it’s litigation or real estate, or by the community you want to serve, like children or LGBTQ.”
Since it started using Paladin in 2019, civil rights and defense pro bono work at the firm are up 54% and 44%, respectively. Similarly, work for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals have increased 80% and 38%, according to Dentons.
The firm was an initial signatory of the 1995 Pro Bono Challenge, which set out a standard across major law firms to provide pro bono services. Since, Dentons has met its yearly target of committing at least 3% of its total hours to pro bono work — translating to around 50,000 hours — every year.
“There’s now a technology, an infrastructure, that speaks to lawyers in a way they want to be talked to about something they care about,” said Weinberg.
A surprising increase in pro bono work during the COVID-19 pandemic
When Dentons went fully remote in March, Weinberg was initially concerned that the pandemic would negatively impact pro bono work, especially since it’s on a volunteer basis and everyone was already dealing with so much.
However, pro bono hours have actually been up this year by 6% so far, compared to the same period last year.
Weinberg largely ascribes this surprising statistic to Paladin. During a time when the country is grappling with a renewed racial reckoning, attorneys can effectively filter for civil rights-focused pro bono work, he said. Dentons saw a 54% increase in signups for these kinds of cases in the first half of 2020, compared to the latter half of 2019.
And since pro bono work at law firms relies on a system of volunteers, Weinberg thinks that technology platforms like Paladin, which make it easier for volunteers to connect with this work, are all the more necessary for the legal industry.
“Paladin creates an ecosystem where there’s just so much more collaboration and so much more efficiency,” said Weinberg, “that it becomes much less challenging to meet the need for access to justice.”