Unlike so many legal conferences, Pro Bono Net’s Decolonizing Justice centered its sessions not on the lawyering but on problems in need of solutions.

Before diving into highlights from the mid-November event, it’s worth pausing to consider the name.

Decolonizing “justice” didn’t quite sit right with me. One speaker raised the issue during the event and reframed it as decolonizing law. She hit on the part that was unsettling to me. Justice is subjective and cultural. Justice also doesn’t require a legal solution. The law is ideally a mechanism to achieve justice. The law is also what’s used to divide, conquer, and oppress. 

Looking at the law and the systemic racism laced through its framework is a more productive way for me to think about the topics raised by speakers and participants. 

Now to a few takeaways.

Involve the Community

Far and away, my biggest takeaway is that very few organizations are conducting research and creating solutions in collaboration with intended end-users.

Speaker after speaker spoke about failed, overwhelmed, or failing systems created by those parachuting in without fully acknowledging let alone understanding the people in need of social services and safety nets.

Instead, speakers and participants shared and showcased ongoing and developing projects built from the bottom up. These models aren’t the paternalistic approach of well-wishers. These are efforts built not just with the end-user in mind but with the end-user at the table.

Georges Clement, co-founder and executive director of JustFix.ncy spoke about using co-design techniques to include stakeholders in early development and product expansion. While JustFix initially focused on housing issues, the mission expanded the more the organization learned about the community’s needs and gaps that the legal aid community was unable to close. The approach relied heavily on in-person meetings and workshops, something Clement said was challenging to overcome during the pandemic.

LSC President Emeritus James Sandman told the group that more service providers should go so far as to co-locate within communities. In his session, Sandman touched on another takeaway.

Empower the Community

One thing that became clear to Sandman when he shifted from LSC to academia is that the lawyer to lawyer model still taught in law school is fiction. “The law belongs to the people. The law does not belong to the lawyers,” he said, adding that the law is failing the people on so many levels that it’s having profound implications for racial injustice.  

He echoed a chorus of access-to-justice advocates by saying that legal aid and pro bono are insufficient solutions by themselves. To truly address A2J problems, he said, “the people need to be mobilized and empowered directly.”

Sandman, legal scholar Rebecca Sandefur and others confronted a common retort from the organized bar: that lawyers are the only ones who can effectively deliver or control the delivery of legal services. 

“It’s the height of lawyer elitism to suggest that no one who lacks a law degree is smart enough, competent enough to provide useful legal services,” Sandman said.

Yet, as many pointed out, the move to create effective roles for paraprofessionals has moved at a snail’s pace and even taking steps backward.

Sarah Bové, LLLT

Speaking to this was Sarah Bové, a licensed legal technician handling family law matters in Washington State. Initially heralded as a path to addressing the access-to-justice crisis, the so-called LLLT program licensing non-lawyers to handle limited areas of legal work was unceremoniously sidelined in June. Bové was more optimistic that the LLLT program would get back on track than I would have expected. But she’s right that the momentum for change is building. 

Litigants representing themselves outnumber those represented by licensed attorneys. Courts are buckling under that pressure. 

As much as I’d like to see solutions coming out of Utah and Arizona to address access-to-justice issues, I fear that monied interests will drive experimentation and continue to leave low to moderate-income consumers behind. 

Still, learning about these programs can’t help but create a sense of optimism. 

Vivek Maru, Namati
  • Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico has created a legal information portal that provides resources to residents who need to know their rights and to navigate the justice system. 
  • Beyond Legal Aid, founded by speaker Lam Nguyen Ho, is pioneering community activism lawyering. 
  • Namati, founded by speaker Vivek Maru, is nurturing a global legal empowerment network of community paralegals, aka barefoot lawyers, to address legal needs as close to the initial conflict as possible. 
  • Upsolve, co-founded by speaker Rohan Pavuluri, helps consumers file for bankruptcy and right their finances without further draining financial resources. Time named Upsolve to its list of 100 Best Inventions of 2020 the week Pavuluri spoke at the Pro Bono Net conference. 

Another 30 organizations participated in the conference. To see the full list, check out links here.

Rethink the Definition of Success

What struck me about these speakers is that their definitions of success were different than what a stereotypical idea of winning.

Meena Jagannath, director of global programs at Movement Law Lab and co-founder of the Community Justice Project, suggested that those in the legal profession reframe their roles to empower communities, decolonize law to remove language that oppresses and work in solidarity with those struggling for justice.  

Notes on the conference organization:

  • The conference was very well organized. Sessions were limited to a couple times a day with a break in between for attendees.
  • The Sched platform was easy to navigate, with agendas and speaker info fairly easy to find and personalize.
  • Speakers were, for the most part, well prepared and comfortable with the format.
  • Most sessions were translated real-time in Spanish.
  • A dedicated notetaker was assigned to digest sessions, including Q&A throughout. This was well done and I’d hoped to be able to have access to the notes following the conference to supplement and fill in when I had to duck out. I don’t see them on the conference site and my last note indicates recordings will be available in January.
  • There was a privacy limitation on sharing images without permission of the speaker, though I was told I could cover the program. The conduct rules kept me from sharing more details on social media during the conference. I don’t know that it served the purpose of encouraging more unfiltered conversation.
  • Speakers repeated offers to share methods, scripts, political strategies, and organizational tools so that projects and programs can be replicated.
  • Overall, the conference succeeded in sparking connections and creating an overall sense of excitement, enthusiasm and shared inspiration.
  • Similarly, it was exciting for me to see so many new (to me) faces in the legal tech, innovation, and A2J space.