“Pro bono” is not just a term found in John Grisham’s books. It is a thriving culture among legal fraternities of many developed nations, where lawyers, law students and law firms go out of their way to provide legal assistance to people and organizations who are in need of but cannot afford to pay for their services. This practice is not as widespread in the Indian law community at present, but a networking website and the team behind it is trying to change that very fast.
When India Vision Foundation (IVF), an NGO set up by Kiran Bedi for prison and police reform, needed assistance in drafting a Memorandum of Understanding for legal purposes, they did not know whom to ask for help. Legal services are an expensive proposition, and besides, it can also be challenging to find a reliable professional or firm. After some searching, they approached i-Probono with their requirements, who matched IVF’s project with an in-house lawyer at a multi-national corporation in Bangalore. The lawyer also drafted a standard form MoU for IVF’s future use. The project helped IVF professionalize and expand its work.
This is just one of the many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) aided by i-Probono in accessing free legal assistance. i-Probono is a not-for-profit online portal which was started 3 years ago, with the purpose of connecting social sector projects and organizations with lawyers and law firms who wish to volunteer their services for a social cause.
The global outreach of i-Probono allows lawyers and law students to undertake projects from around the world and allows NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) access to legal assistance across jurisdictions. The website takes care to match lawyers specifically to projects which utilise their expertise in causes they believe in. In addition, i-Probono acts as a capacity builder to CSOs by allowing them to scale up their work, take pre-emptory steps to comply with the law and galvanize human rights advocacy.
Although established in London, i-Probono always had a deep connection with India as Shireen Irani, the Founder and Executive Director, has roots in Mumbai and has worked and studied in the country. With a vision to integrating pro bono work culture into mainstream India and engaging lawyers in the work of civil society, Shireen believes that pro bono culture is here to stay, and the many changes around us, including the spurt in internet networking, is just going to facilitate and spread this movement.
I started i-Probono on the back of my own experience. As a lawyer, I and many of my colleagues wanted to give back but there was no easy way to find opportunities that fit our interests and expertise. When I had previously worked with NGOs I knew they struggled to find the right legal help, even when they could pay for it. By 2008 online networks had come of age; we were using the internet for everything – finding friends, business contacts, shopping – that’s when I first thought of harnessing the web to connect lawyers to NGOs.
The use of i-Probono website is free and simple. An organization can log on to www.i-probono.com, register and put up its legal requirements. The proactive team at i-Probono will then scout for lawyers whose legal expertise best fits the requirements, and connect with the two. The NGO can decide on which professional they wish to work with, and take it forward from there. There is a similar procedure for lawyers and law students, where they can register and fill in their expertise and interests so that a suitable project can be found for them.
Swathi Sukumar, India Country Director of i-Probono, has been working relentlessly for over a year to convert mindsets in the legal circles in India, and is most familiar the Indian scenario. She admits that it is a challenge convincing Indian law firms to accept the pro bono concept, but is optimistic that it is slowly but surely taking root in the country, as more and more lawyers wish to be a part of the change taking place all around them.
The response to i-Probono has been uniformly positive and enthusiastic in both the NGO and the legal communities in India. However, there are challenges that we face that are peculiar to India. The first challenge is that the Indian legal community, especially within law firms, does not have a pro bono culture. While pro bono work is undertaken on an ad hoc basis by lawyers, it is not systematized. To address this issue, i-Probono is working with law firms and lawyers to develop individualized pro bono programs that suit the capacity, expertise and nature of each firm and law practice.
Secondly, factors such as the size of the country and the sheer diversity in NGOs, lawyers and local legal requirements pose a daunting challenge to our work. Several NGOs cannot access our network because they are in underserved areas, including in rural areas. We are looking at gradually expanding our operations to places other than the metro cities.
While Shireen and her team dream of spreading the pro bono work culture around the world, they have decided to focus on India at the moment despite the many challenges faced. “We’re working one country at a time. It’s essential to understand the legal market and civil society sector for different jurisdictions but that’s a huge task and many countries already have an evolved system of pro bono work. We want to concentrate our energies where we can add value which is why we’re focusing on India,” says Shireen.
The dogged perseverance with which Shireen and Swathi have been evangelizing i-Probono in India has convinced them that the legal community in India is waking up to the benefits of pro bono work. In an age of a million law firms and an estimated 60,000 law students joining the profession each year, it also acts as a differentiator. With clients getting more discerning, law firms getting more progressive and law students and professionals getting more involved in the positive changes around them, the future of pro bono work in India certainly looks promising.