Pro Bono and Service in the Age of COVID-19: Opportunities for Involvement

By Nisel N. Desai

I vividly recall the validation and fellowship I experienced after serving in my first Wills For Heroes Clinic during my second year of law school. Classmates forged bonds with each other, and attorneys seemed reenergized by the mission of these clinics—to help first responders ensure that their final wishes are honored. Fast forward to present day 2020: COVID-19 has forced our profession to pause, retreat, and stay apart. During a time when we want to come together as a profession and address the challenges that COVID-19 has created for our society, we’re isolating, communicating over endless Zoom meetings, and grappling with the cognitive dissonance of screen time and virtual interactions. These are not easy times for any of us, either for those who are sheltering-in-place, or for those with loved ones on the frontlines who are facing their own challenges. However, the way that we as North Carolina attorneys respond to these challenges will characterize our profession once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, and it’s business as usual.

This is a call to action—we don’t have to stop advancing the values we want to foster within our profession: pro bono and service. Yes, in-person clinics are a relic of pre-COVID life, and courts across the state are essentially “shuttered” until June 1. But here are a few opportunities to stay involved (the first two were recently highlighted by my committee co-chair Samantha Gordon in this wonderful post—pro bono work can truly be the respite we all need from WFH fatigue!):

  1. NC Free Legal Answers is a web-based portal that allows financially eligible North Carolina residents to ask civil legal questions for lawyers to answer anonymously online. Lawyers provide brief legal information and advice. It takes less than 5 minutes to register, and you can immediately browse the queue of questions and pick one that fits your interest. You can take up to 3 days to research a response.
  2. Lawyer on the Line is a partnership between the North Carolina Bar Foundation (NCBF) and Legal Aid of North Carolina. It gives private lawyers an easy and rewarding way to provide basic legal advice and service to Legal Aid clients. Lawyer on the Line volunteers serve thousands of clients every year who have nowhere else to turn. For more information, visit Legal Aid North Carolina.
  3. Members of the North Carolina Bar Foundation Civic Education and Community Engagement Committee are seeking volunteers to assist with projects to benefit students while working from home during school closures. Lawyers for Literacy is looking for lawyers and paralegals to read to students through virtual classrooms. We are exploring possibilities to make this an easy way for volunteers to engage elementary students. Middle School Mock Trial volunteers are seeking assistance converting mock cases for middle school use for the upcoming school year. The NC Bar Foundation has also been successfully creating opportunities for attorneys to visit high school classrooms in an effort to supplement social studies/civics curriculums. Common topics include: the U.S. Constitution, rule of law, and the role of the judiciary. With students working from home during school closures, digital content will be a valuable resource for teachers and parents. Please contact pvaughan@ncbar.org if you have an interest in helping with any of these programs.
  4. The personal and economic fallout caused by COVID-19 is real and widespread. Almost all of us know business owners who have had to shutter their doors or friends who have been furloughed or laid off. Under normal circumstances, some of these contacts might even be “paying clients”—but these are far from normal circumstances. Rapidly evolving federal and state efforts to help boost the economy are fraught with legal complexities that beg for quality counsel that many just can’t afford right now. If you have appropriate expertise, consider talking to your firm or other legal employer about whether you can offer pro bono advice related to COVID-19 related issues. Nihad Mansour, the former Pro Bono Staff Attorney for North Carolina Bar Foundation, and now Assistant Director of the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project, recently hosted a timely and informative podcast episode.
  5. If you have an existing virtual pro bono initiative that is recruiting attorney or paralegal volunteers, please email Samantha Gordon (seunmann@gmail.com) and me (nisel@carneswarwick.law), and we will circulate your need for virtual volunteers amongst several listservs to help you get the word out.

I very much look forward to fellowship, volunteerism, and pro bono projects after we face this challenge together, and I hope you stop by to say hello. I can’t wait to meet you and hear about how you choose to give back!