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Pro Bono Pioneers: The Firms Championing Legal Justice and the Technology that Powers It

Celia O'Brien

In the legal realm, October is Pro Bono Month; it’s a time to applaud the ongoing dedication of law firms and attorneys who tirelessly champion pro bono work year-round, and whose daily efforts are redefining the landscape of technology and justice.

Pro bono work is deeply important to Relativity as well, as the pursuit of legal justice fueled the founding of our Justice for Change program back in 2020. Starting as an opportunity to use our technology for good, Justice for Change has flourished into an ecosystem which allows firms to leverage our technology to discover the truth and act on it.

In addition to pursuing social and racial justice, Justice for Change has allowed Relativity to deepen our relationships with firms doing important work through our program and beyond. In honor of pro bono month, our Justice for Change lead, Johnathan Hill, connected with two firms with cases in the program: Hogan Lovells and Goldberg Kohn. Both shared a peek at the blueprints of their own pro bono programs, the heart behind their labor, and the demand for technology partnerships.

Planting the Seed: The Commitment to Pro Bono

Despite these two firms varying in size and approach, there’s a mutual agreement that pro bono work starts with an intentional commitment, from the firm and from each individual—a commitment to go from witnessing injustice, to doing something about it.

Who better to ask about this commitment than our friends over at Hogan Lovells, whose dedication to pioneering pro bono efforts has given them a reputation as a remarkably mature pro bono practice? Partnering with Hogan Lovells through our Justice for Change program, we’ve been able to see, up close, their innovative strides and groundbreaking approaches toward supporting racial justice.

Hogan Lovells Pro Bono Partner, T. Clark Weymouth, stresses that this work is a “part of the fabric of the firm.” Not an afterthought. Not a hobby. In fact, they were the first law firm to establish a free-standing pro bono practice, and for decades, they’ve dedicated lawyers, support staff, and resources to furthering it.

This commitment may start at the top of the firm, but it branches to each individual. At the front lines of pro bono work at Hogan Lovells are paralegals like Alicia Balthazar and Ashley Johnson, who live in RelativityOne to support these cases. And their motivations are born of more than just professional obligation. Alicia shared the personal connection she feels: “The work that we do, it affects my community. As a daughter of two immigrants, to be able to work on matters like immigration matters, it’s very important because I know that my parents had a similar experience. So that’s a big motivation for me to be here.”

Her colleague Ashley defined pro bono at Hogan Lovells as “getting to do the good work, with big-firm resources. Getting to give back to all the communities we serve. That’s something I really value in my day-to-day job.”

Getting to do the good work, with big-firm resources. Getting to give back to all the communities we serve. That’s something I really value in my day-to-day job.

Smaller firms have taken a similar plunge, led by this inherent motivation to do good. Take Goldberg Kohn, who, dwelling in the heart of Chicago, fight injustice in their own backyard.

A partner at Goldberg Kohn, David Morrison notes how motivation is a part of his job title, when it comes down to it. “Everyone can look back to why they started thinking about becoming a lawyer: to make change,” he said. “Goldberg Kohn is.”

Upon joining the firm, Associate P.J. Sauerteig never felt like pro bono was just an item on a checklist. It was never, I have to do my 10 hours, because Goldberg Kohn encourages attorneys to have their pro bono work be a regular part of their caseload on both big and small levels. Mixing individual matters with larger systemic matters is a combination that allows for meaningful, profound impact within and outside of the firm.

Matters that Matter: The Impact of Pro Bono

You may have heard, “the stakes have never been higher.” But what does that mean in the context of legal justice? To provide further context on the gravity of pro bono work, let’s hear from distinguished lecturer and director of the Future of the Profession Lab, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, James Sandman, speaking as a panelist during our recent Relativity Fest session “Access to Justice”:

The reality is that every day in the United States, we have people who are trying to navigate the legal system alone. Let me give you some statistics. In the United States today, both parties have lawyers in only 24 percent of civil cases in state courts—where over 97 percent of civil litigation occurs. The person who doesn’t have a lawyer in our legal system confronts a world that was created by lawyers, for lawyers, on the assumption that everybody’s got a lawyer. Everything about the system—from the language of the law to the forms that are used to the Rules of Civil Procedure to the Rules of Evidence—they were all created with lawyers in mind. It’s a system that works pretty well if you have a lawyer, and horribly if you don’t.

As James makes abundantly clear, injustice runs deep in the legal system and access to a lawyer is just one of the many barriers dividing deserving citizens from justice. Whether it be criminal or civil cases, we’ve seen matters in our Justice for Change program serve the everyday needs of a wide range of justice-impacted people. RelativityOne has been utilized in significant cases handling wrongful convictions, prisoners’ rights, protecting climates and communities, supporting gender equity, and many other issues at the intersection of social and racial justice, like access to healthcare and tenant rights.

“The legal system has allowed for systemic and institutionalized practices to leave far too many behind,” Johnathan told me as we discussed this article. “With the embedding of technology, it’s a chance to even the playing field and provide everyone with a chance to discover the truth.”

The reality is that every day in the United States, we have people who are trying to navigate the legal system alone. … It’s a system that works pretty well if you have a lawyer, and horribly if you don’t.

As forementioned, we were connected to Hogan Lovells and Goldberg Kohn through their involvement in Justice for Change. Goldberg Kohn discussed their ability to use RelativityOne in a particular matter of theirs representing residents in East Chicago, Indiana, whose property is being contaminated by neighboring manufacturers. P.J. expressed that with larger-stakes litigations, you sometimes have 20,000-30,000 documents being dumped on you. In this case, RelativityOne helped facilitate much more than just the normal servicing of the documents: “I’ve learned a lot through Relativity and the folks involved in the case about best practices, and what would be your biggest bang for the buck in terms of wading through an enormous amount of information. That’s been really helpful to us.”

Enter Relativity: The Technology to Power Pro Bono

This need for technological support is a crucial turning point in the pro bono conversation—one which looks toward the nitty gritty of the work. Not the why, but the how. The map of e-discovery is changing and growing faster than most can keep up with, and many firms need technology to help them be successful. That’s where Relativity comes in: to empower this pursuit of justice with cutting-edge, AI-led technology. We’ve adopted a responsibility to use our e-discovery software to support the pro bono endeavors of the firms we partner with.

There’s an intensifying need for technology to carry more of the weight in pro bono matters. But don’t just take our word for it; take it from Ashley, who's leveraging technology for greater impact in the major cases being handed to Hogan Lovells.

“Frankly put, we will not be able to serve as many deserving clients without the use of tech. It helps us do our job better,” she said. She acknowledges that Relativity’s Justice for Change program enables Hogan Lovells to help more clients and “keep the trains on the track.” Ashley points out the necessity for software to do more than just read documents, but to understand them and distill them into arguments. In this way, she explained, “Relativity is so important.”

Hogan Lovells is using AI in their global practices and it’s a goal of theirs for people to see their pro bono work achieving the same quality and level as their billable work. T. adds, “I'm an old coot. I don’t know much about AI, but I reach out to Alicia and Ashley who do. Using tech to leverage what we’re doing—we can spend a minute instead of an hour. Sixty things instead of one thing.”

Goldberg Kohn is thinking in a similar vein. Data volume and complexities are going beyond the capacity the pro bono team has internally to handle these cases, and David admittedly wants to know more about how AI could help: “I think all attorneys and firms are struggling with this. It’s a tidal wave. How can I harness it? What are the ways it’ll help me do a better job of that?”

His colleague, P.J., added, “our ears are open!”

A Meeting of the Minds

This curiosity from firms like Goldberg Kohn, to better understand how technology and AI can fit into their work, calls for a meeting of the minds. As we look to the future of pro bono, it’s becoming more and more clear that legal companies and e-discovery software need to come together to share what they have—and gain what they don’t.

“The meeting starts now. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard sentiments like David’s,” Johnathan said. “Legal practitioners and pro bono partners are seeking advice and direction on how to better incorporate AI into their workflows. They’re willing and ready, looking to tech providers like us to guide them into the future. Any further delay in adopting powerful technology in this industry bears a moral cost that’s just too high.”

There's an escalating need across the industry to offer our partners’ expertise and our technology, counteracting the growing cost and time that legal justice requires. Law firms aren’t the only ones who can contribute to the fight for justice.

Take for example, yet another “Access to Justice” panelist: Paladin CEO Kristen Sonday, who founded a pro bono management software to help underserved communities navigate the judicial system more efficiently and fairly. She urged Fest attendees, “If the justice gap is increasing in this country—92 percent is staggering—and the funding levels are by and large the same, we have to be thinking about new and innovative solutions to help close that gap.”

Even the most eager firms can be stunted by limited resources, but with the creation of thoughtful pro bono technology and initiatives from other companies like Paladin, we’ll be able to close the justice gap in a more efficient way.

So what can we make of all of this? If you’d like to have a hand in pro bono efforts or create a starting point for getting your firm or company involved, here’s how you can engage:

#1: Start the conversation.

Share this article (or another, like this) with your social community or discuss your pro bono interests and activities at the next networking event. Normalizing these efforts can make a big difference in how frequently they’re pursued by professionals in the field.

#2: Build community relationships.

The best way to kick off any pro bono program is to engage with teams doing this work in the field, working together to identify where they most want support and ideate on how your unique skills can be of service.

#3: Encourage your company to take action.

We're encouraged by programs from firms like Hogan Lovells and Goldberg Kohn and appreciate the role we’ve been able to play as a software company. If you want to leverage e-discovery tools, we encourage you or your firm to consider getting involved in Justice for Change. Interested? Fill out our application.

Learn More about Relativity's Justice for Change Program

Celia O'Brien is a member of the marketing team at Relativity where she serves as a copywriter.