Milestone anniversaries instinctively spark reflection on what has been and what will be. PBO is proud to be celebrating 20 years of connecting lawyers with those in need. In our opening blog post, we observed that COVID-19 forced us to grow up fast; last year, we faced unprecedented, crushing demand for legal services. We brought a historic number of volunteer lawyers together to meet it. We then equipped those amazing lawyers with our state-of-the-art technology so they could help clients from home.
The best part is that these changes were built to last. As we embark on our 20th year, we are allowing ourselves to dream big. What would it look like if we leveraged these recent changes to scale up even further and make our services a critical, permanent fixture in Ontario’s justice system? What would it look like if we served all those who needed us?
Last month, a daily average of 267 callers joined the Hotline queue to get help for their legal problems, but only an average of 113 – less than half – were able to speak to a lawyer. There are just not enough people available to answer all the calls. We can and must close this gap. Beyond the sheer volume of this need, its acuteness is gut-wrenching. Job loss, eviction, consumer scams, profound anxiety, each cascading into the next, all exacerbated by COVID-19, often producing crisis. The unmet need is tremendous. Over 89% of our callers said this was the first time they had received help for their legal problems. There is no better time for the profession to step up, as it always has.
We know lawyers are busy. Some firms tell us they are as busy as they have ever been. We appreciate that this makes it hard to add another commitment to an already full plate. However, we also know that lawyers inevitably feel better when they show up for the cause of pro bono. Lawyers understand, in a deep and visceral way, that the privileges of this great profession come with a responsibility to give back. The pandemic is shining a bright light on this responsibility. The facts can’t be ignored: while some people have maintained their jobs and financial security and stayed healthy, others have faced impossible choices, suffered one loss after another, and endured personal tragedy.
Every lawyer in Ontario has the power to bridge this gap in an immediate, tangible way. With just a half-hour of thoughtful attention, a volunteer lawyer can empower a single parent to negotiate a fair termination package after being laid off, help a small business owner find a way to keep the lights on, or ensure that a retiree isn’t wrongfully evicted during COVID-19.
How can you do this? Here are three simple ways.
1. SIGN UP FOR A HOTLINE SHIFT TODAY
Volunteering for a Hotline shift is as easy as filling out our Volunteer Application form and arranging a date. Then all you have to do is log on for your scheduled shift from your own home or office computer, and select the areas of law you’d like to advise on. Hotline shifts run from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, with an hour break for lunch, and you can pause your line at any time to take a break.
We want to emphasize that all lawyers are encouraged to volunteer. Calls are routed by area of law and volunteers are supported by our knowledge management database and by dedicated staff who provide real-time technical and legal support. This means everyone has a role to play, from first year associates to retired partners, from transaction lawyers to courtroom lawyers, from sole practitioners to large firms and in-house legal departments. If you’re not sure whether the Hotline is the right fit for you, please feel free to reach out to Nicole Kellow to find out more about how it works.
2. TALK TO YOUR ORGANIZATION’S PRO BONO COMMITTEE
If you work with other lawyers, whether at a firm or in-house, volunteering at PBO is a way to unite your team around a shared goal of giving back. Organizations can support their lawyers by encouraging them to volunteer as their individual work schedules permit, or by planning an event that allows team members to volunteer together, perhaps followed by a social event for participants. If you think your organization might be interested, please reach out to those in charge and connect them with our director, Lynn Burns, to learn more about how PBO can work to tailor the experience for your organization.
3. BRING A FRIEND
If you already volunteer with us, please find a friend in the legal community to join you. If you haven’t signed up to volunteer yet, considering urging a friend to take the leap together. You can schedule separate shifts, or plan to volunteer on the same day and catch up afterwards to share your experience. We have no doubt the benefits of doing pro bono will resonate with all lawyers. Nothing beats a peer-to-peer effort to send this message.
We currently have 934 active volunteers on our Hotline. All of them enjoy the extraordinary satisfaction of using their skills to improve the lives of people in need. They have our deepest gratitude for the difference they are making to the lives of disadvantaged people with nowhere else to turn. If we doubled or tripled this number, the collective impact would be breathtaking. When we harness the talent and goodwill of Ontario’s lawyers, we will finally be able to say that access to justice is a reality.