Where lawyers log in with free advice

November 2012 | Hindu Business Line

iProbono — a non-profit online legal portal — helps lawyers volunteer legal assistance for projects around the world. Established in 2009, it connects those in need of free legal help with professionals offering it.

Shireen Irani, a UK-based lawyer, saw how colleagues were eager to give of their time for a cause but didn’t know how to do it. “As a law student, and later as a young lawyer I always wanted to participate in social change,” she says. “My colleagues felt the same. There were many cases and projects that needed help… all it needed was an intelligent channelling.”

But it wasn’t just a simple matter of registering a domain and getting a nicely designed Web site. “I suppose the biggest challenge when you start something is firstly yourself,” says Shireen. “I had to decide if I wanted to keep my day job… Also, lawyers as professionals are risk-averse. It took a while to get stakeholders together. Once it came together, it all seemed very natural.”

Aid… anytime, anywhere

The UK-based portal’s activities are largely centred on that country, but it is also deeply focused on India. “Essentially, being online has its advantages,” Shireen explains. “We are wherever organisations need us.” She was working with London law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse when she set up iProbono. “They were very supportive,” she says. “They gave us business services support and office space. That was a big boost to my confidence. Every young non-profit needs time to demonstrate that it’s fulfilling a social need.”

It took iProbono a year and a half to establish credibility. “The Ford Foundation supports our work in India now,” she says. The site has a simple registration process, which is used to match projects to volunteers’ interests. “We ask for basic information. Areas of expertise and languages volunteers speak are important. We ask students to use their university email ids to register as that makes it easier to verify backgrounds,” she explains.

Various NGOs post projects on the site, including many working in the areas of child welfare, education, environment and the rights of girl children. “In India quite a few focus on girl child rights and sexual and reproductive rights.”

Free meeting ground

The site charges nothing either for those posting projects or the lawyers registering on it. Its primary role is to build a bridge between the two. “Some NGOs have a small legal budget and then they might offer to pay a lawyer a small amount,” she says. “Sometimes, if the job is too time-consuming or complicated, like criminal proceedings or immigration-related issues, then lawyers might need a stipend. We only facilitate meetings. The involved parties work out the rest .”

Shireen has noticed that organisations working on women’s issues and welfare are very active, as are those working for legislative reform. In the beginning, there were more women volunteering than men. “I don’t have the latest figures,” she says. “But I think now the numbers are more even.” She attributes this to the push for volunteering at the workplace over the last three years.

Today, as the executive director, she works full time with iProbono. The portal has a board of trustees and funders.

Inspired by India

“We know about wonderful projects working to improve lives globally. But it’s the behind-the-scenes work that intrigues me,” she says. Recently, retired policewoman Kiran Bedi’s organisation, India Vision Foundation, which works with people in prisons, teamed up with a design institute and needed help drawing up the contract. “They are tackling real issues in terms of prisoner reform. It is a wonderfully inventive project,” she says. “The level of sophistication that NGOs in India demonstrate is stunning.”

The International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights organisation that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and oppression, is another client. “A big issue that IJM faces is the stigmatisation of women,” she says. “They wanted to be better known in the legal space in India, and so we put them in touch with Legally India, a well-known law magazine, which gave them wide recognition.”

The sensitisation of legal professionals is another important aspect of the work IJM does, so iProbono assists with finding people to conduct these sessions.

“IJM’s work is inspiring,” says Shireen. “Recently, when they needed help negotiating a contract for their office in Chennai we helped with real-estate advice. For us, these are examples to show that the legal community can engage with social causes at many levels.”

Future plans involve keeping the organisation sustainable. “In a tough economy, raising funds is tough,” she says. “We would love to scale up, but we must be practical. We can’t just, for example, take off for Guatemala and start working there. It takes time and money to get these things off the ground. We have to go slow.”

Yes, there are times when complicated cases take up too much time and the going gets tedious, but there’s no looking back for her. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she smiles.

by Paromita Pain, Hindu Business Line

This article is taken from Hindu Business Line.

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