Oklahoma Bar Journal

Pro Bono: More Important Now Than Ever

By Katie Dilks

Oklahomans’ lives and work have been upended by COVID-19, and those in the legal field are no exception. Over the past year, we have adjusted to the “new normal” of videoconference proceedings, emailed court filings, remote networking and yes, even remote pro bono work. One unique challenge of the COVID-19 crisis has been that so much of our neighbors’ suffering has happened behind closed doors. With so much hidden hardship, it is crucial for Oklahoma’s legal community to find ways to continue to step up and serve those in need across the state.

Although Law Day will look different this year, opportunities exist right now to help from the comfort and safety of your home or office. Last summer, the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation launched OKProBono.org, a statewide pro bono portal that connects legal volunteers with ways to help across the state. The dozen organizations participating in the portal have been thoughtful and creative about finding ways to use volunteers that meet our current circumstances, offering remote pro bono options such as helping prepare immigration forms, conducting virtual mediations, offering brief advice and conducting intake interviews (perfect for law students!).

OKProBono.org was created with the support of the Oklahoma Bar Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation and at the request of the Access to Justice Foundation’s legal services partners. With our state feeling the acute, early impact of COVID-19, these providers predicted the need for increased help and knew an effective solution would look a little different from normal. That need has largely materialized, and legal services partners are now facing a year with higher rates of consumer and medical debt cases, divorce, domestic violence, eviction and foreclosure – not to mention the disaster-related legal needs that tend to arise every year across the state, starting as early as the statewide winter storm in February.

The need is greater than ever, and we now have a robust infrastructure to connect volunteers with the organizations working with low-income Oklahomans.

Now is the time for Oklahoma lawyers to recommit to the professional standard of providing pro bono legal services to those in need. Law firms and legal departments should set pro bono standards for their attorneys and legal staff. Solo and small firm attorneys should be supported and celebrated for the role they play in providing access to justice. The need is greater than ever, and we now have a robust infrastructure to connect volunteers with the organizations working with low-income Oklahomans. If this past year has proven one thing, it is that we truly can survive and achieve great things when we work together.

In October, the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission passed a resolution recognizing and thanking Oklahoma pro bono volunteers as part of the National Celebration of Pro Bono. The Access to Justice Foundation reiterates that genuine gratitude and is here to be an active partner for any and all seeking to create or expand their pro bono practice.

Katie Dilks is executive director of the Access to Justice Foundation in Tulsa.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 92 Vol 4 (April 2021)