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Human rights

Disrupting pro bono

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Innovation, disruption, acceleration. These words may be common in Palo Alto, but they are also increasingly being used across the philanthropic sector.

New players and partnerships are emerging: Governments are teaming up with venture capital funds, citizens are becoming entrepreneurs (via the shared economy), and consumers are increasingly acting like advocates.

The legal field is also undergoing significant change. Take pro bono. As law firms continue to expand globally, legal aid has morphed from a box-ticking exercise to a tremendous opportunity to generate both social impact and strong visibility.

When I created TrustLaw in 2010, I could never have anticipated that six years later law firms would be actively fighting for pro bono work. This is the case today. How did that happen in such short amount of time? I have a one-word answer: innovation.

Since the beginning TrustLaw had three main goals: reach, scale and connectivity. Innovation has been a key driver and success factor in the development of the programme. Through trial and error and constant adjustments, we have built a brand new ecosystem, one able to accelerate the impact of lawyer’s “brainpower” globally.

TrustLaw was built with one core principle in mind: global reach. I was convinced then – as I am today – that if implemented globally pro bono has the potential to deliver meaningful social progress.

That was not the case when we entered the market. Back in 2010, the only countries where pro bono legal assistance was organized and structured were the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa and Australia. As a result, lawyers were mostly providing assistance locally, with limited results. Pro bono was a big idea trapped in a small box. Something had to change.

TrustLaw’s first step was perhaps the most disruptive: We removed all boundaries. Since its launch, TrustLaw has been connecting law firms – large and small – with clients around the world. Through TrustLaw, a lawyer can provide assistance to clients facing challenges that transcend borders, constitutions and languages, enhancing the spread and depth of pro bono work in jurisdictions relatively unfamiliar to the practice, and where the rule of law is weakest. This not only addresses the gaps in justice that still plague the most vulnerable, it also allows NGOs and social enterprises to devote their precious resources to their missions, rather than legal fees.

The other innovative principle at the heart of TrustLaw was scale. We would act as an impact multiplier, and instead of facilitating legal assistance to single individuals, we would connect lawyers to NGOs and social enterprises around the world. Not only would we reach a bigger pool of beneficiaries, but we would also capitalize on the growing interest of the philanthropic sector in socially minded businesses.

The third pillar of TrustLaw has always been technology. By implementing an innovative vetting system, we were able to take such responsibility off the law firms, speeding up processes and facilitating connections. Today, our Web-based portal is the point of entry for thousands of lawyers, NGOs and social enterprises. Every week, the TrustLaw team facilitates new connections thanks to its in-house team of lawyers, project managers and outreach specialists. From smaller, day-to-day legal issues to ambitious cross-border research programs, our smart use of technology has allowed NGOs, social enterprises, law firms and in-house legal teams in disparate locations to connect on innovative projects with tangible impact for local communities.

Today TrustLaw is expanding beyond transactional support, engaging not only in operational legal issues faced by NGOs and social enterprises – from funding to staffing to issues of intellectual property – but also in major cross-border research projects addressing some of the most under-reported and unaddressed global issues.

In 2013 – through TrustLaw – White & Case and Grasty Quintana Majlis & Cia produced comparative research on domestic workers’ rights in seven jurisdictions. Filipino NGO Visayan Forum Foundation used the research to successfully advocate for the “Magna Carta for Domestic Workers,” a landmark legislation passed in the Philippines shortly after. The change in the law has provided protection and welfare to some 2 million domestic workers in the Philippines. It’s the best law on domestic work in Asia.

Fast-forward another three years, and TrustLaw has become the world’s largest facilitator of free legal services, generating the equivalent of $70 million in pro bono “brain hours” helping high-impact NGOs and social enterprises achieve their mission. We currently have 3,000+ members across 177 countries, including more than 550 law firms and 2,500 high-impact social enterprises and NGOs.

Our next vision is to develop a litigation center – anchored to TrustLaw – dedicated to providing state-of-the-art legal assistance to victims of human trafficking who seek compensation. Given the strong commitment of the Thomson Reuters Foundation to fight human trafficking and modern-day slavery, this is a very natural next step. “TrustLaw Litigation for Slavery” (its provisional name) is still in its genesis. The ambitious programme will require funding and expertise. But the lessons learned throughout the development of TrustLaw – together with our willingness to embrace and be guided by innovation – will surely put us on the right track.


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