UK-based lawyer goes online with free legal aid and India too benefits
i-Probono, an online non-profit volunteer-driven legal portal, helps lawyers volunteer their time for projects around the world needing legal assistance.
Established in 2009, it serves to connect those needing free legal help and legal professionals willing to devote their time and expertise. It came about when Shireen Irani, a UK-based lawyer, saw how eager professionals in her field were to give of their time for a cause but didn’t quite know how to go about it.
Shireen Irani set up i-Probono, a non-profit portal that links lawyers who want to volunteer their time for social projects (Photos: i-Probono)
“As a law student and later as a young lawyer I had always wanted to participate in social change,” she says. “My colleagues felt the same way. There were many cases and projects that needed help. Once I saw that there was demand, all it needed was an intelligent channeling of the supply.”
From 2004, online networks were in vogue. “We go online to search for friends, dates and jobs. So why not legal help?” she thought. But it wasn’t just a simple matter of registering a domain and getting a nicely designed website.
“I suppose the biggest challenge when you start something is firstly yourself,” says Irani. “I had to decide if I wanted to keep my day job. I didn’t know if it would sustain itself.”
Getting past herself was the hardest thing she had ever done. “Also lawyers as professionals are risk averse,” she adds. “It was difficult trying to juggle competing priorities of finding the people willing to give their time, maintain their interests as well as raise funds. It took a while to get stakeholders together. Once it came together it all seemed very natural.”
i-Probono is based in the UK and has a lot of activities centered on the country but it is also deeply focused on India. “Essentially being online has its advantages,” she explains. “We are wherever organisations need us.”
Irani was working with Field Fisher Waterhouse, a law firm in London when she set up i-Probono. “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 i-Probono a year and half to establish credibility. “The Ford Foundation supports our work in India now,” she elaborates. As a portal for law volunteers, the site has a simple registration process, which is used to match projects to volunteers’ interests.
“We just ask for very basic information. Areas of expertise and languages volunteers speak are important. We ask students to use their university email ids to register since that makes it easier to verify backgrounds,” she explains. “Once students or lawyers are verified they get projects appropriate to their expertise.”
Various NGOs post projects on the site. “We get all kinds of organizations, especially ones working in the areas of children, education, environment and the rights of girl children,” she says. “In India quite a few focus on girl child rights and sexual and reproductive rights issues.”
All projects are posted free on the site. It charges no money from either lawyers who register to participate or projects posted.
“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 rest the involved parties work out themselves.”
Irani has noticed that organisations working on women’s issues and welfare are very active as are those working for legislative reform. The site at the start had more women signing up to volunteer their time and has more women than men in their team.
“I don’t have the latest figures,” she says. “But now I think the numbers are more even.” Irani attributes this to the broader push for volunteering in the workplace over the last three years.
The wide variety of activities going on in the social sector keeps Irani motivated about her work. Today, she is the executive director of i-Probono and works fulltime with it. The portal has its own board of trustees and funders.
“We know about the 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, that works with people in prisons teamed up with a design institute in India 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.”
Shireen with Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi
The International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights organisation that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and oppression, is another of their clients.
“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 very well-known law magazine which gave them wide recognition.”
As director of i-Probono, Irani’s 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.”
Sometimes when the cases are complicated and take up too much time, the going might get tedious but Shireen hasn’t really looked back since she started. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she smiles. - Women's Feature Service