Simpson Thacher & Bartlett is taking its pro bono legal clinics into the digital age.
After losing the ability to hold in-person legal clinics due to the pandemic, Simpson Thacher helped fund the development of a software tool designed to help law firms, corporate pro bono teams, universities or legal aid organizations digitally manage pro bono projects.
On Thursday, the firm and legal technology vendor Theory and Principle launched the “Virtual Law Clinic.” The monthly subscription service, for which Simpson Thacher isn’t sharing in any proceeds, was designed to replace the 15 to 20 in-person legal aid clinics the firm used to host every year. Simpson Thacher has been using a branded version of the tool to run clinics since last month.
The clinics served hundreds of low-income clients every year, such as veterans obtaining medical benefits or immigrants going through the naturalization process, said Harlene Katzman, Simpson Thacher’s pro bono counsel and director.
“We did this all the time, and as soon as the pandemic hit, we realized we didn’t have the conference room table anymore—I mean literally,” Katzman said. “We couldn’t collaborate.”
The clinics brought together lawyers from Simpson Thacher, the firm’s clients, and legal aid organizations.
Unable to interview clients in person and fill out forms together, the lawyers tried to patch together workflows using Zoom and e-mails. But it was clunky, not as enjoyable as working directly with the clients, and the firm feared the process was prone to too many mistakes, Katzman said.
Katzman, who previously ran Columbia University School of Law’s Center for Public Interest Law, wanted to develop something that would mimic the experience of the in-person clinic as closely as possible. She said the project got enthusiastic support from the firm’s knowledge, innovation and technology committee.
Linton Mann III, a Simpson Thacher litigation partner and co-chair of that committee, said the tool enables the firm to “facilitate wider access to lawyers who are interested in engaging in pro bono, [while] also helping us to reach a broader group of individuals who need assistance.”
The firm said the tool helps pro bono teams train and onboard lawyers, assign matters, monitor case statuses and document outcomes and impact. For lawyers, the program offers collaboration tools for co-counsel and a hub for forms, templates and training content. Legal services organizations can use the program to oversee the representation of referred clients and provide required documents to lawyers.
Simpson Thacher is one of the largest, most profitable law firms in the country. In 2020, the firm brought in more than $1.8 billion in revenue and $5.2 million in profits per equity partner, according to AmLaw.
The firm has heavily invested in an innovation team in recent years, notably hiring Oz Benamram from White & Case in 2020 to serve as the firm’s first chief knowledge and innovation officer.
Now that more lawyers are returning to the office, Katzman said the firm will bring back in-person clinics where the client populations don’t have access to technology or seem to prefer to work in-person.
But she sees a big opportunity for the virtual clinic, especially for clients who regularly use technology and as a way to help lawyers work on more projects emanating from other offices.
“We are going to try and push out this virtual remote clinic to as many clients as we can where they really can utilize technology and it really does work well,” Katzman said. “And that’s a lot of people.”