New Tools, Stronger Partnerships For Supporting The Rule Of Law Worldwide

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 00:00

Recently, I sat on a panel in which lawyers, academicians, judges and other leaders discussed trends in pro bono legal work and threats to the rule of law around the world. At one point, Robert Stein, attorney at Gray Plant Mooty and professor and former dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, as well as former American Bar Association executive director and CEO, told a compelling story.

Recalling a pro bono effort that helped reestablish the legal system in Kosovo, Stein described his experience visiting the war-torn region. At that time, it was still a dangerous place, with shelling still ongoing. As part of his trip, Stein attended an event in which newly appointed judges appeared in robes, ready to begin their work.

It's a moment most of us would consider routine, but within the context of Kosovo at the time, it was extraordinary. For those present, the sight of the robed judges was a visible and hopeful sign that order, normalcy and justice were, at last, re-emerging. As some of the assembled were moved to tears, Stein remembered someone remarking, "The law has returned to this place."

Stories like this remind me how easy it can be to take the rule of law for granted. Access to the rule of law is the bedrock on which the liberty of an individual rests, on which environmental, health, economic and political rights are secured, and on which the legal system depends. Those fighting for free and fair elections, for security from oppressive regimes, for water rights and women's rights, and for transparency and good governance, all need legal support. They're advancing what's essential in the practice of law: helping people and organizations gain the representation and access to justice they deserve.

I have always found it a personal privilege to be among those in our industry in a position to help. Our mission at Thomson Reuters, Legal is to help the legal system perform better, every day, worldwide. With this in mind, we direct much of our corporate philanthropy focus on things that we are uniquely able to achieve in support of that mission.

For instance, we sponsor the efforts of professional and bar associations as they recognize and promote diversity in the law. Through our Do Justice program, we partner with the Pro Bono Institute to encourage, educate, and help facilitate pro bono work by law firms and corporate law departments. And we also offer free Westlaw®- $20 million worth last year alone - to customers in support of pro bono efforts.

And yet, the pro bono world never stops evolving. For decades, for example, most pro bono work in the U.S. and UK has been focused at the local level. Today, however, we face the emerging challenge of pro bono causes and needs that are increasingly global.

How can we respond and do better, more efficient pro bono work worldwide? If a U.S.-based firm wishes to lend international pro bono assistance in the areas of women's rights, environmental issues, anti-corruption in government, or any number of other important issues, how can it identify a legitimate need and make the right connections?

We find some of the answers in new technologies. Like never before, technology is breaking down barriers to knowledge and democracy around the world, enabling new ways to connect needs with resources, and expanding the rule of law in the process.

A strong illustration of this trend was the launch of TrustLaw (trust.org/trustlaw) this past summer by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. TrustLaw is a free, global hub for free legal assistance and news and information about anti-corruption, and its mission is twofold: the first part of the TrustLaw mission relates to information. It serves as a one-stop, growing repository of news and information around anti-corruption and governance issues, including national legislation, international conventions, articles, reports, country profiles and law reviews.

The second part of the mission is about connection. And the heart of TrustLaw is an ambitious electronic platform called TrustLaw Connect. You might consider TrustLaw Connect something of a pro bono matching service. It's a free international resource designed to make it easier for organizations with limited means to access free legal assistance, while making it simpler for lawyers to engage in high-impact pro bono work.

Using TrustLaw Connect, lawyers and pro bono managers can easily connect with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments and social entrepreneurs around the world seeking pro bono assistance with specific legal requests relating to single projects. These projects can range from legal research to advice on intellectual property matters, contract negotiations, partnership agreements, employment law and many others. Each potential benefactor organization is thoroughly vetted before being admitted to TrustLaw Connect.

On the other side, each TrustLaw Connect member organization can log in to view, post and respond to requests for legal assistance. They can decide which requests for assistance they wish to take on and which organizations they wish to work with. Once an engagement is under way, TrustLaw Connect contacts both members involved to ensure the service is progressing positively.

It's a simple concept, but the benefits are significant. For lawyers, TrustLaw Connect offers access to truly global pro bono projects that are otherwise hard to find and a fully searchable database of requests for legal assistance to help identify the right projects. For benefactor organizations, TrustLaw Connect offers access to an international network of lawyers offering pro bono assistance, help in dealing with different offers of assistance, and even assistance in understanding and articulating the organization's legal needs before they're posted to the site.

In the first few months following the launch of TrustLaw Connect, more than 20 connections were made between firms or corporations and potential benefactors. Today, TrustLaw Connect operates in more than 140 countries through its network of lawyers and organizations needing assistance.

Technology may be changing the "how" of pro bono work, but it will never change the "why." As ever, pro bono work helps to bind us together, it retains and attracts an increasingly diverse and global workforce and culture, and it gives all of us a stronger sense of purpose. We believe as do many that it's a way to be involved in something bigger than our own day-to-day business.

And yet, technology is equipping us with new means of achieving the long-standing aim of helping to establish or re-establish the rule of law for people needing it - wherever they are on the globe. My colleagues and I at Thomson Reuters view innovations such as TrustLaw with great pride as well as excitement about what they portend for the future. I invite law firms and corporate law departments to explore TrustLaw to see how it might strengthen your pro bono efforts, uncover new opportunities, and help support of the rule of law worldwide.

Learn more about TrustLaw and TrustLaw Connect at trust.org/trustlaw.

Peter Warwick is President and CEO of Thomson Reuters, Legal.

Please email the author at peter.warwick@thomsonreuters.com with questions about this article.