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Making a Difference in the Law and in Your Career through Service

Sam Bock

“Service is the rent we pay for being. It’s the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” – Marian Wright Edelman

A small crowd at Relativity Fest 2022 was greeted by this quote during a panel discussion on service in the legal profession. The group had gathered to hear about how several professionals from across the Relativity community try to make a difference for others, both within and beyond their working hours.

Though the session was well attended, the room certainly wasn’t filled to the brim with listeners.

“Isn’t it sad,” Relativity’s David Horrigan, the session moderator, noted as he opened the discussion, “that the sessions that talk about making money are always so much more packed than these?”

If you want to join impactful conversations on service, community, and access to justice, don’t miss Relativity Fest 2023. Our session catalog features content on ESG, regulatory reform, the arts, and more. In particular, check out “Concept Search: Collaboration” on Tuesday and “Access to Justice” on Thursday. We’ll also be joined by Everest Discovery at our Fest Desk to talk about their involvement in Justice for Change.

David was joined by several peers with exceptional track records of professionalism and service, including:

  • Michelle Broxman, director of project management (now senior consultant in client enablement) at Cimplifi
  • Johnathan Hill, community engagement lead at Relativity
  • Matt Holbrook, operations director at the Georgia Innocence Project (now at the Global Growers Network)
  • Tanya Thomas, research and instructional technology librarian at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law

If you’re feeling pulled to find more ways to give back, here are a few key tips the panelists shared to help you get started.

Putting Your Skill Set (and Work Hours) to Work

One of the best-known opportunities for legal professionals to give back is, of course, through pro bono work (where their expertise is provided for free to clients in need).

For Michelle at Cimplifi, this type of work was simply part and parcel of her everyday responsibilities.

“We’re involved with Justice for Change, and our team gets the opportunity to work with people who are doing amazing work,” she told Fest attendees. “Folks on our team didn’t even know we were doing this—it’s the same work we would normally do. It’s e-discovery, but with a genre of clients who didn’t have the chance before.”

She enjoys finding ways to make service “part of the workday,” to ensure the projects get done and those needs are met.

Justice for Change is a program Relativity has created to help empower the Relativity community to tackle social and racial justice issues by providing access to the technology they need to organize data, discover the truth, and act on it.

Johnathan Hill, who helps coordinate the program, noted that it has its roots in his and his team’s desire to do this important work during the workday—to make that empowerment simply a part of what we do.

“It started as an idea, and I sent an email late at night to our then-CEO about it,” he recalled during the panel. “He responded within hours and put a tiger team together to help me figure this out. We had supported eight matters before on pro bono basis, but we’d never concentrated the effort.”

A key to doing that, he said, came in acknowledging that it couldn’t be done alone.

“We knew our amazing network of service providers and law firms could help. Bringing access to our software to smaller organizations and then pairing them up with people like Cimplifi to provide the expertise and do the work” has made Justice for Change what it is. “There were already more than 50 different projects in our program just two years later.”

Investing the time and resources it takes to conduct pro bono work is no small task, but it’s important—and our panelists have found that their colleagues are eager to make it happen.

“It’s not that hard to get colleagues and leaders on board. There are always logistics questions on how to accomplish things in particular systems,” Michelle said. “But the logistics of how we mark this on our spend is a figureoutable problem.”

She shared a sentiment that was strongly affirmed by others in our audience.

“I went to law school and now I’m doing e-discovery, and I love it, but it’s not the ‘save the world’ feeling you seek out when you go to law school. I wouldn’t be a great pro bono lawyer given my real expertise, but I can do e-discovery really well. So I emailed Relativity and our CEO [to get involved with Justice for Change], and he was on board and we got started,” she said. “I love the work we do for all of our clients, but there is something special when you see an email from someone where it will make a real impact—even though the work is the same. It’s a morale boost for our own team, too, at a time when that matters a lot.”

Finding pro bono opportunities is a phenomenal first step for legal professionals and teams who want to have a larger impact on their communities. If you’re in the Relativity community, drop us a line to ask about getting involved in Justice for Change. You can also learn how to get involved via your local bar association, or the Pro Bono Institute.

For some of our panelists, this nonprofit work has simply become their work.

Matt, who worked full-time at the Georgia Innocence Project, made it his career: “I found the Georgia Innocence Project via a job posting. I was working as an office manager at a small contracting company, and saw it as an opportunity and a challenge to get involved with something I was passionate about. No one sees cases like ours and thinks, ‘I don’t have time to help with that.’ Everyone wants to get involved. I think that shows the cracks in our system.”

Those cracks inspire his team—and others like them, as similar innocence projects have come to being across the country—to do what they do.

“Every one of these teams, at its core, has a mission to try and identify cases where errors have occurred, correct those, and then correct the systems that led to those errors in the first place.”

It’s crucially important work, and you can help.

Creative Ways to Give What You Can

Of course, the panel noted that heaping more work onto your professional plate isn’t the only way to make a difference.

“Put yourself in situations where opportunities to volunteer show themselves,” Michelle suggested. “Can you give a lot of time and energy, but not money? Or did you work 90 hours this week but make a bunch of money you can give?”

None of us, as they say, can pour from an empty cup—so a little self-reflection is in order to help you understand where you are feeling fulfilled enough to give. Is it time, talent, or treasure?

Sometimes, you can have an impact simply by sharing knowledge and coaching your peers in their pursuits.

For Tanya, at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, being a librarian and teacher helps her give back in this way.

She polled the audience: “Service providers who work with attorneys, or attorneys—did you have a technology class? Did you know e-discovery?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly to our readers, virtually everyone answered “no.”

“Would you have found that helpful?” Tanya asked.

Also unsurprisingly, everyone said “yes!”

“That’s where I can help. Technology is creating space to bridge gaps in access to justice, make practice more efficient and effective, make billing more palatable for clients—all those things,” Tanya explained.

Then she said something that might’ve been among my favorite quotes from the session: “My superpower is information—finding it, organizing it, sharing it. Mostly sharing it. I don’t always have all the answers, so I go looking for people who can help me find them.”

For her, simply helping people find the knowledge they need is a powerful act of service.

Matt agreed wholeheartedly.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is mediated by technology in some way,” he told the audience. They joined Justice for Change in the hopes of learning more about it: “How can we do this in a way that’s more efficient and takes advantage of tech being used in other spaces already?”

Receiving guidance on technology applications, not just legal expertise, has been a huge help for his team.

Michelle also shared a volunteer opportunity she’s pursued in her spare time, also taking advantage of technology.

“One of the most satisfying things I’ve done is volunteering as a crisis counselor for a crisis text line. There’s training by mental health professionals, and an application process,” she explained, but once you’re onboarded, “it’s rewarding volunteer work I did from my couch. This is truly making a difference—it couldn’t be more concrete. I’m not solving the underlying problems, but I can help you get through tonight, through the next 15 minutes.”

She continued: “This is made possible through technology, but it’s about human connection. Making people feel heard and like they’re not alone. Tech can make us feel more alone sometimes, but also less alone when we’re having those connections.”

Staying Positive in Tough Circumstances

While our panel agreed that all this work is incredibly rewarding, they were also honest about how emotionally taxing it can be to slog through the challenging, distressing issues involved.

“The Dennis Perry case was a ‘success story,’” Matt recalled, as an example. “But ultimately, this man still spent the best years of his adult life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s out now and has grandchildren who don’t know him, and is trying to rebuild his life. So there’s joy here, but also a lot of sadness.”

His best advice was to find fellowship among other people who care about the same issues.

“We all want to get involved, so be willing to take a first step and reach out to people. Take a leap of faith that if you care about something, you can find others who do too. That’s the hardest step, but you start finding those people, and you can start building something together,” he said. “It’s not just you trying to solve the whole world’s problems—it’s a community. Be compassionate with yourself; we have busy lives. Acknowledge that there are limitations, but if you are willing to try to do a little bit, it will lead to more.”

Johnathan echoed his sentiment on compassion—as well as the importance of boldness.

“Be compassionate. This conversation relating to justice—these things touch and affect everyone. Be compassionate with where everyone is,” he implored. “But also be very impatient! Act with urgency to address real problems.”

Graphics for this article were created by Sarah Vachlon.

Learn More about Relativity's Justice for Change Program

Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.