Transforming the system to close the social justice gap
As CEO of OneJustice, Julia Wilson leads a network of more than 100 nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses that together provide life-changing legal assistance to more than 270,000 low-income Californians each year. MissionBox co-founder and CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks with Julia about scaling social justice.
Let's talk about how your career began. What piqued your interest in social justice?
During college, I volunteered with an organization that provided legal services for the poor. After the first day, I thought, "Oh, I want in on this. This is the right place for me." So all the way through law school, I spent my summers working at the nonprofits while everyone else went to the big firms. When I graduated, I used a two-year fellowship to create my own project at a legal aid organization. That was it. I was hooked!
At first, I worked with low-income families where someone in the family had a disability, and later with young kids with disabilities — getting them health care, setting up their educations, addressing everything they needed to thrive. Eventually I became a directing attorney. When the quirky idea to launch a program using volunteer lawyers was presented, I raised my hand. I loved serving people directly, but my focus shifted when I saw how you could leverage volunteers to serve even more people.
So you began scaling social justice?
That's exactly it. Instead of thinking about one person at a time, I started thinking about transforming that to scale — which led me to a position at OneJustice, an organization dedicated to providing legal services for Californians in need. With every decision we make, we ask: What do our clients need? How do we transform the system to get away from the Band-Aid approach? How do we blow off the lid to serve a million people instead of a couple hundred thousand? I'm captivated by the potential.
Achieving scale hinges on volunteers. What's your advice for others who want to start their own volunteer programs?
First and foremost, I would encourage organizations to understand the professional nature of managing volunteers. Don't simply back into it or assign a staff attorney to start doing it. If you want your clients to have a good experience and the volunteers to have a good experience — so that you can grow your reach and help volunteers expand their skill sets — then you need to take it seriously.
Define "take it seriously." What does that mean to you?
It's about recruitment, training, supervision, recognition — all the things that make an effective volunteer program. It's especially important when you're talking about lawyers as volunteers because we want to make sure they're not committing malpractice.
For example, if I go into a soup kitchen, it's pretty easy to teach me how to put food on a plate. But if I'm asking a lawyer who practices complex international contracts as her day job to help an immigrant file for asylum, I need to bridge the gap between the legal skills that are usually facing in one direction and those that must be directed toward the immigrant client. This takes purpose. It takes strong training and support systems. If the volunteer has a question, for example, how does she raise her hand and talk to an immigration expert?
A thank you once the case is closed is important, too. Volunteers should be thanked for their time just as donors are recognized for their financial contributions.
Clearly, training is key. What about logistics?
California has pockets of dense poverty in rural areas, but most lawyers are concentrated in the large cities on the coast. So we've been encouraging folks to think about how to stretch that lawyer resource into those rural areas. It's important to volunteer where you live — but in an area like California, it's equally important to think about volunteering in a community that maybe has no lawyers at all.
Can technology help facilitate outreach or increase scale?
Historically, we've assumed scale means adding more staff attorneys — so when we seek government or philanthropic funding, we're focused on hiring more lawyers as staff. Staff lawyers are the experts and our most precious resource. In reality, though, there's not enough funding to add the number of staff lawyers it would take to meet the need. We'll need both volunteers and technology to truly achieve scale. For example, we've had good results with a pilot project that connected immigrants in the rural Central Valley with volunteer lawyers in Silicon Valley using simple confidential video conferencing, document sharing and phone calls.
How willing are lawyers to volunteer their time?
They're very willing. Lawyers have a special role to play in the lives of low-income people — especially in the current political climate — and they're raising their hands. After President Trump's travel ban was issued, 3,000 people (the vast majority of them lawyers) volunteered through our website. Hundreds of lawyers showed up in four-hour rotations around the clock at our on-the-ground legal clinics in San Francisco and at the San Francisco airport, doing research or whatever was needed to help families. It was amazing.
What's the role of networking in scaling social justice?
Networking is critical. At OneJustice, we purposefully build relationships with the nonprofit sector, other legal aid organizations, the private sector, the academic sector (law schools) and the public sector (the government). With every project, we make sure that all these pieces of the pie are represented. If everyone understands the role that social justice plays in their particular piece of the pie, we'll accomplish long-term change.
Know another visionary leader or organization working for social good? Let us know! Email email@example.com.
As CEO of OneJustice, Julia Wilson leads a network of more than 100 nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses that together provide life-changing legal assistance to more than 270,000 low-income Californians each year. In addition to her executive responsibilities at OneJustice, Julia provides training and consulting support to the executives and boards of the legal nonprofit organizations in OneJustice's network. Julia's areas of expertise include designing innovative pro bono delivery systems and supporting effective and engaging board governance.