We The Action is a unique online volunteer platform that makes it easy for lawyers to volunteer their skills with leading nonprofits that are fighting for justice and equality.
Lawyers sign up for free at WeTheAction.org, create a profile, browse volunteer opportunities, and click a button to indicate interest in volunteering for projects. Partner nonprofits post projects describing their needs, also for free. They then receive automatic notifications as lawyers express interest in their projects, and ongoing support to promote project completion.
I caught up with Sarah Baker, President and Executive Director of We The Action to find out more about this unique platform.
Afdhel Aziz: Sarah, welcome! Please tell us why We The Action was created in the first place.
Sarah Baker: Lawyers have unique skills that can mean the difference between people having the right to vote or having their voices silenced at the polls; between a mother gaining asylum after fleeing violence or being deported and sent back to certain death; between a domestic violence survivor getting fairly compensated or living a life of poverty. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for lawyers to lend their skills to these critical issues, and for worthy nonprofits to get the help they need.
We The Action lawyers work for law firms, solo practices, corporations, nonprofits, and in government. They are stay-at-home parents and retirees. They range from recent law graduates to seasoned advocates. We have representative bar membership in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Our nonprofit partners range in mission, focus, and size, from start-ups to legacy organizations. Some of our nonprofit partners include: Rock the Vote, When We All Vote, Transgender Law Center, Tarjimly, One Million of Us, FreeFrom, The Immigration Justice Campaign, Run for Something, Southern Poverty Law Center, and more.
Since launching, more than 8,000 lawyers have joined, and we’ve partnered with 185 nonprofits. Through We The Action, lawyers have donated more than 18,500 hours of legal work, valued at $7.8 million.
Aziz: That’s amazing. So how did this start and what is the connection to Emerson Collective?
Baker: We launched in July 2017, incubated by the Emerson Collective. I joined as the first executive director after serving in the White House for six years, as Special Assistant and Associate Counsel to President Obama and Senior Policy Director to Dr. Jill Biden. Previously, I worked at an international law firm for seven years, including as the Senior Pro Bono Associate.
Throughout the country, nonprofits are working every day to ensure justice and fairness. Nonprofits often operate with razor-thin margins, leaving them with limited resources when they or their clients need legal assistance. At the same time, thousands of lawyers nationwide want to help these same causes, but the traditional mechanisms for engaging pro bono lawyers fail to capture the full potential of the legal community. We wanted to bridge this divide.
Aziz: And what are some examples of the projects you’re working on?
Baker: In 2020, we’re continuing our partnership with Election Protection—the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition with our registration portal, electionprotection.wetheaction.org, to recruit lawyers to protect voters’ rights. Volunteer lawyers provide voters with assistance at all stages of voting—from registration, to absentee and early voting, to casting a vote at the polls, to overcoming obstacles to participation, like long lines and malfunctioning voting machines.
We The Action lawyers are also engaged in the aftermath of this summer’s raids on six poultry processing plants in Mississippi. Of the 680 individuals arrested in August, roughly half remain detained and nearly all need lawyers to help keep them united with their families in the United States. Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) is pairing our volunteer lawyers with individuals who need legal support.
Another example is our project with the Center for Reproductive Rights. We’re seeing reproductive rights increasingly under attack and lawyers can help, serving as local counsel on litigation supporting reproductive rights and justice issues in state and federal courts. Both this project and the MCJ project can be completed remotely.
Aziz: What have been the responses from the lawyers you’ve worked with and the nonprofits you’ve helped?
Baker: Lawyers appreciate that the platform meets them where they are. So, if you have a week to dedicate to go the border, there’s a project for you. If you have an hour to review a lease for a women’s health clinic, there’s a project for you. If you are passionate about the environment or if you are focused on the 2020 election, we have projects for you.
The story of one of our lawyers, Melanie, demonstrates the hole We The Action is now filling. When the Trump administration announced the Muslim travel ban, she searched desperately for volunteer opportunities. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t find anything that worked with her schedule or skills. A year later, during the family separation crisis, Melanie searched online and found We The Action.
Melanie volunteered through WTA to represent a Honduran asylum seeker. He’d seen family members murdered in Honduras, endured the dangerous flight north and had been separated from his son. Melanie represented him in his bond hearing remotely. Armed with just a few hours of training in immigration law, she helped secure his release and reunite him with his son. That’s just one example of how We The Action has connected need with a valuable—and previously untapped—resource.
Aziz: And I’m so curious about this term you mentioned…What are ‘pajama projects’?
Baker: That’s the term someone on our team uses for the volunteer opportunities lawyers can do from home, sitting on the couch…in their pajamas. Volunteers appreciate that we have projects they can do at a coffee shop, on their lunch break, or at their kitchen table.
Aziz: That really shows that people can do a lot of good, regardless of where they are! And finally, what are your main areas of focus for 2020?
Baker: We have ambitious plans for 2020. Job number one is defending the election. As of today, WTA lawyers have worked on 41 different projects with 25 different organizations in support of the 2020 election and election integrity. We’re also excited about new features we’ll be introducing on the platform to help us increase connectivity, project management, and expand our impact. We expect to double our lawyers and nonprofits and the value of free legal services provided in 2020.