April 14, 2020

“ABA Free Legal Answers” Connects Clients and Pro Bono Attorneys Online

Tali K. Albukerk

Virtual Pro Bono Advice

A Florida man found himself in danger of becoming homeless and needed immediate legal advice. He submitted his legal question on ABA Free Legal Answers and quickly received a response from a qualified pro bono attorney licensed in Florida. This attorney’s advice allowed the client to better understand his legal rights and options. As a result of the advice, he was able to return to court with his required paperwork in order and received an extension of time, resulting in a far less dangerous living situation.

This is just one example of the thousands of legal issues that are addressed on ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org, an online virtual legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal questions to be answered by pro bono attorneys from their state.

Providing Pro Bono Legal Advice to Clients Where They Are: Online

According to a 2017 Legal Services Corporation survey, 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help, resulting in an access-to-justice gap. Given that legal advice is increasingly sought online and, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of households with low-moderate income households have internet accessibility, the solution was clear.

ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA) seeks to narrow the “justice gap” by offering access to legal advice to people online. Modeled after a legal advice portal created in Tennessee, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service launched the first and only online national pro bono legal advice portal, providing nonincarcerated adults with income under 250 percent of the federal poverty level and assets under $10,000 with access to brief civil legal advice from attorneys who are licensed and in good standing in their jurisdiction. ABA FLA provides access to legal advice to those who are often screened out by existing legal services due to conflicts, income or asset eligibility, or citizenship status. It offers a resource to those who are unable to utilize traditional walk-in clinics or hotlines due to geographic or temporal limitations. For those who have nowhere else to turn yet cannot afford an attorney, ABA FLA often serves as a last resort for qualified legal advice.

ABA FLA is designed to allow any eligible user with an internet connection to access civil legal advice and resources at any time from across their state—ultimately to prevent larger legal crises from developing and to allow existing legal services staff attorneys to focus on full representation.

Since its launch in 2016, 42 jurisdictions have committed to participate and more than 7,000 pro bono attorneys have registered to respond to the over 100,000 civil legal questions that have been posted on ABA FLA —primarily in areas such as family law, housing, and consumer rights.

“I am so very grateful for this service. I have zero knowledge of the legal system,” said a recent ABA FLA client. “This site helped me gain confidence to go into court and get placement of my daughter.”

“Free Legal Answers is a godsend,” said Jim Sandman, president emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation. “It is critically important in expanding the services available to people who otherwise have nothing.”

A Tool for Disaster Relief

Disasters produce, among other challenges, a variety of legal issues for disaster survivors, including unemployment, lease terminations, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) applications, insurance claims, property damage, bankruptcy, document loss, and guardianship. These legal issues persist for weeks, months, or even years following the initial impact.

ABA FLA responds to post-disaster crises by providing wider access to pro bono legal advice and allowing more volunteer attorneys to meet the needs of disaster survivors. For instance, when disaster strikes, ABA FLA temporarily lifts the income and asset cap in impacted states, adds disaster-specific categories for clients, and adds alerts for attorneys to select those questions. In addition, ABA FLA provides access to out-of-state attorneys who are permitted by court order to temporarily practice law to assist in disaster relief.

Analyzing Data for Better Preparation

ABA FLA also provides valuable data to industry researchers, such as at Stanford Legal Design Lab and Baylor Law School, to help identify the low-income populations with legal needs as well as the types, geographical locations, and seasonality of the legal problems that impact their households. This research is determining how best to communicate legal information for the purpose of mitigating the effects of disaster-related and other legal problems. Ultimately, the data has the potential to assist in predicting legal problems before they occur, thereby avoiding access-to-justice challenges at the outset.

Attorneys Provide Brief Legal Advice at Their Convenience

In addition to the success that this site has had as a much-needed legal assistance resource to low-income populations, ABA FLA has been a useful tool for attorneys in search of convenient, short-term pro bono opportunities. ABA FLA provides for partnerships between the private bar, law firms, corporate law departments, government attorneys, and law schools that wish to provide their members with first-hand pro bono experiences in their own settings.

“Since my hearing is too bad to continue working with clients or in a courtroom, I'm glad there’s something I can do,” said an ABA FLA volunteer attorney in Massachusetts.

“What a pleasant surprise to learn that my pro bono responses have made a difference,” said Linda Reid Oldham of Crockett & Oldham Attorneys in North Carolina. “I am so grateful that the American Bar Association has made this opportunity possible. It is actually one of the most relaxing things I do as an attorney.”

Questions are submitted in a variety of civil legal areas, including consumer rights, bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, and family law matters, among others. Attorneys can sign up to receive notifications when questions are posted in their areas of interest as well as sort by subject matter and for questions that are submitted by those with senior or veteran status.

ABA Free Legal Answers Is Making an Impact

The ProSocial Valuation® service measured the impact of ABA FLA and found that providing legal services is more than just a public service. Client outcomes, pro bono service, advocacy, and improved health and wellbeing are all drivers of social capital created by ABA FLA. We now know that for every $1 invested in ABA FLA, $7 worth of social capital is created, producing $7.3M in social capital in just one year.

“It’s been really steady, reliable growth such that any Wall Street CEO would be proud to have,” said George T. “Buck” Lewis, Shareholder at Baker Donelson in Memphis, Tennessee and founder of ABA FLA. “It’s the typical example of a simple idea that’s easy to use and very useful, catching on in all of the various jurisdictions.”

“The best reason to do pro bono is the joy that it brings to your professional life,” said Mr. Lewis. “So many times, we find that just that limited scope advice can make all the difference in someone’s life.”

ABA Business Law Section members and attorneys licensed in most U.S. jurisdictions can sign up to get involved at ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org under “Volunteer Attorney Registration.” The ABA provides legal malpractice insurance to all volunteer attorneys for their communications on the site.

Contact the ABA Free Legal Answers National Administrator, Tali Albukerk, at tali.albukerk@americanbar.org for further information about the site or how to make a tax-deductible financial contribution.

Tali K. Albukerk

American Bar Association

Tali Albukerk works for the ABA Center for Pro Bono as the national administrator of ABA Free Legal Answers, an online legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal services questions to be answered by pro bono attorneys from their state. Tali previously held the position of staff attorney/pro bono projects manager for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel. During her career, Tali has worked for several Chicago law firms focusing on federal civil rights litigation, specifically addressing police misconduct claims. Tali is also board president of the Pro Bono Network, a Chicago area nonprofit that provides pro bono programs for attorneys with nontraditional work schedules. Tali has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from Chicago-Kent College of Law.