December 14, 2020

Ten Observations from a Free Legal Answers Volunteer

By: Henry Su, Member, ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

I’ll be honest – I didn’t know about ABA Free Legal Answers until I became a member of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. Over three decades of law practice, I’ve handled a number of pro bono cases from start to finish but the delivery model of limited representation through a virtual legal advice clinic was something I’d never tried. Given that Free Legal Answers is a signature project of the Standing Committee, I felt it was incumbent on me to sign up as a volunteer so that I can lead by example and have first-hand knowledge of what I’m promoting to my fellow ABA members. Here are ten observations I’ve made since joining the platform as a Virginia attorney in December 2019.

TEN: One of the biggest changes we’ve witnessed as lawyers in the years I’ve practiced is the digitization of legal resources and legal knowledge. Statutes, court opinions, summaries of legal developments, and practice guides are generally available online, and for free, arguably making the law increasingly more accessible to the public. Many civil legal questions posted on Free Legal Answers have a specific answer that can be found on the web. But with the ever burgeoning storehouse of legal information on the internet comes increasing complexity and density, and also the risk that some resources become outdated as the law continues to change and evolve. Someone with legal training, namely, a Free Legal Answers volunteer, can help clients find answers more quickly and accurately.

NINE: If you’re a trivia buff like me, then you’ll be drawn to the sheer variety—and sometimes relative obscurity—of civil legal questions posted on Free Legal Answers. Sure, there are many garden-variety questions about child custody and support, landlord/tenant obligations, and employment rights, but there are also occasional questions involving boundary disputes, publishing contracts, and defective air bags, for example. If you relish a challenging, and perhaps esoteric, legal question and enjoy doing legal research, I think you will derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping a client arrive at a practical and useful answer to his or her legal problem.

EIGHT: The previous observation leads me to my next one, which concerns competence. As someone who has chosen to focus his trial practice on antitrust and intellectual property cases, I can sympathize with the reluctance of would-be volunteers who scroll through the posted questions in the queue and see mostly family law, housing, and employment questions, none of which fall within their chosen areas of specialization. But it’s important to remember that competence under Model Rule 1.1 does not necessarily require expertise in a particular field of law. Rather, “competent representation” is a product of not only legal knowledge, which can be obtained through a modicum of research, but also skill, thoroughness, and preparation. The comments expressly observe that “[a] lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar.” If you’re prepared to undertake the necessary study and research to answer a client question about, say, landlord-tenant law in the state in which you’re licensed, then you’re just as qualified as a practitioner who handles housing cases day in and day out.

SEVEN: It’s great if you have the interest and bandwidth to take a court case on a pro bono basis. But I recognize that not all of us want to or can. Free Legal Answers reminds us that there is another invaluable way to contribute our skills and time. Not all legal problems require a lawsuit for resolution; indeed, a byproduct of living in a society governed by the rule of law is that many everyday decisions have a legal dimension. By volunteering to field posted questions, you’re helping clients move forward with their lives, for which they are invariably thankful, as evidenced by the appreciation and feedback you’ll receive in many replies.

SIX: Relatedly, by volunteering, you’re promoting a sense of agency. Let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve noticed that many clients who post questions are expressly willing to take care of legal problems on their own; they just need someone to point them in the right direction and to the tools they need. That’s where you come in as a volunteer. A critical aspect of equal access to justice involves making our courts and agencies more accessible to the public. In a jurisdiction where, as in Virginia, many civil proceedings can be conducted with self-help forms, Free Legal Answers provides the public something that the courts and agencies themselves unfortunately cannot, which is to dispense legal advice relating to the proper completion and use of those forms.

FIVE: Occasionally, however, there aren’t any self-help forms, even though the governing law sets forth a relatively straightforward proceeding to obtain the desired relief. In such cases, I’ve found it appropriate to go beyond the question/answer exchange contemplated by Free Legal Answers. For instance, I’ve drafted pleadings for use by some clients. In case you’re wondering, Virginia has concluded that ghostwriting is ethically permissible as part of limited scope representation, but you should check your own state’s rules and guidance.

FOUR: In this era of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, it’s tempting to muse that artificial intelligence will one day replace human volunteers on a platform like Free Legal Answers. But I don’t think so. Although the attorney-client interaction is entirely virtual, I’ve observed that empathy and compassion are just as important as the advice itself. That’s because many clients feel they’ve been mistreated, ignored, or dismissed, and they’re turning to Free Legal Answers in hopes of finding someone who will hear them out. Sometimes we don’t have a favorable or positive answer to their questions but we can still offer emotional support and perspective. No matter how smart they become, Siri and Alexa won’t be able to do that.

THREE: While we’re on the subject of communication, we should, of course, always strive to provide our responses to client questions in plain English. Indeed, I view each posted question that I answer as one more opportunity to practice removing legal jargon, to the extent practicable, from my explanations. It’s another way we’re making the law more accessible to the public.

TWO: Besides the excision of legalese, our responses should be simple and honest. By “simple,” I mean really focusing on what the client needs to know. For example, while I could offer a cogent explanation of the requirement of minimum contacts in personal jurisdiction, maybe all the client needs to hear is that it’s not unfair for someone from another state to have to defend a lawsuit in a Virginia court if it’s for injury that he caused while he was in the Commonwealth. By “honest,” I’m stressing the importance of candor and frankness in the advice we dispense. The question/answer exchange intermediated by the platform makes it difficult to hedge or qualify; we don’t have the luxury of a fulsome discussion before providing our best response. Put another way, if you think a client hasn’t told you a detail that would be germane to your analysis, it’s generally preferable to ask for that detail before answering.

ONE: Last but not least, get to know and thank your state administrator, who is responsible for ensuring that the Free Legal Answers platform remains up and running. Whenever the Standing Committee discusses the prospect of making the platform available in a particular state, one of the major hurdles is finding someone (or some group) who will shoulder the responsibility of administering the platform, which includes both receiving and screening client questions, and signing up and training volunteers. My state administrator is Crista Gantz, and I’ve found her commitment to and enthusiasm for Free Legal Answers to be infectious.