July 01, 2018 GPSolo

GIVING BACK: ABA Free Legal Answers

By Marissa LaVette

As Co-Chairs of your Pro Bono and Public Service Committee, we strive to find interesting and convenient ways for the Division’s members to fulfill their professional obligation to provide pro bono legal services. This article describes a new ABA association-wide project: a virtual legal clinic that lets you pick a pro bono question from a screened online system (either in your state or associated with a disaster) and answer it at your convenience. The project does all the screening, and many states have set it up so that the client does not know your name. No need to meet or even e-mail a client, and if you cannot answer a question, you can simply put it back into the online system. We know our Division members have busy legal careers and already outperform others in providing free and discount legal service; we hope you try ABA Free Legal Answers and believe you will conclude it provides a convenient means for providing pro bono to worthy clients.

—Kathleen J. Hopkins and Jaime Hawk

Many low-income individuals face unique barriers to accessing legal services. They may be unable to take time off work or schedule around family conflicts to make it to legal aid clinics or office hours. People living in rural areas may lack access to legal aid providers and be forced to drive long distances to access legal help. According to the 2017 Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Access to Justice Report, 71 percent of low-income households reported at least one civil legal problem in the past year, but in 86 percent of civil legal aid cases reported by low-income Americans, they had no legal assistance. LSC-funded organizations had the resources to serve less than half of the 1.7 million legal issues brought to them in 2017 (lsc.gov/justicegap2017).

To narrow the justice gap and alleviate the struggles that low-income individuals face in accessing legal services, legal aid agencies rely on attorneys to provide pro bono legal advice and representation. The American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 encourages attorneys to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services to low-income clients every year. However, as most attorneys know, finding time to contribute 50 hours while balancing a full caseload and life outside of work is no easy task. Attorneys may also shy away from pro bono work out of fear that they will have to take cases outside their practice areas. New practitioners may lack the confidence to take on a pro bono matter. Other attorneys avoid pro bono cases because they are afraid the cases will continue for too long and they will lose time that could be spent on billable work. The traditional models of pro bono don’t always work for all attorneys, and innovation is needed to make pro bono easier for busy practitioners.

In 2016, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service (Committee) sought to alleviate some of the hurdles that both low-income individuals and attorneys encounter in accessing or providing pro bono services. The Committee’s goal was to develop an online legal portal modeled after a state-based program in use in Tennessee and several other states. The Committee sought to expand the Tennessee model into a national platform. The site would function as an online walk-in legal clinic that enables clients to ask questions and attorneys to respond at times and locations most convenient for both. The Committee partnered with software developers from Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz to launch the site.

The result is ABA Free Legal Answers (abafreelegalanswers.org), a virtual legal advice clinic that allows individuals who meet income guidelines to post civil legal questions online and seek advice from volunteer attorneys. Qualifying users post their civil legal aid question to their state’s website. Attorney volunteers licensed in the state log in to the website, select questions they would like to answer based on the category of law, and provide legal information and advice. Users receive an e-mail when their question receives a response. For attorneys, the site is an easy way to do pro bono for those in need. Volunteer attorneys can spend as much time as they want on the site and answer as many questions as they choose. The ABA also provides malpractice insurance for attorney volunteers. ABA Free Legal Answers allows attorneys to do pro bono from anywhere, which enables them to easily fit pro bono into their busy schedules. Attorneys can pick the type of pro bono question they are comfortable answering. The format is especially helpful for building confidence in young attorneys, who can research questions and take time to draft responses without the pressure of a face-to-face clinic encounter.

To take the program nationwide, the Committee partners with legal aid agencies, bar associations, law firms, or access-to-justice commissions to administer the site. These state administrators recruit volunteer attorneys and spread the word to potential clients about the website. Participating states have their own websites, on which qualifying residents can post their legal questions. As of the date of this writing, 42 jurisdictions are committed to participate in ABA Free Legal Answers, and 38 of these jurisdictions are live and available for access by pro bono attorneys, clients, and/or state administrators. Since the program’s inception in 2016, clients have submitted more than 25,000 questions, and more than 4,400 pro bono attorneys have registered with the site.

Volunteers have stressed the convenience of the easy-to-use website, which enables busy lawyers to provide legal services to those in need while balancing life and work responsibilities. Most questions on ABA Free Legal Answers can be answered in under an hour. Attorneys can spend an hour a week answering questions and meet the goal of 50 hours a year of pro bono. One attorney volunteer stated that volunteering with ABA Free Legal Answers is “convenient, impactful, and helps me to avoid any potential conflict. I can also pick and choose among legal issues. I encourage all attorneys to sign up and devote a little time to make a big impact.” A Texas volunteer stated that ABA Free Legal Answers “is a great way to improve access to justice and reduce barriers to attorney pro bono participation. I am a busy mom of four, so the fact that I can provide pro bono from anywhere is amazing and game changing.”

ABA Free Legal Answers was integral to meeting the legal needs of disaster victims following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. The Committee worked with personnel in Texas and Florida to tailor their websites to assist individuals affected by the hurricanes and resulting floods. Both the Texas and Florida sites increased the client income and asset maximum, which resulted in 1,670 additional submitted questions in Texas and 1,179 additional submitted questions in Florida. The Supreme Court of Texas authorized out-of-state attorneys to practice law temporarily to assist hurricane survivors, which resulted in 524 additional attorneys registering with the site. The change to Texas law allowed attorneys who could not travel to disaster-affected areas to offer pro bono legal services through ABA Free Legal Answers. The Texas order also allowed attorneys whose states have not yet launched ABA Free Legal Answers to participate in the program. As of the date of this writing, both the revised Texas rule and the increased income limits for disaster victims remain in effect.

Signing up for ABA Free Legal Answers is easy. Simply go to abafreelegalanswers.org and select your state, provide your qualifications, and search for questions you want to answer. Remember that volunteers can choose the type of questions to answer and can receive e-mail alerts when certain categories of questions come in. Even if your state doesn’t have an ABA Free Legal Answers site, you can go to texas.freelegalanswers.org and provide pro bono services to disaster victims. Site administrators provide training and guidance to attorneys registered with their state’s site. You can also contact the ABA Free Legal Answers national administrator at abafreelegalanswers@americanbar.org.

Even if you think you don’t have time for pro bono, with ABA Free Legal Answers you can easily fit pro bono into your busy schedule. Join today and do your part to narrow the justice gap by helping those in need to realize the promise of equal access to justice. GPSolo Division members can visit abafreelegalanswers.org to sign up and work toward meeting the annual 50-hour pro bono goal. You can also donate to ABA Free Legal Answers by visiting donate.americanbar.org/disasterrelief and selecting “ABA Free Legal Answers” as the designation.

Marissa LaVette

Marissa LaVette is the Assistant Staff Counsel with the American Bar Association’s Center for Pro Bono. She assists in the implementation of the Center’s initiatives to increase and support pro bono work and provides technical assistance and support to organizations in the pro bono field, including law schools, bar associations, pro bono programs, and legal services offices.