January 08, 2021 Lawyers Conference

LC Chair's Column

ABA Free Legal Answers—helping to stem the tide of civil cases

By Monica A. Fennell, Indianapolis, IN

As many have noted, courts at all levels are expecting a tsunami of cases as they re-open after closures and restrictions during the pandemic. ABA Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal advice clinic, may be able to help mitigate the flood of cases headed for courthouses. It’s one more tool in the toolbox—and a tool that was already available and working without pause, before and during the pandemic.

Due to COVID-19 more and more people are left to navigate their disputes without access to legal help. Many in-person pro bono clinics and court help desks have been cancelled, and some legal aid organizations are working with reduced staff or less accessible intake due to COVID-19 restrictions. Low-income and moderate-income individuals rely on these face-to-face pro bono clinics and help desks, and some have been replaced by online or videoconference options, but many have not. ABA Free Legal Answers is an online portal for free legal help, and it can be a good referral source for those in need.

Approximately 40 states now have a Free Legal Answers program. For those states that don’t yet have this virtual clinic, the ABA will be launching a Free Legal Answers program for certain federal law questions, focused on veteran’s legal issues and immigration questions. Check out the September 2020 report.

 

Free Legal Answers was connecting people who need help with civil legal questions to volunteer attorneys online, even before the pandemic began. It is an easy way for attorneys to volunteer at any time that is convenient for them, and they have no ongoing representation obligation. Attorneys can choose which types of questions they answer. The Illinois online clinic even has a new civil appellate questions section. The ABA provides malpractice insurance for volunteers through the Free Legal Answers site, so it provides a nice way for retired and part-time attorneys to volunteer. Web hosting is even free for participating states.

Questions on Free Legal Answers sites have spiked by 35% as COVID has spiked. This online pro bono clinic is also easy for the general public, because they can log on any time and ask civil legal questions, without having to take time off work or travel to an in-person clinic. When a user receives a response from an attorney, they are notified by email, and can ask up to three questions. By availing themselves of Free Legal Answers, self-represented litigants will better understand their legal issues and legal rights, which can also help courts and judges.

Because Free Legal Answers was already an online platform and was already functioning as a virtual pro bono clinic, the program did not have to shift gears to go remote. Volunteer attorneys and pro bono clients were already comfortable communicating using the portal and email, and the program was designed in part to take advantage of technology and to remove barriers to accessing and providing free civil legal services. At my firm we pioneered a way to make the virtual clinic collaborative, and I dare say fun, by gathering in conference rooms to answer the Free Legal Answers questions together, sometimes in conjunction with corporate counsel. I will be glad when we can go back to gathering around an actual table to answer online questions from pro bono clients, but until then let’s help each other across the country from afar.

For more on Free Legal Answers and to see a discussion of the site by former Legal Services Corporation President Jim Sandman, former ABA President Judy Perry Martinez, ABA Free Legal Answers founder Buck Lewis, and Chair of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service David Bienvenu, go to www.FreeLegalAnswers.org.

Monica Fennell

Monica Fennell

2020-2021 Lawyers Conference Chair