Minnesota faces geographic and resource challenges in delivering pro bono legal services statewide. The state has 87 counties covering almost 87,000 square miles and there is an uneven distribution of available legal services. More than 80% of the private bar is concentrated in the seven county metro area. To better connect low–income clients throughout the state with pro bono attorneys, Legal Services State Support (State Support) received IOLTA funding to create the Minnesota Legal Advice Online (MLAO) project. MLAO is a statewide website — www.MNLegalAdvice.org — which allows eligible Minnesotans to obtain legal advice from volunteer attorneys.
Prior to starting the statewide project, State Support developed and managed an online advice pilot project with Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota. This pilot project, based on Legal Services of Northern Michigan's Internet Representation Project, launched in February 2011. The pilot allowed low–income residents of northwest Minnesota to get legal advice online from local Judicare attorneys.
Based on the success of the pilot project in northwest Minnesota, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition decided to request IOLTA grant funding for online advice available on a statewide basis. The Minnesota statewide project, MLAO, is based on a successful statewide legal advice website operated by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. The Tennessee system, www.OnlineTNJustice.org, is easily adaptable and has been used by several other states for online advice projects.
Funding for the project started in July 2013. Working with a stakeholder committee consisting of representatives from legal aid, the state bar association, the state courts, volunteer attorney programs, law firms, corporate counsel, social service agencies, and other groups, State Support developed guidelines for eligibility and determined modifications to the website template provided by Tennessee. The next months were spent in development, modifying the website and testing the changes internally.
In May 2014, State Support began a "soft launch" pilot phase of MLAO. A group of twenty pilot phase volunteer attorneys answered actual user questions generated from a test link on Minnesota's statewide legal information website, www.LawHelpMN.org. State Support then started its broader launch by increasing outreach efforts with the public, volunteers, and partner organizations. Through July 2014 the website had already generated over 250 user questions. In the coming months, State Support plans to continue to increase outreach efforts and begin evaluation of the program.
How MLAO Works
The MLAO user experience is intuitive and convenient. On the MLAO homepage, a new user learns about the system, including which types of cases it may address and the limited scope of the lawyer–client relationship, and begins an eligibility screening process. MLAO users are limited to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, must be 14 years old, and may only get help with civil questions.
After the user moves through the eligibility questions, he or she then inputs the content of his or her question. The user receives notification that he or she will get a response from a volunteer attorney within 14 days. At this point, the user's question is placed into a queue with all other user questions. The queue is monitored by State Support staff to ensure that users with urgent questions are directed to another resource, to encourage volunteers to take questions that have been waiting for several days and to direct users to fact sheets or other resources if the question has not been taken with the 14 day period.
The MLAO volunteer experience is equally intuitive and convenient. MLAO volunteers provide basic background information, await approval from the website administrators, and can begin answering questions upon access to the queue of user questions. Volunteers can sign up for e–mail alerts for certain question topics or view the queue by topic area. Questions are color–coded to encourage volunteer attorneys to answer the oldest questions first.
A volunteer attorney can reply to the user with an answer, a request for more information, and/or a referral to another resource to get help. Through Minnesota's statewide website for advocates, www.ProJusticeMN.org, attorneys have access to language for commonly asked questions, training materials explaining the importance of using plain language, and information on making good referrals when needed.
If the user shared an e–mail address when registering, the system sends the user an e–mail to notify him or her when a volunteer attorney has responded to the question. Users who do not provide e–mail addresses will have to check their accounts periodically to see if their question has been answered. Once the user logs back into the system, he or she can provide additional detail or ask the attorney follow–up questions. The volunteer attorney and user correspond back and forth as needed. All correspondence happens through the website with each response appearing in order, similar to a chain of e–mail correspondence.
Either the user or the volunteer attorney can close out the question and end the correspondence chain once the question has been fully answered. If a user has another question on a separate legal issue, he or she can log a new question in the system. Upon logging out, the system prompts the volunteer attorney to log the amount of time spent volunteering for the attorney to later report for CLE
Benefits of Statewide Online Advice
The benefits of MLAO, or any statewide online advice system, are extensive. First, MLAO serves as another access point to connect low–income Minnesotans with a lawyer. According to the Legal Services Advisory Committee and Lawyer Registration (MARS) data, for every 1 private attorney in Minnesota, there are 365 potential paying clients, while for every 1 legal aid attorney in Minnesota, there are 4,022 potential low–income clients. MLAO is another resource to help address this gap and get legal help to struggling Minnesotans.
MLAO is also convenient for both users and volunteers. Users can log in and ask a question at any time and from any location where they can access the internet. Likewise, volunteer attorneys can provide legal advice from the office, home, or any location with internet access. Volunteers can choose the level of commitment that is right for them and decide which questions they want to answer. All volunteers are covered by malpractice insurance through State Support.
In addition to its convenience and role in improving access to justice, MLAO also serves as a two–way referral source. It serves as a resource where legal aid or other non–profit offices can refer clients who do not fit within program eligibility or priority guidelines. Conversely, MLAO volunteer attorneys are trained to provide good referrals when legal advice is not enough to address the user's legal problem. When appropriate, MLAO serves as another referral point to connect someone in need with legal aid or another non–profit legal office for a higher level of representation.
MLAO is working to expand pro bono services throughout the state. Because the system is entirely online, MLAO enables the surplus of attorneys practicing in concentrated urban areas to easily engage in pro bono to meet legal needs statewide. The online system is available on computer terminals at every one of the 87 county courts as a supplement to the statewide court self–help services.
These benefits, paired with the early success of the MLAO rollout, demonstrate that statewide online advice can be an important piece of the larger civil legal aid deliver system. Technology alone cannot solve the justice gap, but it can efficiently match pro bono attorneys who are willing to help with clients who likely would not otherwise receive service. MLAO is another step in addressing unmet legal needs and will improve access to justice for many Minnesotans.