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October 15, 2015 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair...

By Mary K. Ryan, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

In a world where tiny computers are now being worn on wrists, the legal profession is also realizing the potential in technological innovation. Whether it is a mobile app, online chat interface, or automated legal form and document preparation, technology provides efficiency and flexibility, reaching across geographical boundaries and breaking down other access barriers. Online Tennessee Justice is an example of a recent innovation in the legal profession, which seeks to change the way pro bono lawyers select cases, communicate with clients, and collaborate with other attorneys. And we’re on the cusp of this tool being available nationwide.

The problem to be addressed:

There are 46.7 million people living in poverty in the United States, and many more with incomes hovering just above that line. This population faces a number of barriers that make accessing even pro bono and legal aid help difficult. Some of the barriers are physical: about 20% of the poverty population lives outside metropolitan areas, where lawyers are few and far between. Among the adult poverty population (ages 18-64), almost 17% are disabled and face challenges in traveling to seek legal assistance. And almost 10% of the poverty population is elderly. Other barriers relate to time and scheduling: many are single moms, have inflexible work schedules, or live in areas without adequate public transportation.

Meanwhile, engaging the bar to meet the client needs can be challenging as well. The most recent national survey of the attorney population reveals that although attorneys are generally motivated to do pro bono, most are just too busy to commit to doing long-term or extensive volunteer work. A legal career can be intense, and balancing family and other time commitments can push pro bono work down on one’s priority list. Two-thirds of the surveyed attorneys, however, indicated that they would take on more pro bono work if they could.

The Online Justice Model solution:

Technology is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of American life, and this applies to the lives of attorneys and those in poverty as well. Overall, 70% of Americans have high-speed internet connections in their home. Although socioeconomic factors are related to internet access, among the poverty population, over half have internet connections in their home. Many of those who do not have internet access at home have access to local libraries where internet is provided for free. In recent years, a dramatic increase in smartphone ownership has been observed, providing mobile internet access, and this trend is expected to continue.

Recognizing the potential of technology in addressing physical and time barriers, the Tennessee Bar Association, Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), and the law firm of Baker Donelson Berkowitz Bearman and Caldwell collaborated to design an interactive pro bono website in 2011. Online Tennessee Justice (OTJ) allows qualifying users to post civil legal questions and—subsequently—volunteer attorneys provide basic legal information and advice online.

Specifically, eligible users sign on to password-protected accounts and are able to select a legal category, list upcoming court dates, and submit their civil legal questions. All questions are posted to a queue where attorneys may view them and select questions they feel they are willing and able to answer. Attorneys and users may then correspond back and forth until one of them decides that the interaction is complete. Attorneys may even subscribe to legal categories and receive notifications when questions of that type are waiting in the queue. 

Benefits for clients:

Although there will always be certain cases for which full representation is necessary, brief legal advice from an experienced practitioner can be invaluable in many instances. And having access to this advice at any time and from any place exponentially expands access to assistance. This model specifically provides the following to users:

  • Accessibility from home/anywhere with internet access;
  • Accessibility at any time of the day;
  • Website that is intuitive and easy to use;
  • Assistance at no cost; and
  • Enhanced privacy when seeking legal advice.

Benefits for attorneys:

When given a list of things a referral organization could do to make pro bono work more appealing or accessible, among the top activities indicated by a national sample of attorneys included: limited scope representation opportunities, being provided a range of volunteer opportunities, and online review of case opportunities from which to select. This model delivers that flexibility by providing some of the same benefits to volunteer attorneys as to clients, along with others:

  • Accessibility from home/anywhere with internet access;
  • Accessibility at any time of the day;
  • Discrete and minimal time commitment; and
  • A range of types of cases from which to pick and choose

To date, OTJ has handled over 10,000 client questions, addressing issues related to family law, housing and property, debt, employment, health care and benefits, natural disasters, juvenile law, and other issues. On average, 228 questions are asked and answered per month.

OTJ has received recognition throughout the country for its success. Baker Donelson received a 2014 Beacon of Justice Award from the NLADA for its software design. OTJ was also named a finalist for a Salute to Excellence Award for the Center for Nonprofit Management in Nashville, Tennessee. And OTJ won first place in the “Service to the Public” awards category at the American Bar Association meeting in August 2014.

Taking it nationwide

The overwhelming success of Online Tennessee Justice, both in terms of attorney engagement and increased help to the poverty population, has resulted in an effort to bring this tool nationwide. Since its inception in 2011, a number of other states have taken the initiative to launch similar websites using the Tennessee software. These states include Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  In addition, as the Pro Bono Committee has marketed this opportunity nationally, it is close to securing commitments from over half the states.

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has approved the creation of a national virtual clinic based on the Tennessee model and plans to launch the national version, which will be proposed to the ABA Board of Governors at its November meeting. The national version will have an improved design based on feedback from the states already using it and from states that are considering its use.