May 19, 2016 Dialogue

Virtual Clinics for Online Pro Bono Help: Hurdling Barriers to Pro Bono

By Monica A. Fennell

The online free legal help website created by the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, Indiana Legal Answers, holds much promise for leveraging attorney resources in urban centers to help the rural poor. It was designed not only to eliminate barriers to accessing pro bono, but also barriers to doing pro bono. But that promise remained largely unfulfilled until recently. 

Indiana Legal Answers was modeled after Online Tennessee Justice, which has now led to the creation of a national interactive pro bono website. This innovative brief advice website makes it easy for attorneys to volunteer and increases accessibility to free legal advice for low-income Hoosiers. Attorneys can sign on to the website and provide free civil legal advice to those in need at any convenient time. Because client questions are answered in a series of emails, volunteers can provide that advice from anywhere that they have internet access. Likewise potential pro bono clients can ask legal questions at any time or place with Wi-Fi, without worrying about missing work or finding transportation for an appointment. Screening and intake are done by answering questions on the website.

An interactive pro bono website such as Indiana Legal Answers can reduce many barriers to doing pro bono, particularly the oft-cited barrier of lack of time. Because the pro bono website is based on providing limited scope representation and not ongoing representation, the time commitment by each lawyer for each client is relatively minimal. This brief advice pro bono opportunity is similar to an ask-a-lawyer clinic, but saves the travel time to and from a walk-in clinic site at a library or community center. This flexible pro bono opportunity can be fit in around billable work. Interactive pro bono websites also allow the attorney to answer the client’s poverty law questions at a time uninterrupted by billable client calls or court hearings. This type of virtual pro bono clinic can work well for lawyers who want to do pro bono in an immediate and specific timeframe before the next billable project heats up. Indiana Legal Answers limits the pro bono client to three questions, so it eliminates the fear of an endless back-and-forth email exchange.

Moreover, Indiana Legal Answers and similar websites modeled after Online Tennessee Justice allow lawyers to select the areas of law in which they want to answer questions. This eliminates the discomfort that some lawyers, particularly those with highly specialized practices, feel when volunteering at walk-in clinics with unpredictable clients and unfamiliar areas of the law. Unlike walk-in clinics or legal advice hotlines, virtual clinics also allow the pro bono attorney time to research before answering.

However, an interactive pro bono website may be too easy on volunteers. It’s out of sight, out of mind. Even if an urgent billable client call or last-minute court hearing means that an attorney cannot volunteer for a scheduled shift at a brief advice clinic, the cancellation serves as a reminder to the attorney of the pro bono commitment. The attorney may then schedule another clinic shift or offer to help on a new pro bono case. Because the virtual clinic can be done any time and anywhere with internet access, it may be too easy to forget. Many pro bono questions to Indiana Legal Answers were going unanswered by the registered volunteers.

Inspired by the First Friday Blitz pioneered by South Carolina Law Answers, Faegre Baker Daniels attorneys in the Indiana offices recently amped up pro bono attorney participation by taking part in virtual clinics for Indiana Legal Answers. Conducting a virtual clinic solves the forgetfulness problem by bringing together attorneys to answer pro bono questions on the interactive website at one time and place. It was anticipated that staff support and lunch might garner volunteers. What was not anticipated was how much fun it would be.

Technical glitches with registration, sign-on, and maneuvering the website could be annoying enough to discourage busy volunteers. The Indiana Pro Bono Commission lowered that barrier by providing a staff attorney who approved registrations on the spot and who could troubleshoot technical issues at the virtual clinic. The staff attorney made the experience even more painless by providing a quick overview of the structure of the pro bono website and the ethics issues involved. This training was not necessary, since many of the ethics issues were covered by the comprehensive explanations on the Indiana Legal Answers site, but it provided an opportunity to pose and resolve ethical concerns about this new virtual clinic structure. Because frustrations and concerns were eased, the volunteers could focus on responding to the legal questions posed.

The camaraderie of sitting around a table with colleagues and discussing legal issues was authentic. The round-table set-up of the virtual clinic fostered discussion and mentorship opportunities. Newer and more experienced attorneys ferreted out the client question and true legal issue together and then crafted a limited-scope response. At one virtual clinic an experienced family law attorney volunteered his time not only to take questions on the website, but also to supervise attorneys as they attempted to answer family law questions. Leveraging one family law lawyer’s expertise by supervising several litigators with expertise in other areas helped more quickly clear out a backlog of family law questions on the Indiana Legal Answers website. The hope is that now the pro bono volunteers are better equipped to sign back in to answer legal questions when they have a free moment and Wi-Fi. But there will be more virtual clinics to brainstorm and problem-solve for needy Hoosiers—with awesome colleagues.

Monica A. Fennell

Pro Bono Manager, Faegre Baker Daniels

As pro bono manager for Faegre Baker Daniels, Monica Fennell develops and manages pro bono initiatives for the firm's lawyers to volunteer their unique professional skills, primarily focused on addressing unmet legal needs of disadvantaged and underserved persons. Before joining the firm, Monica was executive director of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, where she oversaw the 12 pro bono district offices created by Indiana Supreme Court rule. Previously, Monica served as a U.S. Supreme Court Fellow, assigned to the Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts.