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March 30, 2022

Federal Free Legal Answers can Make the Difference between Groceries for a Month or Advice to Obtain a Green Card: “I Don’t Think Anyone Should Have to Make that Choice”

By Stephanie Baez
Multiple hands in the air.

Multiple hands in the air.

The ABA Commission on Immigration extends deep gratitude to Dahlia French, an immigration attorney who has answered over 100 questions for low-income individuals seeking immigration advice on the ABA Federal Free Legal Answers website.

ABA Federal Free Legal Answers (Federal FLA) is an online platform where indigent immigrants and asylum—seekers can ask questions about their cases.  (Federal FLA also has an option for attorneys to answer veterans’ questions; volunteers can choose to see immigration questions, veterans’ questions, or both.)  The Federal FLA website operates like a virtual, limited, walk-in clinic, where income eligible individuals can post legal questions on the site, and licensed attorneys provide free responses.  Volunteer attorneys can browse the questions on the website and decide which ones to answer.  The answers make an enormous difference for low-income individuals who are struggling to navigate the legal system and who lack the resources to hire an attorney.

For Dahlia, who has been practicing immigration law since 1994, Federal FLA was an easy way to fit pro bono into her busy schedule.  Dahlia’s immigration career focuses on complex immigration filings for academics, researchers, and physicians, and she also specializes in nonresident alien taxation.  Pro bono has always been an important part of her practice.  “There is a pool of people out there, for whom if we did not provide this service without charge, they would not be effectively represented.  That’s just not right.”  Her prior pro bono work included removal defense cases.  She started volunteering with Federal FLA during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it provided her with a convenient way to do pro bono without having to go anywhere.  The convenience of Federal FLA was attractive both due to the pandemic and her remote location in West Texas.    

When she first started answering questions on the Federal FLA website, Dahlia was one of only a few volunteers actively using the site.  She tried to work through as many questions as possible so that there would no longer be a queue.  She started logging into the website five or six times per week to answer as many questions as possible, as quickly as possible.  “I enjoy the variety of questions,” said Dahlia.  “Many questions don’t take more than 10 minutes of my time to answer.”

Dahlia recommends Federal FLA to other immigration attorneys who are looking to make a difference but do not have the time to take on full cases for pro bono representation.  She suggests that volunteers donate 90 minutes per week to answering questions on Federal FLA, broken up over multiple days.  Answering questions can be “like relaxation time,” she explained.  Especially when she’s “really tangled in a complex client case,” it feels good to step away and answer more straightforward questions on Federal FLA.  Another benefit to Federal FLA, says Dahlia, is that attorneys can use the preview button to see what questions are available.  “If a question is outside your area of expertise, you don’t have to take it.”

And, of course, it is rewarding when the “thank you” messages from grateful individuals come in.  Dahlia recalls one individual who told her: “Thank you very much, because I didn’t have $350 to spend on this question.”  Says Dahlia: “$350 can be the difference between groceries for a month or getting a green card.  I don’t think anyone should have to make that choice.”


How to Volunteer

Please consider signing up on the Federal FLA website, to help fill the justice gap by providing reliable legal information to underserved populations in a remote setting.  The ABA provides malpractice insurance for all volunteer attorneys using the Federal FLA site.  The ABA also operates Free Legal Answers for 39 participating states where pro bono attorneys can answer civil legal questions in the state(s) in which they are licensed. Question topics include Family, Divorce, Custody, Housing, Eviction, Homelessness, Consumer Rights, Financial, Work, Employment, Unemployment, Health and Disability, Civil Rights, Income Maintenance, Juvenile and Education Law.

About the Author

Stephanie Baez is Pro Bono Counsel for the ABA Commission on Immigration.  She works with the three COI projects—ProBAR, CILA and IJP—to recruit, train and mentor pro bono attorneys working on behalf of detained immigrants and asylum-seekers.  Stephanie started her legal career as an associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, where she worked on multiple immigration cases as a pro bono attorney, including an asylum matter in Harlingen, TX that was mentored by ProBAR.  Stephanie also spent one year as the Fried Frank Fellow to Her Justice, Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income women with family law and immigration matters.  She was awarded the 2016 Commitment to Justice award for her dedication to Her Justice clients.  Stephanie served as a judicial clerk in the Southern District of New York before moving to San Diego, where she engaged and mentored pro bono attorneys as a Supervising Attorney at the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program.