Using Technology to Connect Pro Bono Attorneys
to Remote Clients
The scarcity of attorneys per capita in rural counties is a chronic problem for the delivery of legal services and information to remote clients. The majority of attorneys reside and practice in urban areas so the logistics for assisting rural clients can be prohibitive. Technology provides many new ways of transcending travel time, expense and distance – ways that can lower the barriers that prevent pro bono volunteers from helping rural clients. This article will present a number of innovative models that utilize technology to facilitate increased pro bono services to clients in need of assistance.
Maine Videoconferencing Initiative
With funding from a Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant, the Maine Justice Action Group Collaboration on Innovation, Technology, and Equal Access is developing a project that will use both online videos and video conferencing, in partnership with libraries, to support rural citizens.
Several short, self–help online videos (5–10 minutes) will be available through the Pine Tree Legal Assistance website, helpmelaw.org/ website, and through the non–profit channel at YouTube, which supports mobile phone access effectively. Subjects of the upcoming videos will be divorce, common collection defenses, getting prepared for foreclosure mediation and a video directed toward the Maine Somali community in Lewiston on how to get and use a court interpreter for divorce cases. These videos are being prepared in partnership with the judiciary, private bar and librarians who have helped identify which self–help and limited representation topics are most appropriate. The videos are of high quality and will be narrated by Susan Kimball, a well–known newscaster from the state. The first video, on divorce, should be available in mid–May of 2012.
The video conferencing component envisions both legal information sessions of about an hour's length as well as one–on–one private legal service sessions by appointment. These conferences will be directed to rural audiences who will go to local libraries to participate. These libraries have already had their technology capabilities upgraded through a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant that supports broad–band access (a grant application that was supported by the Maine Access to Justice group). Maine libraries have also acquired 100 new desktop computers that are set up with meeting software and fourteen libraries in the state have full video–conferencing setups. The participating librarians have received an online training through the helpmelaw.org website and will do a dry–run of the conferencing in May of 2012.
There will be 8–10 informational conferences with the first planned for early May, then one each month thereafter. The attorneys who will participate in the conferences are being recruited by the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), primarily from Portland. While the rural attendees will gather in groups of 10 – 40 people in the video–conferencing area at their library, the attorney must go to a local space that is set up for full video conferencing – either at another Maine library or at a law firm. In conjunction with the video conference, the partner organization websites will have supporting documents and resources that can be used by self–represented litigants. It is envisioned that these conferences will be recorded and made available on both the library and other websites. The project will also allow clients to connect to volunteer attorneys for one–on–one private video conferencing set up by appointment. This project would appear to be highly reproducible in other locales, particularly if the libraries in one's state have received a BTOP grant and upgrades to video–conferencing resources.
Vinson & Elkins Virtual Law Clinic
A more modest approach to connecting pro bono attorneys and clients over a distance is exemplified by a virtual law clinic set up by Vinson & Elkins in conjunction with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program (HVLP). Clients at the HVLP offices were able to conference with volunteer attorneys at the Vinson & Elkins office through distinct Skype accounts. Vinson & Elkins purchased four sets of Microsoft webcams and Logitech headsets for HVLP to use in setting up their end of the infrastructure. Vinson & Elkins attorneys already had webcams on their laptops and used Logitech headsets that were purchased specifically for the clinic. Clients were scheduled in accordance with the pro bono attorneys' availability and were able to discuss their legal issues with their pro bono attorney "face to face."
Connecting Clients and Volunteers through a Website
Since 2007, Legal Services of Northern Michigan (LSNM) has connected rural clients to volunteer attorneys through their web–based Internet Representation Project (IRP). In this interactive space both the client and the attorney remain anonymous. Low–income citizens in the 36 northern–most Michigan counties, their eligibility qualified through an online form, create a pass–worded account and then post their legal question. One of the 20 volunteer attorneys registered in the system then selects the anonymous questions that they wish to answer and post their answer to the secure area assigned to the questioner. This is not a real–time conversation, but an asynchronous one, although a client can request a real–time chat with the attorney. The client logs back in to view their answer and to post any follow–up questions. If the client also submitted their email address as part of their registration the attorney's answer can be sent directly to them.
The IRP site has been running for nearly 5 years with more than 2500 questions answered. The top five categories for questions have been Custody/Visitation, Landlord/Tenant, Divorce/Separation, Bankruptcy and Collections issues. In the last few years the average number of clients annually served range from 300–350 (nearly three times that many applicants, around 1100 each year, do not meet the eligibility requirements but may be served by contacting a local LSNM office). The project is monitored by LSNM staff – if they see cases that fit their priority areas they will move them out of the project and into their own case management system.
The same software that runs the Michigan IRP is also used by Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, another program that addresses the needs of remote rural clients, to power their Legal Information Online Network (LION). If you are interested in obtaining a free copy of the software please email Kenneth Penokie, Executive Director of Legal Services of Northern Michigan or call 989/705–1067.
Tennessee has recently developed their own free online legal advice resource and named it Online TN Justice, a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) and the Tennessee Bar Association. Erik Cole, the Executive Director of TALS has a 4–minute YouTube video "Welcome to Online TN Justice." The website is similar in its process to the Michigan IRP: people who wish to have their legal questions answered must establish eligibility in terms of their income (less than 250% of the federal poverty level) and liquid assets, and must not be imprisoned or enquiring about criminal law issues. As in Michigan, those who are not eligible are provided with alternate paths to assistance. The authorized user will reveal their name and their county after which they use their assigned username and password to send their question in an email. The volunteer attorneys remain anonymous through the interaction and can choose which of the questions they wish to answer.
The Online TN Justice website is currently serving about 100 low–income clients per month and has at least 250 Tennessee attorneys registered to give legal advice. If a Tennessee attorney wishes to take over the entire case pro bono from a client that they meet through the website, they can do so as long as they communicate with the site sponsors through an email address. Attorneys who use the site are covered by insurance maintained by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. This site runs on two servers, one for the database and one for the website, contributed by Dell. The software to run the resource can be licensed for free by Access to Justice organizations that wish to set up a similar site by emailing Buck Lewis, Chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission or call 901/577–2256. The law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC was recently recognized by the Tennessee Bar for the contributions their IT department made in creating this site.
These models of technology – connecting clients to volunteer attorneys and legal information – can help the courts, clients and volunteer attorneys. Clients can be better informed self–represented litigants (something the courts greatly desire) through remote trainings that give them helpful information and direct them to prepared resources. Clients can access resources at a time convenient to them without having to travel far. The pro bono attorney also benefits in several ways: contact with the client or self–represented litigant can be made without the need for extensive travel; many of these forms of assistance are asynchronous so they can be conveniently scheduled around the volunteer's other commitments; and the unbundled nature of the matters allows them to control their volunteer hours by allowing them to help in a matter that is not open–ended. As utilization of technology increases in the practice of law, in remote areas, and in clients' communities, it provides a means of increasing access to justice for those facing the greatest challenges to doing so.