Each year, the PBA pro bono office receives more than 6,000 requests for legal advice from people who either cannot afford it or don’t know where to get it. In 2017, Legal Services Corporation reported that 86% of low-income people with civil legal problems got no or insufficient help; the need for pro bono legal services continues to increase.
The PBA is currently gearing up for a new initiative offering pro bono help that will be easy to use by those seeking advice and those lawyers willing to provide it. In collaboration with American Bar Association Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA), the PBA has launched Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers. The program offers attorneys a convenient pro bono opportunity and, more importantly, narrows the access to justice gap.
PBA President Kathleen D. Wilkinson said the need for pro bono service is especially acute. “The pandemic has had a profound impact upon low-income people and has caused financial and family stressors to continue to mount. Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers has the potential to help thousands of people who qualify for pro bono assistance. Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct calls on us to render public interest legal services. Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers is convenient and flexible and a way to give back to the community by helping those in need. Please volunteer for this important program,” she said.
PBA Pro Bono Coordinator David K. Trevaskis said, “It is a great opportunity for lawyers across the state to provide the pro bono service envisioned by Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility. With malpractice insurance provided by the ABA and an easy-to-access format, with training on how to use the site available as needed, it is a self-contained platform that may transform how we approach pro bono service.”
Once registered and approved on the site, lawyers may log in at any time to review a list of user questions and select the one(s) they want to answer. Lawyers will use the categories provided by the user (such as “housing” or “debt”) to help determine which questions they would like to answer. A lawyer will have the opportunity to read the full question before deciding to take it from the list and answer it.
Once a lawyer takes a question from the list, the lawyer has three days to provide, at minimum, one answer to the question. Lawyers will be allowed to ask follow-up questions if they need additional information in order to answer the user’s question. The lawyer’s identity is not revealed to the user unless the lawyer decides to do so. Once a lawyer answers a question, the user will be sent an email to alert them they have a response waiting.
Pennsylvania is now the 45th jurisdiction committed to this program. In the four years since ABA launched Free Legal Answers, more than 9,000 lawyer volunteers have answered 160,000 questions. Under the principle that the provision of brief legal advice can prevent larger legal crises from developing, the program allows users in rural areas access to legal resources from across the state. Limited scope advice can make all the difference, Trevaskis said.
A project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, Free Legal Answers provides a national administrator, server space and malpractice insurance to participating jurisdictions. It is partially funded through ABA general revenue, with the balance of funds coming from a combination of personal contributions, corporate support and grants.
Volunteer lawyers can log into the system 24/7/365 from anywhere with internet. National staff maintains the site, manages the question queue and collects and analyzes data.
“Users must meet income eligibility guidelines, and the questions must be regular civil legal matters,” Trevaskis said. “This is great for lawyers who want to do pro bono. It’s very flexible. You don’t need specialized training. It is the right movement at the right time.”
Cheryl L. Young of Hangley, Aroncheck, Segal, Pudlin and Schiller, Norristown, is one of the first people that Travaskis contacts when he gets a call asking for family law help. “Often, there isn’t enough information initially to be able to answer the question. David has to contact the person to get more information, then call me again, so there is a delay. Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers is cutting out the middle man,” she said. The direct communication allows the lawyer to get the information needed to be able to respond.
She said Free Legal Answers “will help people get started and understand the process better. At least they will learn where to get the legal help they need.”
Young said it is good that the lawyer answering the question can remain anonymous. “What you don’t want in these situations is for the person to think he is being represented. There have been cases where people show up in court with an email from an attorney and think they are represented. This is especially true in family law where emotions are often high,” she said.
Trevaskis said the Dauphin County Bar Association’s Public Services Committee, chaired by James P. DeAngelo of McNees, Wallace and Nurick LLC, Harrisburg, was instrumental in encouraging the PBA to join Free Legal Answers. In July 2020, DeAngelo began the conversation. In November 2020, Sandra A. Ballard, public services coordinator for the Dauphin County Bar Association, presented a request to the PBA Board of Governors.
In the Dauphin County Bar Association newsletter article about the program, Ballard said, “With malpractice insurance and no requirements for minimal hours or prior training, there’s no reason not to register. Free Legal Answers is an automated tool that uses modern technology to help more people.”
Trevaskis gives credit to the Dauphin County Bar Association for PBA’s adoption of the program. “When they brought it to the PBA board, it became policy. It is time for this. Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network has a new executive director. There is a huge push from the Disciplinary Board. Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer wrote a letter to members about pro bono. We saw how useful this would be. The bottom line is this is one more thing we can do to make it better for other people.”
ProSocial Valuation Service measured the impact of the ABA FLA and found that providing legal services is more than just a public service. Client outcomes, pro bono service, advocacy and improved health and well-being are all drivers of social capital created by ABA FLA. For every $1 invested in ABA FLA, $7 worth of capital is created, producing $7.3 million in social capital in just a year. (Stats from the ABA FLA February 2021 Report)
- Free Legal Answers data shows that the number of submitted questions increased within the past 16 months.
- Since March 2020 ABA FLA has received 49,414 submitted questions, representing a 48% increase over the previous year. In February 2021 alone, 4,330 questions were submitted on ABA FLA, many related to the pandemic, representing a 56% increase over the previous year. To serve more individuals affected by the pandemic, ABA FLA temporarily increased its question limit per client and the income/asset cap was increased in many states.
- Overall, legal questions in matters commonly associated with the pandemic increased since March 2020. For instance, 7,045 housing-related questions and 3,113 employment-related questions were submitted, representing a 64% and 131% respective increase over the previous year.
- ABA FLA attorney registrations have also increased since the pandemic hit. Since March 2020, 2,012 volunteer attorneys registered to answer civil legal questions on ABA FLA, representing a 68% PBA Launches Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers for Pro Bono Opportunities, Access to Justice increase over the previous year.
Lawyers who would like to participate can sign up as a volunteer attorney at https://pa.freelegalanswers.org/Attorneys/Account/Agreement. They can read through the material on the page and check out the Frequently Asked Questions from Pennsylvania Volunteer Attorneys before clicking on the I Agree button at the bottom of the Attorney Agreement page.
To complete the signup process, volunteers must:
- Create a password to set up a volunteer account;
- Provide contact information and their Pennsylvania Attorney ID number;
- Sign the Attorney Use Agreement.
Before the lawyer’s account is activated, the website administrator checks to ensure the lawyer is licensed in Pennsylvania and is in good standing with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Once a lawyer has been approved by the website administrator, the lawyer receives an email notification and can begin answering user questions.
Lawyers will be able to view a log of questions they have previously answered in their history.