In September 2022, a Virginia resident’s wages were wrongfully withheld, and they needed immediate legal advice for which they could not pay. The client submitted their legal question on ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org and quickly received a response from a qualified pro bono attorney licensed and in good standing in Virginia. After the employer was told that a labor attorney had been consulted, they admitted the error, changed their position, and provided the full wages to which the client was entitled. The client reported that their ABA Free Legal Answers attorney aided them in better understanding their legal rights and options, and they greatly appreciated the services provided by the portal.
This is just one example of the thousands of legal issues that are addressed on ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA), an online virtual legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal questions to be answered by pro bono attorneys.
Providing Pro Bono Legal Advice to Clients Where They Are: Online
According to a 2022 Legal Services Corporation survey, low-income Americans do not get any or enough legal help for 92% of their substantial civil legal problems, resulting in an gap in access to justice. Given that legal advice is increasingly sought online and, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, nearly 90% of households with low-moderate income and 90% of adults in rural communities use the internet, the solution is clear.
ABA Free Legal Answers seeks to narrow the “justice gap” by offering access to legal advice online. Modeled after a legal advice portal created in Tennessee, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service launched the first and only online national pro bono legal advice portal in 2016, providing non-incarcerated adults with income generally under 250% of the federal poverty level and assets under $10,000 with access to brief civil legal advice from attorneys who are licensed and in good standing in their jurisdiction. ABA FLA provides access to legal advice to those who are often screened out by existing legal services due to conflicts, income or asset eligibility, or citizenship status. It offers a resource to those who are unable to utilize traditional walk-in clinics or hotlines due to geographic or temporal limitations. For those who have nowhere else to turn yet cannot afford an attorney, ABA FLA often serves as the sole resource.
ABA FLA is designed to allow any eligible user with an internet connection to access civil legal advice and resources at any time from across their state. The goal is ultimately to prevent larger legal crises from developing and to allow existing legal services staff attorneys to focus on full representation.
Since ABA FLA’s launch in 2016, forty-two jurisdictions have committed to participate, and nearly 11,000 pro bono attorneys have registered to respond to the nearly 250,000 civil legal questions that have been posted on ABA FLA—primarily in areas such as family law, housing, and consumer rights.
“Thank you so much for helping me,” said a recent client from Florida. “The gentleman attorney who assisted me was kind, understanding, clear in speech, and very knowledgeable about the subject. I appreciate this service very much.”
“Free Legal Answers is a godsend,” said Jim Sandman, President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation. “It is critically important in expanding the services available to people who otherwise have nothing.”
Offering Solutions During Disasters
Disasters produce, among other challenges, a variety of legal issues for disaster survivors, including lease terminations, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) applications, insurance claims, property damage, bankruptcy, document loss, and guardianship. These legal issues persist for weeks, months, or even years following the initial impact.
ABA FLA responds to post-disaster crises by providing wider access to pro bono legal advice and allowing more volunteer attorneys to meet the needs of disaster survivors. For instance, when disaster strikes, ABA FLA may temporarily lift the income and asset cap in impacted states, add disaster-specific categories for clients to select, populate category-specific auto-emails for users, and add alerts for attorneys to select those questions. In addition, ABA FLA provides access to out-of-state attorneys who are permitted by court order to temporarily practice law to assist in disaster relief.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, ABA FLA has served as a valuable pro bono resource for attorneys and clients, as it is entirely virtual and can address many basic legal questions that arise, both typical and pandemic-based. Since March 2020, ABA FLA has received more than 137,000 submitted questions, representing an 85% increase over the same pre-pandemic period. Users indicated that these questions were specifically related to the pandemic in more than 12,000 instances. Overall, legal questions in categories commonly associated with the pandemic increased as well. For instance, more than 25,000 housing-related questions and more than 7,000 employment-related questions were submitted, representing a 111% and 151% increase, respectively, over the same pre-pandemic period.
ABA FLA attorney registrations have also increased since the onset of the pandemic. Since March 2020, over 4,100 volunteer attorneys registered to answer civil legal questions on the state FLA site in which they are licensed, increasing the number of registrations by 71%.
Attorneys Provide Brief Legal Advice at Their Convenience
In addition to its success as a much-needed legal assistance resource for low-income populations, ABA FLA has been useful for attorneys in search of convenient, short-term pro bono opportunities. ABA FLA provides for partnerships between the private bar, law firms, corporate law departments, government attorneys, and law schools that wish to provide their members with firsthand pro bono experiences in their own settings. Attorneys can sign up to receive notifications when questions are posted in their areas of interest as well as sort by subject matter and for questions that are submitted by those with senior or veteran status.
“It is so easy to just take a five- or ten-minute break and do something so positive,” praised a volunteer attorney in Arkansas. “I go on the site every few days plus have a clinic with law students twice a month. I can provide help to so many more people all over the state [and] find most clients are very appreciative and just glad to have someone answer.”
As part of this year’s ABA FLA Summer Associate Challenge, created by ABA Past President Patricia Lee Refo to instill a commitment to pro bono early on in an individual’s legal career, at least forty-three summer associates and twenty-six volunteer attorneys from nine states answered more than 150 civil legal questions posted by income-eligible individuals. For the second consecutive year, Koley Jessen of Nebraska was the firm that answered the most questions (thirty-one), and other participating law firms included Alston & Bird, Baker & Hostetler LLP, Faegre Drinker, Husch Blackwell, Jackson Lewis P.C., Johnson Flodman Guenzel & Widger and Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.
“This project is really great,” said Abbie Widger, partner at Johnson Flodman Guenzel & Widger. “It gets everyone out of their comfort zone and allows associates to explore and research various areas of law. They have to ask lots of questions to every attorney in the office! It also requires that I do a little research to verify the accuracy of the answers. Thank you for offering this community service. People really do appreciate the guidance.”
How to Volunteer
The majority of questions submitted to ABA FLA are related to family and housing law issues, typically requiring only brief research to answer. Approximately 10% of all questions submitted are related to consumer and financial matters, followed by 5% related to employment law issues and 2% income maintenance–related matters. ABA Business Law Section members and attorneys licensed in most U.S. jurisdictions can sign up to get involved at FreeLegalAnswers.org under “Attorney Registration.” The ABA provides legal malpractice insurance to all volunteer attorneys for their communications on the site.