Monthly Archives: March 2016

Talking Civil Legal Aid on Beacon Hill

Wednesday was a big day for our legal aid advocacy efforts, including a legislative briefing and two important meetings.  We started our work at the State House with a briefing for legislators.  A number members of the House of Representatives and many staffers stopped-by to learn about civil legal aid.  The event was hosted by Representative Ruth Balser, one of the Legislature’s true champions for civil legal aid, who has filed the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) budget amendment for many years.

The briefing began with a video depicting Housing Court.  The moving video, below, shows the struggles of unrepresented litigants, who are the norm in Housing Court.  93% of tenants in evictions do not have lawyers.  They face long lines, confusing procedures, and the challenges of understanding complex legal terminology.  Judges are aware of the daunting situation facing these litigants, but, as Judge jeffrey Winik states int he video, all they can say is, “Do the best you can.”  Based on the findings of a survey of judges in our task force report, Investing in Justice, judges have recognized an increase in unrepresented litigants and had to deal with its negative consequences.  90% saw slowed procedures and attendant increases in the time court staff has to spend (in addition to their regular duties) assisting these litigants and more than 60% said it negatively impacts the court’s ability to ensure equal justice.

Following the video, a panel of presenters spoke on different aspects of civil legal aid.  Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie talked about the aforementioned BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and many of its findings – including that legal aid agencies turn-away more than 64% of qualified individuals due to lack of funding and that investment in legal aid can yield positive returns from $2 to $5 in areas such as evictions and foreclosure defense.

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Back row: Representative Gerard Cassidy, Representative Claire Cronin, House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary John Fernandes, Representative Ruth Balser

Front row: MetroWest Legal Aid Client, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services Betsy Soule, MBA President Bob Harnais, Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Executive Director of MLAC Lonnie Powers

Massachusetts Bar Association President Bob Harnais followed urging legislators to visit the courts to see for themselves all the unrepresented litigants and the toll this takes on the courts and individuals.  He urged attendees to put themselves in the shoes of the pro se litigants in the video, listening to a judge tell them to do their best, without understanding what is going on around them, while life necessities, such as shelter or protection from abuse hang in the balance.  He lauded the findings of the BBA Task Force Report while pointing out that numbers make only  part of the argument – it is imperative to put a face to the numbers by seeing the courts and individuals in need firsthand.

Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, Betsy Soule, talked about her experiences on the front lines of civil legal aid service.  She described how the 12 lawyers of MetroWest Legal Services attempt to cover 36 towns and more than 45,000 eligible individuals.  She spoke of the tough and borderline-ridiculous decisions they have to make during intake, considering whose serious life problems are worse in doling out the precious commodity of legal assistance.  Weighing things like the potential of an eviction with protecting a victim from domestic abuse – the calculation is impossible.  While they try to offer less-than-full representation where they can, try to engage volunteer lawyers to take cases pro bono, and triage with providers of other services, the needs are still not met, and increased resources are the only route to a solution.

Finally, a client spoke of her experience with civil legal aid.  A legal aid attorney prevented her eviction and worked out a deal with her landlord to extend her lease at a reasonable rate for an additional six months while she awaited the processing and approval of her application for a senior living facility.  She spoke of her gratitude for the services she received and does not know what she would have done without civil legal aid, which prevented a major upheaval in her life.

The briefing was a great event, hopefully the first of many.  The presentations provided a broad range of information about legal aid, from the facts and statistics to the experiences of legal aid attorneys and their clients.  We hope everyone left with the information they need to be able to make the argument for an additional $10 million in funding for the MLAC line-item.

Later that afternoon, we were back at the State House for a couple of meetings.  First we were part of a legal aid coalition that met with Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Karen Spilka, and fiscal policy analyst, Christopher Marino, who handles the MLAC line-item, among a number others.  Senator Spilka listened carefully to each presenter, but was realistic on the budget, explaining that money is extremely tight this year, and that many groups had legitimate and increasing needs.

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MBA President Bob Harnais, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services Betsy Soule, Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Senate Ways & Means Chair Karen Spilka, Executive Director of MLAC Lonnie Powers, MLAC Board MemberRahsaan Hall

Finally, J.D. Smeallie met with House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary John Fernandes and Committee Chief Legal Counsel Gretchen Bennett.  Representative Fernandes has long been a staunch supporter of civil legal aid and a great resource for the BBA’s advocacy on the issue.  He was a member of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and has always provided guidance and creative thinking for our advocacy efforts.  He and J.D. discussed the progress made with last year’s MLAC funding increase of $2 million dollars and the prospects for an even greater increase in this budget cycle.

We thank everyone for the time and efforts they are putting into this issue.  We are confident that Wednesday’s briefing and meetings made a difference and look forward to continuing the conversation with these legislators and staffers and more in the coming weeks.  We will keep you posted on our progress as we push for $27 million in MLAC funding for FY17.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Recovery with Justice: BBA President Visits Mental Health Court

BBA President Lisa Arrowood recently completed her tour of the state’s Specialty Courts with a visit to Mental Health Court.  Since the start of the new year, President Arrowood visited sessions of the Drug Court and Veterans’ Treatment Court , and more recently Homeless Court.  It was nice to see a familiar face, Judge Kathleen Coffey, who runs both the Homeless Court at Pine Street Inn and the Mental Health Court Session at the West Roxbury division of the Boston Municipal Court (BMC).

Mental Health Court began in Massachusetts nearly a decade ago – 2007 in the BMC and 2009 in District Court.  They represent a handful of the 250-or-so mental health courts nationally, which arose out of a recognition that an estimated 70 percent of men and women in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.

The Court is designed for individuals who are competent to stand trial, have disposed of their criminal cases by admission to sufficient facts or a guilty plea, and have been placed on pre-trial or post-disposition probation.  The sessions include a court-imposed condition of probation for defendants who have serious mental illness or co-occurring mental health and alcohol or substance abuse issues.  Working with a mental health clinician from the Boston Medical Center, the probation officer assigned to the Mental Health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant, and creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities.

Mental Health Court participants are usually involved with the program from somewhere between three months and one year.  During that time, the Court monitors progress and compliance with the service plan through regular in-court reviews with the judge, mental health clinician, and probation officer.  In the last nine years, almost 70 people have graduated from these programs, and an additional 32 participants are currently being served.  National studies place recidivism rates for mental health courts in the high teens (17-20%), less than half of the rate for traditional courts.

These are the facts.  In reality, however, the program is far more than the description above.  First of all, Mental Health Court is a misnomer.  It is instead referred to in the courthouse and by all involved staff as the Recovery with Justice (RwJ) Program so as to avoid the negative stigmas that are still sometimes associated with mental health issues.  As Judge Coffey noted to President Arrowood, even drug addiction is less stigmatized than mental illness.  By calling the program RwJ, she hopes to encourage more individuals to participate and stick with the program.  The name is undeniably important: Consider the difference between telling an employer that you need to be late to work for your Recovery with Justice program session rather than Mental Health Court.

Second, the session is largely focused on support and guidance.  Judge Kathleen Coffey takes the lead, and all the individuals involved have embraced their roles to find ways to solve problems for the people in the program.  Judge Coffey and clinicians follow-up on everything from counseling and drug treatment sessions to job training and sober programs.  When one RwJ participant told of a recent relapse, Judge Coffey recognized the slip-up but told the individual she was proud of the progress made since then, explaining that the Court was interested in providing options for success without overburdening the participants.  The words hit home, as the individual turned back after his time with the judge and explained to the courtroom, “See all the people who care about me?  It’s great.”


As Judge Coffey explains, the key is PACE, and no, she doesn’t mean the speed of court proceedings.  In fact, speed is definitely not at issue as the judge and court personnel made sure to spend as much time as needed with every RwJ participant and explained each step they were taking along the way.  PACE stands for “Positive Attitude Changes Everything,” and is a mantra Judge Coffey has adopted for the RwJ  program.  While RwJ provides resources, it still requires the participants to put forth the effort, desire, and work towards the goals they want to achieve.  That all starts with attitude.

For example, one participant who was nearly finished with the program spoke to the judge about how he was now willing to take his medication because he recognized its benefits, wanted to grow-up and improve his life, and the court and clinicians worked with him to shift his dosage amount and schedule to help him avoid the sluggishness side effects during the day.  His reluctance and doubts were replaced with a willingness to try the clinicians’ recommendations and a drive to succeed at least in part because his concerns about the negative medication side effects were heard and addressed.

We are pleased to see that specialty courts are accessible nearly statewide, and that the Trial Court is committed to their expansion and continued improvement.  To help make that a reality, we are advocating in the legislature for more funding for the Trial Court.  The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget (representing what it would cost to merely continue the same level of services from last year) of $654 million.  The Governor’s budget allocated $637 million, which would result in the layoffs of roughly 300 Trial Court employees and have a major negative impact on its ability to deliver justice and ensure the safety of those in court.  Despite being the third co-equal branch of government, funding for the Trial Court has grown only 7.9% from FY08 to FY16, while the overall state budget has increased 43.3% in that same time period.  We urge lawmakers to decrease this gap.

The Court is also highlighting three budget “modules” that the Legislature could opt to fund, including $2.8 million for specialty courts, $4 million for security systems enhancements, and $1.2 million for statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  The specialty court module would fund seven additional court sessions including Court Clinicians from the Department of Mental Health, residential treatment from the Department of Public Health, Probation Officers, and certification and training for all involved.  The state stands to gain so much by investing such a small sum.

We look forward to keeping you updated on the budget process and funding for the judiciary.  We hope that you will get involved and keep an eye out for our legislative alerts in case we need you to raise your voices in support of this cause.  Unlike other causes, the trial court does not have natural advocates, so it is up to lawyers to raise awareness of the need to adequately fund this branch of government.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Equal Justice Coalition Legislative Recognition Reception

The Equal Justice Coalition’s Legislative Recognition Reception annually honors some of the state’s top leaders in civil legal aid advocacy.  The event is a great opportunity to recognize the work of state officials who devote their time and efforts to expanding access to justice.  The awards are hosted by the Equal Justice Coalition, a joint project of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  Founded in 1999, the EJC campaigns for legal aid funding, including through the annual Walk to the Hill lobbying day.

The 2016 Legislative Recognition Reception was held on Wednesday evening at the Grand Staircase in the Massachusetts State House.  The honorees included Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy and Attorney General Maura Healey, who received the Champion of Justice Awards, and Beacon of Justice Award winners, Representatives Claire Cronin, Paul Donato, and Brad Hill, and Senators Harriette Chandler and Karen Spilka.

Not only was the event an opportunity for the Equal Justice Coalition to honor some of its strongest supporters, but it also gave everyone a chance to explain why they support legal aid.  Rich Johnston, chief legal counsel to Attorney General Maura Healey, accepted the award on her behalf.  He spoke glowingly of how she lives and breathes the pursuit of justice every moment of every day, and lauded her unyielding commitment.

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Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Betsy Soule, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services

Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, Karen Spilka spoke of the inspiration she draws from the Jewish traditions of tzedakah, or charity, and tikkun olam, making the world a better place – as well as the Biblical directive, “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.”  That phrase, and those traditions, have guided her service in the Legislature and hold a personal meaning – reminding the Senator, a former social worker, that individuals are all responsible for each other.

Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler received her Beacon of Justice Award from constituent Faye Rachlin, Deputy Director of Community Legal Aid.  Senator Chandler spoke of both the philosophical and practical aspects of her support.  Her career has always focused on helping others, especially those in her community.  The Senator explained that in simplest terms, she is a big supporter of funding for civil legal aid because she refers many constituents to legal aid programs for assistance and recognizes both the utility and necessity of the services they provide.

Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato and Minority Leader Bradford Hill, were also recognized for their long-time support of civil legal aid.  Representative Donato declared civil legal aid a “beacon of light” for those in need.  He drew a personal connection between his role as an advocate for his constituents and the representation civil legal aid attorneys provide for their clients.  He also spoke as a member of the Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which has given him specific insight into the challenges many elders face trying to navigate through the judicial system, challenges that are eased, if not alleviated altogether, by legal representation provided by MLAC organizations.

Representative Hill thanked the attendees for their advocacy.  He noted that, without their work, legislators wouldn’t know about the services legal aid provides or its funding needs, and he stressed that legal aid funding is truly a nonpartisan issue.

The final Beacon of Justice Award was presented to Representative Claire Cronin, House Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.  She thanked the House’s Speaker Robert DeLeo and Chair of Ways and Means Brian Dempsey, saying they were all doing their best to support civil legal aid.  She applauded the work of legal aid attorneys, noting she knows they are not in it for the money, but “the wealth they receive is all the good they do for others.”  She encouraged them to keep working every day because it matters so much.

Finally, retiring Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, received his Champion of Justice Award.  In the audience to show their support were fellow SJC Justices Nan Duffly and Margot Botsford, along with Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  Justice Cordy’s former clerk and Equal Justice Coalition member Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, spoke about Justice Cordy’s long-time support of legal aid, most notably in his time as legal counsel for Governor Bill Weld, and about his devotion to advocating annually at Walk to the Hill.  Justice Cordy described how access to justice had become one of the principal and most challenging issues of our times.  He commended lawyers working for civil legal aid organizations and spoke of his own beginnings in indigent criminal defense, which gave him special insight into the necessity of representation for the poor as the key to accessing justice.

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Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey, and Champion of Justice Honoree, SJC Justice Robert Cordy

In all, it was a great event and we look forward to working with many of the honorees throughout the budget process as we move closer to achieving this year’s goal of an additional $10 million in funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

ABA President Paulette Brown Briefs BBA Council on Initiatives

Earlier this week, we were excited to welcome ABA President Paulette Brown to the BBA.  She first addressed BBA Council and then served as keynote speaker for our event, Making Strides: Retaining and Promoting Diverse Talent.  Read more about that event here.

Brown is the first woman of color to serve as ABA President.  She is a labor and employment partner at Locke Lorde, LLP, in Morristown, NJ, and co-chair of the firm-wide Diversity and Inclusion Committee.  Prior to becoming president, she held a variety of leadership positions within the ABA. She has been a member of the ABA House of Delegates since 1997 and is a former member of the ABA Board of Governors and its Executive Committee as well as the Governance Commission.  She has worked on many committees and events related to diversity and inclusion in the bar and justice system.


The cornerstones of Brown’s presidency are eliminating bias and enhancing diversity and inclusion in the justice system, issues that have long been essential to the BBA’s mission as well.  (To see a timeline of our diversity and inclusion efforts, click here.)  Despite the best efforts of the bar and law firms, law is less diverse than comparable professions, being 88% white.  Brown has been working to develop sustainable action plans to increase diversity and curb implicit bias, including creating legal education programs for judges, district attorneys, and public defenders to increase awareness of these issues.  Under her leadership, the ABA also submitted an amicus brief in the second round of the Fisher v. University of Texas case, arguing, much like the BBA’s own brief, that race-conscious admissions policies in higher-education are necessary to assure a pipeline of diverse candidates to law school and into the legal profession.

The centerpiece of her initiative is the Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission which includes four working groups trying to change the dynamics of the legal profession:

  • Implicit Bias – this group is creating training videos and accompanying training manuals for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders about the existence of implicit bias and what to do about it. The video for judges was recently unveiled, featuring judges, law professors, and implicit bias experts.  Brown is working on spreading the word to national judges’ groups and associations to encourage its usage by the bench federally and in all 50 states.

  • Pipeline Projects – underscoring the “pipeline” argument made in the Fisher case, this group will be examining the larger social picture of diversity throughout the education process as a means of achieving a more diverse bar. It is Co-Chaired by BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts member Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School.  Three subgroups will look separately at K-12 education, college and pre-law preparation, and law school and bar passage.  Brown noted that these subgroups will also examine potential law school pipelines from community colleges and from the military.  They will attempt to identify ways to effectively address the barriers facing diverse students at each juncture.
  • Diversity and Inclusion Guidelines and Implementation – this group will develop model diversity plans for bar associations and recommendations for state and local bars encouraging mandatory CLE courses on diversity and inclusion. The last piece recently took a major step forward at the ABA’s Midyear Meeting in February, when the House of Delegates engrossed Resolution 107, resolving that all states with mandatory CLE programs should modify their rules to include mandatory diversity and inclusion training.  This group will also look at the ABA itself to ensure that the organization is a model nationally for diversity and inclusion procedures and implementation.
  • Economic Case – this group will develop methods for increasing economic opportunities for diverse lawyers through training, mentoring, analysis of legal spending, a review of RFP processes, and other tools. One of its goals is to create a uniform measurement tool by which all law firms can evaluate their efforts towards diversity.  BBA Council member Mark Roellig, MassMutual, serves as a member of this working group.
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We applaud the ABA and President Paulette Brown for all her work on these major issues in today’s practice.  Hopefully, under her leadership, the ABA can develop some solutions to the problem of implicit bias and establish a pipeline of diverse individuals to join, and stay in, the legal profession, so that lawyers can more closely reflect the public they serve.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA Seeks Justice for Vulnerable Youths Through a Two-Pronged Strategy

Sometimes the best approach to advocating on an issue is to pursue change through both the judicial and the legislative process. Illustrative of this strategy is our recent work to benefit Special Immigrant Juveniles (SIJ’s).

Almost four months ago, we last updated you on our amicus brief, arguing that the Probate and Family Court has jurisdiction to make the necessary findings for certain abused, neglected, and abandoned 18-to-21-year-olds to seek status from federal immigration authorities. The SJC took the case, Recinos v. Escobar, sua sponte last November, on an expedited basis, in order to hear the argument of a plaintiff pursuing federal SIJ status as her 21st birthday approached in December.

Since 1990, the federal government has provided for SIJ status to qualified children, defined by federal law as unmarried persons under the age of 21, as a pathway to seek legal permanent resident status. SIJ status requires a finding of abuse, abandonment, or neglect by a specialized state court, and a determination that the child is dependent on the state court, in order to merit SIJ consideration by a federal immigration agency or federal immigration court. However, because the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court generally does not have jurisdiction beyond age 18, some judges felt constrained from making such findings for otherwise-eligible individuals who are 18, 19 or 20. Thus, there exists a small class of individuals in Massachusetts – roughly estimated to be a few dozen in number — who might otherwise qualify for SIJ status, but appeared to be barred from doing so because the Probate and Family Court would not make a finding.

The BBA has been involved with this issue since 2014, when BBA Council voted to endorse a bill that would statutorily extend Probate and Family Court jurisdiction to this discrete group of affected individuals. The BBA’s Immigration Committee was the force behind this action, and current Co-Chairs Iris Gomez and Prasant Desai, along with former Co-Chair Bill Graves, were a great help in vetting the current case. The BBA continues to advocate for the legislation, which is currently before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, entitled An Act Relative to Special Juveniles (S. 740, H. 1418).

The Recinos amicus brief, which we signed onto with a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals, was drafted by former BBA President Mary Ryan along with her team at Nutter, McClennen & Fish, LLP – BBA Business and Commercial Litigation Section Steering Committee member Cynthia Guizzetti and Mara O’Malley. It argued that the Probate and Family Court has equity jurisdiction over youths up to the age of 21 to enter the necessary findings and makes the case that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights supports this sort of equitable remedy. The brief further argued that children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected are “dependent on the court” to make such a finding because they have been mistreated and because such a finding is required to qualify for SIJ status.

On November 5, the SJC heard oral argument on the case. The Justices asked a series of tough questions, raising concerns about the circularity of the dependency argument and the appellant’s reliance on cases in which the Probate and Family Court exercised equity jurisdiction under very different factual circumstances. They also referenced our amicus brief: Justice Hines explains at about the 12-minute mark that she found the brief “extremely helpful” and noted that she felt the brief clarified the dependency issue. The Justices also asked about the pending legislation.

On November 9, the SJC released its order, ruling in line with the brief – that the Probate and Family Court does have equity jurisdiction to decide the case, and remanding to that court for further proceedings on an expedited basis, so that the appellant would have time to apply for SIJ status before aging out of eligibility. Ten days later, the Probate and Family Court made special findings that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, and that Liliana met the standards required by SIJ status.

Last week, the SJC released its full opinion, making clear that Probate and Family Court has equity jurisdiction over youth between the ages of 18 and 21 for the purpose of making the necessary SIJ findings. In the words of the Court,

As a policy, the Commonwealth seeks to protect children from wrongs that result “from the absence, inability, inadequacy or destructive behavior of parents.” G. L. c. 119, § 1. The wrongs from which this policy seeks to protect the Commonwealth’s children are the same as the wrongs that SIJ status attempts to remedy. … According to general principles of equity, if the Probate and Family Court does not exercise jurisdiction over the plaintiff, she, as well as any other immigrant child between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one in the Commonwealth, will have suffered a wrong with no available remedy. Such claims fall within the general principles of equity, and therefore, the Probate and Family Court may, for purposes of the Federal statute, exercise jurisdiction over immigrant children up to the age of twenty-one who claim to have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.

The SJC also made reference to the currently pending legislation, urging its passage in a concurrence written by Justice Robert Cordy and joined by Justice Barbara Lenk, which states,

In my view, it would have been far preferable if the Legislature had, as other State Legislatures have, acted on legislation that would have explicitly provided for expanded State court jurisdiction to address claims like that of the plaintiff. Without such legislation, the court is left to engage in gymnastics of logic and circular reasoning to conclude that the plaintiff is “dependent” on the court solely because she needs the court to declare that she is “dependent” on the court in order to meet one of the requirements of the Federal statute, and in no other respect.

Of course this call to action dovetails nicely with our continued legislative advocacy. We have now advocated before two branches of government on this issue, and while we are pleased with the results from the judiciary, we agree with Justices Cordy and Lenk that a legislative fix is still the best solution. Now that the SJC has ruled, we will be drafting and submitting a letter of support for An Act Relative to Special Juveniles, and hope that the Legislature will recognize the need for enactment of this bill to protect a small class of especially vulnerable individuals. We look forward to keep you updated as the bill moves through the legislative process.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Pro Bono in Your PJs

Wednesday was a big day at the BBA, and potentially for the future of pro bono legal service in Massachusetts.  We were pleased to host a presentation and discussion of the newest innovation in legal service – MassLegalAnswers, an Internet-based virtual help-line, soon to be operating in Massachusetts, that connects those in need of legal help with lawyers.

The concept is simple: in brief, individuals with legal questions who meet certain requirements, such as income limits, can create an account and enter their legal questions into an online database.  Licensed lawyers interested in pro bono work can also create an account where they can log in to the question repository and can select questions to answer.

The site was born out of an online program that started in Tennessee at and is quickly spreading to other states.  The sites have been a huge hit both for clients and lawyers, spawning the catch-phrases “pro bono from home” and “pro bono in your pajamas.”  The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized their effectiveness and is working to spread the site nationally.  Over forty states are currently committed to participating, a number of others are discussing the issue, and a handful have already launched their sites.  The ABA is helping states to adopt similar versions of the Tennessee website, though each state has some options to make tweaks in order to satisfy local ethics rules and to maximize its effectiveness for their populations.  The ABA is also providing malpractice insurance for all lawyers who answer questions through the database.

How it Works

When the database is up and running, a client question queue will form, which lawyers can peruse for cases of interest.  They can also search questions based on urgency and practice area, as well as subscribe to certain practice areas of interest to be alerted of new questions they may be interested in answering.  Once a lawyer selects a question, it is removed from the general pool and enters the lawyer’s private queue.  The questions will be monitored by a site coordinator who will also perform quality control checks of answers provided.

Further details are still being worked out, but generally, the lawyer has a set number of days in which to answer the question before it will be returned to the pool.  The lawyer can provide an answer, and, if necessary, engage in an exchange of questions and answers with the client over the issue, all through the web site.  Either the client or the lawyer has the option of ending the inquiry at any point.  If questions are not answered, they remain in the queue for a set period of time, but may be removed without receiving answers.  This video about Washington’s version of the site provides a good overview of the general operation.

Individual clients are allowed to ask a set number of questions per year, but lawyers can answer as many questions as they are willing to take on.  Lawyers have the option of giving fuller representation if they want to do more, but any additional services are not covered by the website’s malpractice insurance.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) will be in charge of running the site with the help of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP).  They will make sure the technology works as it should, keep an eye on the queue, and recruit both client questions and pro bono volunteers.  MLRI and VLP are currently examining funding and staffing issues, but have plans for both to get the site running, at which point they can re-evaluate staff time and resources.  The beauty of this process is the relatively low startup costs thanks to the ABA providing malpractice insurance and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and Tennessee Bar Association providing free access to their established online program.

Moving Forward

It is clear that the site will offer unprecedented opportunities to both lawyers and low-income individuals.  Other states have cited examples of lawyers who find this sort of pro bono opportunity especially fulfilling and noted the ability of these sites to unlock a new group of lawyers who are interested in providing pro bono service, but may have been hesitant to take on full representation cases.  There are also stories of teams of lawyers answering questions and law school professors using questions as real-life problems for their students to research and solve.

There are still some issues to work out, and program attendees held fruitful discussions on some of them — including whether attorneys answering questions must disclose their names to clients and whether the site could extend to chat or Skype capabilities.  However, there is also plenty of time, as MLRI is targeting the fall for its go-live date.  In the meantime, MLRI and VLP are working on setting up a panel of advisors who can examine the details and work out the kinks to make this site into a reality.

We are excited to see this idea become a reality and will keep you posted on the latest developments.  Hopefully some of you will consider answering questions through MassLegalAnswers Online in the coming months.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association