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 OnlineTNJustice.org 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.
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