Posts Categorized: legal services

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 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.

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

Walk to the Hill 2016

Walk to the Hill 2016 was a huge success.  More than 600 attorneys packed the State House’s Great Hall and spread throughout the building, telling their legislators about the importance of civil legal aid and explaining the urgent need for an additional $10 million in funding.  This increase would bring total funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (line item 0321-1600) to $27 million, allowing them to greatly expand essential services to the most vulnerable populations.

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BBA President Lisa Arrowood speaking at Walk to the Hill

Our day began with the BBA’s annual pre-walk breakfast where more than fifty young lawyers gathered to prepare their talking points over coffee and donuts.  We were especially excited to welcome a busload of UMass Boston Law School students who helped get the hashtags “I Walk for Justice” and “Walk to the Hill” trending!

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BBA President Lisa Arrowood with Representative Stanley

BBA President Lisa Arrowood met first with her Representative, Thomas Stanley, and then her Senator, Michael Barrett.  Both were interested in learning more about the findings of our Investing in Justice report that for every $1 spent helping fight against wrongful evictions and foreclosures, Massachusetts saves $2.69 in shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement costs.  In addition, every $1 spent on legal aid for survivors of domestic violence results in $2 in medical and mental health care savings, and every $1 spent on legal aid attorneys working to secure federal benefits yields $5 in federal economic benefits to Massachusetts residents.

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BBA President Elect Carol Starkey with Representative Coppinger

BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey also paid a call on her legislators, Representative Edward Coppinger and Senator Mike Rush.  They both noted their support and thanked Carol for spreading the word.

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By 11:00 we were registering and entering the Great Hall with more than 500 of our colleagues.  Equal Justice Coalition Chair John Carroll welcomed everyone to the event and spoke passionately about the importance of legal aid and everyone’s efforts on this day.

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Attorney General Maura Healey was full of high praise, noting that while many think of her office as the “people’s attorney,” legal services are as well.  She applauded them for their work and the legal community for its great showing of support, asking that we all “remember who we are and what we should always aspire to be.”

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Chief Justice Ralph Gants put the funding request into perspective, explaining that $27 million is less than the cost of a single round-trip T-ride for every Massachusetts resident and at less than $4 per person, is below the New York funding rate of $4.30 per resident.  He encouraged attendees to answer legislators who asked how they could afford such an increase with a question of their own, “How can we afford not to?”  He finished, much like a Supreme Judicial Court holding, with a strong closing statement – that supporting legal aid is right, reasonable, and smart.  Read his full remarks here.

IMG_8378MBA President Bob Harnais encouraged legislators to visit the courts to see the effects of the lack of representation – both on the court system and on the pro se litigants themselves, who are confused and overwhelmed.  He recommended attendees invite their legislators to court to offer hard proof of the need for legal aid funding because “seeing is believing” and justice should not be reserved for those who can afford it.

BBA President Lisa Arrowood held up the BBA’s Investing in Justice report and encouraged attendees to spread the word about its contents – making the argument that funding legal aid makes sound business sense for the Commonwealth.  Watch the video above for her full remarks.

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Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) client, Lisa, spoke about how civil legal aid literally offered her son a second chance at life.  When her son was a senior in high school, routine surgery to remove his wisdom teeth resulted in an addiction to pain medication, and a 10-year battle with heroin.  Shortly after he committed himself to methadone treatment, working hard every day to overcome his addiction, he was declared ineligible for MassHealth care coverage because of an administrative change.  Lisa feared that, if he were to miss even one day of treatment, he would suffer withdrawal symptoms and quickly relapse.  GBLS took her case and worked with MassHealth to resolve the issue in short order, taking action Lisa recognizes as the difference between life and death for her son.  Read more about her story here.

Everyone was moved by her story and inspired by all of the speakers to speak with their legislators.  This year’s Walk to the Hill was an unqualified success and a remarkable demonstration of the private bar’s support for access to justice.  Thank you to everyone who participated – we hope that you will continue to be involved throughout the budget process and we look forward to seeing you again at next year’s event!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Near Final State Budget and Innovation in Civil Legal Aid Advocacy

We are pleased to start with some great news.  The FY2016 budget appears to be just about settled as the House and Senate are voting on their Legislative overrides to the Governor’s proposed vetoes (read more about the budget process and all our budget priorities here), and both houses agreed to restore vetoed funding for Prisoner’s Legal Services ($190,504), the Housing Court ($235,527), and the Land Court ($291,470).  All three provide essential services to people in Massachusetts.  At the time of writing, the House had also voted 143-11 to override the Governor’s veto of $3.7 million from the Trial Court’s administrative staffing budget.  We hope the Senate will do the same.

The Land Court Department has statewide jurisdiction over the registration of title to real property and foreclosure and redemption of real estate tax liens.  It also shares jurisdiction over matters arising out of local planning and zoning board decisions.  The Housing Court Department has jurisdiction over civil and criminal actions, including equitable relief, which involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing.  It hears summary process (eviction) cases, small claims cases, and civil actions involving personal injury, property damage, breach of contract, discrimination, and other housing related claims.  It also hears residential housing code enforcement actions.  We are currently advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction, as it now covers less than 70% of the state population.  This can be accomplished through the enactment of S901/H1656, and we hope restoration of this funding demonstrates the value the Legislature sees in Housing Court, and represents a first step towards passage of these expansion bills.

Thank you to all our members who responded to our social media action alert for Prisoner’s Legal Services (PLS)!  PLS provides legal assistance to incarcerated individuals and promotes the safe, humane, and lawful treatment of Massachusetts prisoners through civil rights litigation, administrative advocacy, client counseling, and policy outreach.  It receives well over 2,000 requests for advice or assistance each year and is one of the only organizations of its kind in the state, working to assure prisoner’s rights are upheld – that they get the medical attention they need, their confinement conditions are constitutional, and they are safe from assault.  PLS’s vital legal aid also safeguards prison staff, protects public health, and eases the burden on our courts.

Throughout the budget veto and override process, the additional $2 million received by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), which funds civil legal aid programs across the state, remained untouched.  This substantial increase will help MLAC expand its important work and brings its total funding for FY2016 to $17 million, representing a 15% year-over-year increase, when the overall budget increased by only 3%.  This percentage increase demonstrates a clear commitment from the Legislature and Governor to support civil legal aid while also running a more efficient Commonwealth, thanks to the cost savings provided by civil legal aid as demonstrated in our Investing in Justice task force report.

Even as the FY2016 budget cycle comes to an end, our work never stops.  It is precisely this summer “down time” when we need to redouble our efforts and find new ways to spread our message on civil legal aid.  The need for legal aid is ever increasing, and we constantly see new stories highlighting the need for increased funding for legal services agencies and underscoring the value of the assistance they provide.

With this in mind, we are pleased to report on an innovative new way the private bar is becoming involved.  The idea is law firm breakfasts throughout the year, featuring presentations by members of the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and MLAC on civil legal aid and advocacy.  It is based, at least in part, on the model started at Nutter McClennen & Fish, which holds a breakfast for the entire firm around the time of Walk to the Hill, the annual lobbying event for civil legal aid, to promote the Walk and explain the importance of lawyers advocating for civil legal aid funding.

The breakfasts are being arranged by the EJC with the help of its private bar liaison, Louis Tompros of Wilmer Hale.  After a successful start at his home firm, the group recently paid a morning visit to Holland & Knight, where Ben Stern was host and past BBA President J.D. Smeallie presented to a full boardroom on the findings of the BBA Statewide Task Force on Civil Legal Aid, which he chaired.  The breakfast also included presentations by MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers, EJC Chair John Carroll, of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, and EJC Director Deb Silva.

The speakers talked about the history of legal aid and its funding, the importance of legal services, the budget process, tips for advocacy, and the key role played law firm attorneys, who, as Louis explained,  understand the issues and have the means to do something about it.  The presenters stressed the importance of not only being an engaged voter but also contacting legislators to inform them that their constituents care about legal aid.  Just this small act can go a long way and make a major difference.

Thank you to everyone who helped us advocate for our budget priorities in this budget cycle.  We will continue to keep you updated, and hope that you’ll be ready to answer the call again when the FY2017 budget process begins in January.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

The Public-Private Pairing Behind Civil Legal Aid

As we look forward to the Boston Bar Foundation’s (BBF) popular Passport to Pairings event (for a fun two minute diversion, our Voices of the Bar page asks, “What Is Your Favorite Dynamic Duo?”), it is worth considering legal aid from the same perspective.  In many ways, both monetarily and in service, civil legal representation is a public-private partnership.

We talk all the time about the importance of legal services funding and the findings of our Investing in Justice report.  The report gives the full picture of legal services funding, explaining how a drop in IOLTA, due largely to low interest rates, coincided with a growing number of residents struggling to get by, and the increased complexity of laws and the courts.  All of this combines to place significant limits on access to justice for many individuals facing challenges relating to life necessities, such as shelter or personal safety.  These problems persist despite the combined efforts of the public-private partnership.  The report also proves that additional funding for legal aid results in a positive return on investment, saving the state on back-end costs such as emergency shelter and medical services, while also stimulating the economy by bringing more money into the state through federal benefits.

The Legislature, representing the public aspect of this partnership, has long supported civil legal aid.  On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released its budget proposal.  We were pleased to see increases over the House budget for CPCS ($3 million more) and the Trial Court (about $11 million more – enough to rule out the need for staff reductions) and a slight increase over last year’s funding level for legal services funding ($268,500).  The Senate process continues with floor amendments.  Senator William Brownsberger is sponsoring a $5 million amendment, seeking a total of $20 million, for the MLAC line item (0321-1600) from the Senate.  We strongly urge you to contact your Senator today and ask him or her to vote for the Senator Brownsberger MLAC amendment.  This may be our last chance to make the case for civil legal aid during this budget cycle.

From a funding perspective, both the Legislature and the bar support legal aid.  To start with, attorney registration contains an “opt-out” contribution whereby attorneys donate $50 to support legal aid unless they opt-out.  This alone raises about $1.1 million annually for MA IOLTA.  Some attorney fees also provide modest additions, such as roughly $200,000 for pro hac vice admission of out-of-state attorneys to take cases in Massachusetts.

While the Legislature has generously funded civil legal aid for decades, attorneys also voluntarily contribute millions of dollars.  They give this money to fundraising drives of agencies like Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Community Legal Aid (CLA) as well as to foundations like the BBF and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.

Unfortunately, these foundations historically granted money they received from IOLTA funds.  They continue to do so, but as IOLTA has dropped, so has their funding capabilities.  As a result, the total legal services grants awarded by the BBF have plummeted from just under $2 million in FY2007 to $825,500 in FY2014.  To address this huge shortfall, the BBF increased the amount of its own funds directed to civil legal aid grants by over $100,000 in each of the last several years, to the point that it funded over 46% of its FY14 grants.  Since 2009, the BBF has dedicated over $2.2 million of its own funds to legal services grants.

In addition, the private bar also donates millions of dollars’ worth of pro bono hours.  Under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are expected to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to provide free legal services to those in need.  Very few professions have any comparable standards, and Massachusetts lawyers embrace this role.  We conservatively calculated that in 2013, lawyers in the state provided in excess of 82,000 pro bono hours through four legal aid providers alone, at a value of more than $17.6 million.  This is likely only a fraction of the full amount of pro bono services provided in the state.

As you can see, both sides are doing their part:  The Legislature generously increases MLAC funding each year, even during tough economic times, and the private bar donates its time and money.  Yet there is still a long way to go.  With 58,000 individuals turned away from legal services providers in the last year due to lack of resources, everyone needs to step up.  We applaud the Legislature for the generous monetary support we know they will provide in FY16.  We urge the bar to keep up the great work and to take on one more task – please ask your Senator to vote for Senator William Brownsberger’s $5 million budget amendment in the Senate.  With this public-private partnership, we know civil legal aid can’t lose!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association