Spotlight on Pro Bono: The Importance of Virtual Pro Bono Through Illinois Free Legal Answers
By Abigail Causer, Managing Attorney at the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI)
Imagine being without legal guidance when you need it most. Now, imagine being the ray of hope that brightens that darkness- from the comfort of your home. Hosted by the ABA and Administered in Illinois by PILI through the incredible support of the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Illinois Access to Justice grant program, and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, Illinois Free Legal Answers is a secure website where lower income Illinois residents can ask a lawyer for help with a legal issue. Qualified users post questions about civil legal problems, then volunteer lawyers log onto the site - anytime and anywhere you can access the internet - and select questions to answer. It’s a virtual walk-in legal clinic and a great pro bono opportunity that you can engage with over your lunch or in your off hours in sweatpants.
Communications on the website are asynchronous, so you can take the time you need and work at your convenience to draft your answer. Volunteers are covered by the ABA’s malpractice coverage, and there is no ongoing expectation of representation.
While the convenience of this opportunity for both volunteers and users cannot be overstated, it is also incredibly rewarding. Users on the website are frequently individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford to hire an attorney and may not have been eligible for traditional legal aid. We know that individuals are increasingly looking online for answers, and we also know all too well that there is a tremendous amount of bad legal advice online. The personalized one-on-one information provided by volunteer attorneys through Illinois Free Legal Answers empowers them to proceed with accurate legal information and resolve their issue in a system that can frequently be confusing and unforgiving for a Self-Represented Litigant.
The impact on the individuals assisted is immense, demonstrated by just some of the feedback we have received recently. One user said, “They were very fast to respond and thorough with the answer. When I told them I didn't understand they explained it so I could.” Another told us, “It helped alleviate my concerns about a situation! My stress level was an 8 and is now down to a 1 about this. Helped a lot!!”
In 2022, 4,700 questions were asked on Illinois Free Legal Answers, serving nearly the same number of clients (clients are limited to five questions per year). So far this year, clients have already asked 3,400 questions on the platform, and it seems likely that the amount of legal assistance sought this year will exceed last year. Clearly, the need is greater than ever, and your participation can help increase equal access to justice. There are currently over 160 questions waiting to be answered on Illinois Free Legal Answers, so consider signing in and contributing to a more equitable legal landscape today! You will be rewarded with an impactful pro bono experience.
If you are not sure where to start, you can review the attorney registration information, and you can watch this short video on how to answer a question. It is easy to take the first step. However, many of our volunteers have also enjoyed working together to answer questions in a group setting. Consider this our personal invitation to you to do the same with your firm or office! If you would like to host an Illinois Free Legal Answers clinic in your office, we would love to give a short demonstration and then provide support while your office answers questions. If this sounds like an exciting pro bono opportunity for your firm, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, PILI provides ongoing CLE Seminars through our Virtual Pro Bono CLE Series to support our volunteers statewide. This CLE is free in exchange for a small pro bono commitment, such as answering two questions on Illinois Free Legal Answers per hour of CLE. Our December 12 CLE will be hosted in partnership with the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts Access to Justice Division. The topic will be “Basics of Administrative Appeals” to aid volunteer efforts on Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals, the first ever civil appeals “help desk” in Illinois. Find more information, and register for that CLE on PILI’s website.
With the backing of the ABA, the structure of the website, and the support of PILI – this is the perfect bite size pro bono opportunity with the potential for the biggest impact. Be the difference for someone in need today (from your couch)!