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Spotlight on Pro Bono: Legal Answers program delivers help to those who need it

By Teri Ross, Program Director / Attorney, Illinois Legal Aid Online

The legal system is scary, confusing, and nearly impossible to navigate without an attorney. Yet every year millions of people in Illinois face serious legal problems on their own because they can't afford to hire a lawyer. In some rural counties of the state, there are only a handful of attorneys, and no legal aid lawyers, which compounds the problem and makes it less likely that people will be able to solve their legal problems.

Enter the ‘Legal Answers’ program. Legal Answers uses technology to help people with civil legal problems to overcome barriers presented by geography and scarcity of local legal resources. It offers a way for lawyers to virtually lend their expertise to people in need, on a question-by-question basis. It allows for lower-income people to consult with an attorney on a limited scope basis when they would otherwise have no access to counsel.

The Legal Answers program was first developed in Tennessee in 2011 and has already been replicated in 6 other states - Indiana, Minnesota, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and West Virginia. In each state, the program leverages pro bono lawyers and technology to deliver critical legal advice to people who can't afford or access a lawyer. It is ideal for a state like Illinois, where lawyers are concentrated in a few counties of a mostly rural state. In 2015, the American Bar Association (ABA) adopted Tennessee’s model and is now promoting a cloud-based version of the software, which will be shared at no cost with entities in all 50 states that wish to launch this program. The ABA will provide malpractice insurance for pro bono attorneys who participate in the program.

In Illinois, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) hopes to launch this program in the fall of 2016. The service will help lower-income Illinoisans who can’t obtain free legal aid, but need legal advice. It is similar to a walk-up advice clinic, where clients can ask pro bono lawyers questions about their legal problems and get answers and advice. However, this is a virtual clinic, in which clients and pro bono lawyers interact asynchronously (not in real time) via a secure online portal instead of face to face.

How does it work? Upon logging on to the portal, users submit a legal question to be answered by a volunteer lawyer. The question is added to a queue of questions that are reviewed by a program manager to make sure they relate to a civil legal matter, and are then electronically distributed to volunteer attorneys with substantive expertise in the area of law in which the question was asked. Attorneys log on to the portal to view questions and answer the questions they choose.

On the attorney side, this service will increase pro bono participation by lawyers who have limited time. Volunteer attorneys will be able to provide specific limited-scope services on their own time from wherever they can access the internet. The online nature of the program increases the appeal and accessibility of pro bono by removing common barriers to participation like time and location. States that have already implemented the program report that it has engaged many new volunteers who previously were unable to fit pro bono into their schedules. ILAO plans to partner with the Illinois Bar Foundation and the ISBA to mobilize its membership to participate in this new volunteer opportunity.

Stay tuned for the launch of this exciting service in the fall. For more information, contact Teri Ross at tross@illinoislegalaid.org.

Posted on April 25, 2016 by Chris Bonjean