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Spotlight on pro bono: Legal Answers

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

Every year, tens of thousands of people in Illinois are forced to resolve their legal issues unassisted. On the one hand, they are unable to afford private legal counsel; on the other hand, they are unable to get help from the overburdened, underfunded legal aid system.

Pro bono is an important solution to this problem. October was national pro bono month, focused on recognizing the impactful contributions of pro bono attorneys and engaging more attorneys to help. Although there are more than 90,000 attorneys registered in Illinois, studies show that 60% or more of lower-income Illinoisans are forced to resolve their legal problems alone. Why the gap? Pro bono opportunities are limited by when, where, what and how they operate:

  • When (time) - attorneys are busy professionals and often do not have availability during business hours to volunteer or are unable to devote large chunks of time during the week to a clinic or help desk

  • Where (place) - pro bono opportunities may involve some in-person service, requiring travel and additional time

  • What (knowledge) - some opportunities require substantial training or some substantive expertise in a specific area of law

  • How (exposure) - the legal profession teaches lawyers to be risk-adverse, so many attorneys worry about exposing their licenses or reputations to danger

Illinois now offers a pro bono opportunity that overcomes these barriers. In April, this column described the new ‘Legal Answers’ program. If you missed it, Legal Answers is a free legal advice service available to lower-income people with civil legal programs in Illinois. Legal Answers is similar to a walk-up advice clinic, where clients can ask pro bono lawyers questions about their legal problems and get answers. However, this is a virtual clinic, in which clients and pro bono attorneys interact asynchronously (not in real time) via a secure online portal instead of face to face.

Here is how Legal Answers is breaking down barriers to pro bono:

  1. It takes mere minutes. The time commitment by each attorney for each client is minimal. Volunteers can choose to answer as many or as few questions as they can handle.

  2. It’s a short term engagement. Legal Answers’ attorneys provide limited scope representation.

  3. It’s virtual, so attorneys can do it in their pajamas. This brief advice pro bono opportunity is done at an attorney’s convenience.

  4. It’s low risk. Volunteers use their substantive expertise in responding to questions, only taking questions they feel qualified to answer. Attorneys remain anonymous unless they choose to provide their name.

The Legal Answers program was first developed in Tennessee in 2011 and is now a part of the legal services delivery system in 19 states. In Illinois, Illinois Legal Aid Online launched the program on October 18 with the support of the Illinois Bar Foundation. ILAO has partnered with the ISBA to mobilize its membership to participate in this new volunteer opportunity. Thus far, 48 attorneys have registered to volunteer; of those, 13 attorneys have advised on 34 legal questions asked by lower-income people with civil legal matters.

Legal Answers needs lawyers from all civil law areas. We know that the highest demand will be in family law, but if you practice in another area, ILAO wants your help! Be the answer for lower-income Illinois residents by helping to meet their needs, one question at a time.

Ready to volunteer? Interested attorneys should create a volunteer attorney account on il.freelegalanswers.org. After creating an account, a welcome email will be sent including links to 3 short online training videos totaling about 30 minutes.

Questions? Contact Nicole Capretta at ncapretta@illinoislegalaid.org.

Posted on November 1, 2016 by Morgan Yingst
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