Texas Legal Answers celebrates its one-year anniversary.
By Adam Faderewski
Texas Legal Answers, a free online legal advice clinic for low-income Texans, celebrated its one-year anniversary on June 1. As part of the State Bar of Texas’ Pro Bono Texas initiative, the program was launched with the goal of increasing access to justice for low-income Texans and removing barriers for attorneys providing pro bono services. As such, qualifying users can post civil legal questions to the site and get legal advice from volunteer pro bono attorneys.
“Running Texas Legal Answers has been an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Hannah Allison, State Bar of Texas Pro Bono Programs administrator. “Our volunteers are amazing, helping so many of our fellow Texans in need with an answer only they can provide while empowering the clients and moving them closer to accessing justice. I look forward to working on how this program can grow and tackling the challenge of recruiting engaged, committed volunteers.”
Texas Legal Answers has 599 volunteer attorneys working on 173 active cases across 26 different categories (as of July 18, 2018). Volunteer attorneys have provided $510,625 in pro bono services and answered 3,663 of 5,382 questions posted, or 68 percent.
“Texas Legal Answers is a simple way to provide legal assistance,” said Ned Dennis, a solo practitioner in Marshall. “I normally log on two or three times a week and review pending questions. I respond to questions where the need is apparent and I feel competent to reply. Sometimes I have to do some legal research to make sure I am providing correct information and advice. Most questions, however, do not require that. Normally, questions do not require more than five minutes to respond to. Some responses result in follow-up questions or more information and thus, more correspondence with the individual involved.”
Texas Legal Answers is part of an American Bar Association project that launched nationwide in 2015. The Texas program had the highest number of questions posted in the nation in June, according to the June 2018 American Bar Association Free Legal Answers report.
George T. “Buck” Lewis, Free Legal Answers program creator and ABA Pro Bono Committee chair, said the inspiration for the program came about during a Tennessee Access to Justice Commission meeting. Lewis said a recurring theme during discussions was that people couldn’t get in touch with attorneys or go to clinics due to their work schedules and personal responsibilities. Lewis said it was noticed around the room that all the attorneys were using mobile phones to stay in contact and that email might be a great way for people needing legal help to reach attorneys.
The program launched in Tennessee in 2010 and was in about half a dozen states by 2015, when the ABA Pro Bono Committee launched the program nationally. According to Tali K. Albukerk, national administrator of ABA Free Legal Answers, 42 jurisdictions are committed to participating in the program. Of those, 38 jurisdictions are participating in the ABA Free Legal Answers program in various stages of access by clients, pro bono attorneys, and/or state administrators.
The number of volunteer lawyers has continued to increase, said Lewis, and many attorneys who have never done pro bono work are volunteering through Free Legal Answers programs. Lewis said the attorney’s ability to answer questions at any time or at any place has made the service more appealing to attorneys who had not participated in pro bono work in the past.
Texas Legal Answers can provide a way to access partnerships, add to summer associate programs, is a great team-building exercise, and provides opportunities for in-house clinics.
“The great thing about Texas Legal Answers is that attorneys can either come together at the same place and time for an e-clinic, work in different locations at the same time, or work in different locations at different times,” said San Antonio Young Lawyers Association Director Michael Ritter, who organized an e-clinic with members of SAYLA and law students from St. Mary’s University School of Law. “The Texas Legal Answers system provides flexibility to implement an e-clinic or a pro bono clinic in a variety of ways.” Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee sponsored the e-clinic, and Summer Moon Coffee provided volunteers with a place to congregate and free coffee and snacks.
“The opportunity to expose students to the process of receiving, researching, and drafting answers to real-life legal questions struck me as a meaningful way to introduce one of the many ways in which lawyers can undertake pro bono practice,” said Gregory Zlotnick, director of pro bono programs at St. Mary’s University. “The site’s emphasis on providing clear, concise responses, free of the dreaded legalese, stood out as an important learning experience.”
Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee also hosted students from Baylor Law School at its Waco office to answer questions on Texas Legal Answers.
The attorneys selected questions from Texas Legal Answers and paired up with law students to answer the questions. The newer students had group discussions with attorneys about how best to answer the questions, while more experienced students drafted answers that were reviewed and discussed with the attorneys, said Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of student affairs and pro bono at Baylor Law School.
Both Rispoli and Zlotnick said that students loved the experience and that they plan on continuing participation in the Texas Legal Answers program. Both agreed that the program has the potential to provide legal services to those in need who cannot afford it and/or cannot make it to a free legal clinic.
“Many low-income individuals who lack access to legal services cannot make it to a physical location at a particular date and time,” Ritter said. “An e-clinic allows lawyers to help people who are limited in transportation or by geography. On the lawyer side, lawyers can answer questions at their leisure, at their own pace, and either with friends and fellow lawyers or by themselves in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.”
In order to qualify for Texas Legal Answers, household income should be less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level and users cannot be incarcerated, may only seek civil advice, and cannot post more than three legal questions per year (follow-up questions with an attorney can be done as many times as the attorney or user chooses). Users only have to submit their name and county.
Volunteer attorneys answering questions are anonymous to users, are offered free malpractice insurance coverage within Texas, and may decide their own time commitment to the program. Texas Legal Answers offers three training videos—instructions on how the site works, limited scope, and using plain language—for volunteers and is planning to add more in the future. For more information on how to volunteer, go to texaslegalanswers.org.
To learn more about hosting a Texas Legal Answers clinic at your law firm or organization or to schedule an MCLE-accredited presentation about Texas Legal Answers for your members or employees, please contact Hannah Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org.TBJ