Texas Legal Answers, a free online legal advice clinic for low-income Texans, is celebrating its one-year anniversary on June 1.
As part of the State Bar of Texas’s Pro Bono Texas initiative, the program was launched last year 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. 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,” said Hannah Allison, Texas Legal Answers program manager.
Texas Legal Answers has 570 volunteer attorneys working on 401 active cases across 26 different categories (as of May 23, 2018). Logging of hours is optional, but the attorneys who keep track have logged 1,355 hours, which is worth $271,000 in pro bono services. Volunteer attorneys have answered 2,918 of 4,448 questions posted, or 66 percent.
The Texas Legal Answers program is part of an American Bar Association Project that launched nationwide in 2015.
Buck Lewis, Free Legal Answers program creator and American Bar Association 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 of the commission meetings 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 a half-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, there are currently 42 jurisdictions 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.
There has been “tremendous growth” in the program, Lewis said. The number of volunteer lawyers has continued to increase, and many attorneys who have never done pro bono work are volunteering through Free Legal Answer programs. Lewis said the attorney’s ability to answer questions at anytime or at any place has made the service more appealing to attorneys who had not participated in pro bono work in the past.
“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. The Texas Legal Answers system provides flexibility to implement an e-clinic or a pro bono clinic in a variety of ways,” said San Antonio Young Lawyers Association Director Michael Ritter, who organized an e-clinic with members of the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association and law students from St. Mary’s University School of Law.
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 e-clinic hosted by SAYLA in cooperation with St. Mary’s University School of Law is an example of a partnership created through volunteering for Texas Legal Answers. Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee sponsored the e-clinic, and Summer Moon Coffee provided volunteers with 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. The site’s emphasis on providing clear, concise responses, free of the dreaded legalese, stood out as an important learning experience,” said Gregory Zlotnick, director of pro bono programs for the Center for Legal and Social Justice at St. Mary’s University.
Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee also hosted students from Baylor Law School at their Waco office to answer questions on Texas Legal Answers.
The attorneys selected questions from Texas Legal Answers and paired up with student attorneys 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 couldn’t 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. 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,” Ritter said.
In order to qualify for Texas Legal Answers, household income should be less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, 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 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 at this time and is planning on adding more in the future. For more information on how to volunteer, go to website www.texaslegalanswers.org.
If you would like 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, email@example.com.