With the ongoing pandemic, the need for virtual legal help is still greater than ever. Luckily, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the California Lawyers Association and Legal Access Alameda, present the pro bono virtual legal service California Free Legal Answers. David Chircop, a provisionally Licensed Lawyer, Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative at Legal Access Alameda, and one of the administrators for the California Free Legal Answers. (FLA) Platform shared more information about this new virtual pro bono legal aid service in the following interview.
What does this service offer?
“For the public, it offers virtual pro bono legal services for low- and moderate-income Californians affected by the COVID-19 and wildfire emergencies.
For volunteer attorneys, it offers an opportunity to—at their own convenience—participate in a virtual legal advice clinic, providing meaningful guidance to individuals on the margins who seek legal help for their problems. Because subject-area experts review answers, it allows both new and more-seasoned attorneys to expand their legal knowledge and broaden their experience.”
How does this service work?
“It functions like a drop-in clinic or legal hotline, only more convenient in some respects, because it is not as constrained by time and place. A client can post a question early in the morning before work and a volunteer attorney can answer the question between calls the following afternoon. It is a questions and answers program where clients ask questions about specific legal issues and volunteer attorneys practicing under a limited-scope agreement provide free legal advice and information where possible. All attorney-client communication is carried out within the platform. Clients are screened for eligibility, create a secure FLA account, sign a limited scope agreement and post their question. It is built on the ABA’s Free Legal Answers™ platform and designed to provide client privacy. Information clients post remains confidential, subject to narrow limitations. It is made possible through funding and support from California Lawyers’ Association, California Lawyers Foundation, Legal Access Alameda, Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative (DLAC) and others.
Our volunteers are licensed attorneys in good standing. After completing online training videos and signing a volunteer agreement, attorneys are able to begin responding to requests. At any time, volunteer attorneys can hop on the platform to review and select a question they want to answer. They can start answering right away, or place the question in their personal queue and return when they are able. Volunteers choose only the questions they want to answer. A volunteer can ask a user for clarification or more information before choosing whether to answer. Similarly, the platform allows continuous communication between the attorney and client until the question is closed. Malpractice insurance is provided by the ABA as long as the attorney-client guidance remains within the platform. Volunteers send a draft answer to an FLA administrator who then forwards it to a subject-area expert for additional review and editing if needed. Once the expert response is received, the volunteer makes any appropriate revisions and posts the answer to the client.”
How does one qualify?
“The user must be an adult, meet financial eligibility guidelines, may not be incarcerated, or request legal assistance with a criminal law matter, provide their name and county of residence.”
If an attorney would like to volunteer to staff the service, how would they do this?
“Go to the California FLA attorney registration page to review the requirements, complete the training and create a California FLA attorney account. After qualifications are verified, the attorney can begin answering questions.”
What areas of law does the service provide assistance in?
“Civil legal questions in a variety of areas, including, labor & employment, family law, probate and consumer finance. We do not answer criminal law questions, and generally refer questions on immigration and veteran’s benefits to ABA Federal Free Legal Answers which is intended to address federal legal issues in these specific areas. We occasionally get outlier questions that are difficult to categorize, like a Petition to Establish Fact, Time and Place of Birth, or a question in a highly-specialized area like copyright law. Our volunteers represent a range of legal practice areas. They are in private practice, the public sector, nonprofits and run the career gamut from newly-sworn attorneys to retired government lawyers to Biglaw partners.”
Is there a limit to the number of questions an individual may submit?
“Users are permitted to ask up to five legal questions per year. If a question is not answered after 35 days, it is withdrawn and will not count toward a user’s question count.”
What is the typical turnaround time for getting a response?
“It is difficult to provide an accurate gauge for the typical time it takes to answer a question. Our pool of active volunteers fluctuates and the amount of research, writing and expert review required for any given answer depends on the complexity of the legal issues and facts at play. Our agreement with the ABA requires us to close out unanswered questions within 35 days. Some questions are answered within a few days. Unfortunately, not all questions are answered. When an answer cannot be provided, we try to provide targeted referrals. Users are advised from the get-go that they should continue looking for a lawyer while they wait to see if a volunteer will answer their legal question.”
The interview ended with the following final remarks from David:
“Demand for our services is growing and we need help to keep pace. The pandemic is far from over and the legal fallout from the devastating wildfires will continue to descend for years into the future. Volunteer lawyers can be instrumental in helping individuals and communities recover from the dual crises, helping clients with landlord-tenant problems, employment issues, foreclosure, insurance disputes and many other challenges. California FLA started as a Northern California pilot and grew into a statewide program in May. It holds potential to leverage technology to deliver free legal advice and information where it is needed most.”
Sincerest gratitude to David for sharing knowledge about this amazing service and for putting in the time to answer these questions. We hope that our users will explore the benefits of this service.
Interview conducted by: Michael Van Aken, Library Technician