Trends favoring online pro bono
A 2013 study done by the Pew Research Center indicates that 85% of American adults are internet users and that 70% of American adults have some sort of high-speed internet connection in their home. As of 2013, sixty-four percent of households with incomes between $20-$30,000 have internet accessibility and fifty-four percent of households with incomes between $10-$20,000 had internet access (as of the 2013 study). The Pew study showed a dramatic increase in smart phone ownership just in the two year period between May, 2011 and May, 2013, so these numbers probably underestimate present internet access via smart phone usage as of the spring, 2015.
The trends are clearly in favor of increased internet usage. There is no reason to believe that use of the internet for requesting and receiving legal advice will not continue to grow with every passing year. It is also clear that although limited scope advice, whether provided in a walk-in clinic, a telephone bank, or over the internet, is no substitute for unlimited scope representation, limited scope advice can provide an invaluable tool to low income residents who cannot possibly afford a lawyer.
History of interactive pro bono websites in the U.S.
We know from experience that interactive websites can successfully help thousands of low income citizens. For the last four years, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and Tennessee Bar Association has operated an interactive pro bono website entitled www.ONLINETNJUSTICE.org. On this website, volunteer lawyers sign up to provide pro bono legal answers to low-income families across Tennessee. The site has helped over 8,000 clients since it was launched in 2011. Since 2011, the states of Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and West Virginia have launched similar interactive pro bono websites, using the same software. Those sites have operated under the respective names of www.Alabamalegalanswers.org, www.Indianalegalanswers.org, www.MNlegaladvice.org, www.SClawanswers.org and www.WVonlinelegalhelp.org. Our firm owns the rights to the software and licenses it to responsible organizations for free under a licensing agreement.
Benefits to lawyer volunteers
The experience in Tennessee and in the other states which have launched interactive websites has been that these websites provide a significant benefit to lawyers. Government and corporate lawyers, who have difficulty providing pro bono in the public arena, are able to provide pro bono services online. Senior lawyers who no longer have a traditional practice are grateful to have the opportunity to use their considerable experience for the benefit of low income clients. Lawyers who are disabled or are on family or medical leave or who have taken a break from traditional practice to assume child-rearing responsibilities, are also happy to have the opportunity to continue to use their skills for the benefit of low income clients. Lawyers also like the fact that they can do pro bono any time of the day or night in any location with internet access. On the internet, lawyers can do pro bono while they sit with their children, while in a doctor’s waiting room, an airport gate, or while riding in a car, bus or train. These sites would also provide opportunities for law student/lawyer collaborations.
The experience in all the states which have launched these sites so far has shown that this online pro bono tool is an important part of the mosaic of pro bono services lawyers can render in carrying out the highest ideals of our profession.
Benefits to low-income clients
The benefits to clients are obvious. Clients in rural areas with very few if any lawyers in their area or in urban areas where the clinics are difficult to attend can get access to advice. In Tennessee, for example, we have had many heart-warming stories about clients who have been able to remain in their homes by asserting their statutory and common law rights they learned about online, clients who have struck better compromise arrangements with creditors as a result of understanding their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or federal bankruptcy laws and, of course, clients who have received advice on how to find unlimited scope representation for matters of critical importance such as child custody and conservatorship. Often it is more difficult to create public awareness of a local limited scope clinic than to create public awareness about the existence of a website. Having one web portal allows public awareness to be promoted on a state-wide basis. Of course, a pro bono website is there 24/7/365 for clients – a walk in clinic may not be held but once a month or even once a quarter.
Presently, in addition to Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and West Virginia, we have signed licensing agreements with Arizona, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Montana. Also, the ABA Pro Bono Committee is in the process of exploring the feasibility of a national pro bono website to which all states would have access. If you are interested in launching a site in your state and/or if you would be interested in having your state participate in a national site, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Samantha Sanchez at the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services at email@example.com.
George “Buck” Lewis is a partner at the law firm Baker Donelson and chair of the firm’s Appellate Practice Litigation Group. Mr. Lewis is the past president of the Memphis Bar Foundation, the Tennessee Bar Association, and the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. He’s a recipient of the ABA Presidential Citation for Access to Justice and inaugural Justice Janice Holder Award from Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. Mr. Lewis is a current member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.