Describing the lunchtime sessions with his Faegre Baker Daniels LLP colleagues gathered around their laptops answering legal questions, attorney Drew Soshnick invoked a youthful phrase. “Pretty cool,” he said.
The events were structured around the virtual ask-a-lawyer clinics run through the Indiana Bar Foundation’s legal answers website. Income-eligible people can log on to their computers, pose a question about a civil legal matter, and then get a response at no charge from an attorney.
Indiana was among the first states to launch a legal answers website in 2012, modeled on the Tennessee program, Online TN Justice. At the time Indiana Legal Answers went live, it was heralded as a way to provide legal assistance to the impoverished, especially in rural areas of the state.
In recent months, the Indiana resource transitioned from being a stand-alone website that the Indiana Bar Foundation operated to becoming a part of the American Bar Association’s online portal, ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org. Currently, the bar foundation is reintroducing the website — indiana.freelegalanswers.org — to attorneys around the state.
Soshnick is hoping the relaunch gains traction around the state. “It reminds people when they have a legal problem, there are resources for them to get counsel even if they can’t afford an attorney,” he said. “It gives people guidance to find the resources to help them get more efficient and effective legal service and make them feel more comfortable about the judicial system.”
During the Faegre clinics, Soshnick, a family law attorney, helped the other volunteering lawyers as they crafted their answers. The questions covered a range of issues but many concentrated on child support, divorce and protective orders. Soshnick compared them to the kinds of questions a client would ask in an initial consultation.
For the submissions that could not be answered with certainty, such as someone asking how a judge will rule in a specific case, the attorneys advised consulting with a lawyer or contacting a legal aid agency.
“The goal was to ensure they didn’t leave the online chat with the feeling they had nowhere else to go,” Soshnick said.
Limited-scope legal advice
With the ABA affiliation comes more behind-the-curtain support, said Marilyn Smith, director of IBF civil justice programs. That includes technical work such as required maintenance of the website, enhanced security and updating software. Also, the ABA has hired a national site administrator to oversee the operation of the online platform and provides malpractice coverage to the attorneys when they offer legal advice through the website.
Private donations were solicited to pay the site administrator and provide the liability insurance. The ABA assumed the financial responsibility so states, free from extra costs, could focus on recruiting volunteers and promoting the site, according to George “Buck” Lewis, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, which is overseeing the online legal answers project.
Since being rolled out in the fall of 2016, the ABA online service is now available in roughly 40 states, including Indiana, Lewis said. The ABA is hoping to bring on the remaining states as well as U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that now want to join.
An unexpected bonus to getting so many states to sign on has been the conversation between the attorneys, trading tips and advice. “I would bet you we’ve made over 50 small changes to the way the site operates just based on what people from around the country said,” Lewis remarked. “It’s made it a better site.”
Smith described the site as offering limited-scope legal advice. It is not designed to provide full representation but to enable a person to connect with an attorney and get information about the law or the judicial process. The intent is to give enough guidance so the individual can take the next step.
For the attorney volunteers, the website gives them the freedom to answer the questions at their convenience wherever they have internet access. They can pick the submissions they want to answer, take time to do whatever research they need and type the response without feeling rushed to move on to the next client.
In 2015, the Indiana website recorded 2,973 questions, according to Smith. The attorney volunteers provided 1,756 answers and reported a total of 635 pro bono hours worked. An unknown number of questions were weeded out because they were ineligible, such as prison inmates asking about criminal law.
Lewis, shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C. in Memphis, Tennessee, was a driving force behind building the Volunteer State’s online legal answers program.
He was part of a coalition from the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Supreme Court that toured the state, listening to problems the residents were having connecting with lawyers. Either they couldn’t afford legal representation or their work and family obligations conflicted with the times of the in-person ask-a-lawyer clinics.
Seeing other attorneys pull out their smartphones in meetings and type email responses to their clients’ questions, Lewis realized the internet could overcome those barriers of time and space.
The IT department at Baker Donelson developed the software for the original site and is continuing the work for the ABA.
Switzerland Circuit Judge Gregory Coy, who serves as the judicial appointee for Legal Volunteers of Southeast Indiana Inc., and Timothy Peterson, plan administrator for Pro Bono Districts D and E in north central Indiana, applauded the website but noted it does have limitations.
Coy believes the bar foundation’s online tool would be a helpful resource for the pro se litigants who appear in his courtroom, but he doesn’t see many using the site. Comfort with computers is not the issue since many of the self-represented are able to maneuver the Indiana Supreme Court website to download the court forms they need.
The reason may be more basic as to why many residents are not logging onto the legal answers website. “Most probably aren’t aware of it,” he said.
Peterson pointed to access. Many older residents in the rural areas do not have computers and the younger people may just have smartphones. In addition, even for those times when clients can download the forms and file the documents themselves, they still want help.
People do need basic answers and the more resources available the better, Peterson said. Still, his office is seeing a rise in mistaken-identity cases that require full representation. And the difficulty of providing pro bono assistance is compounded because few lawyers practice in that part of the state, so many times a conflict prevents the available attorneys from helping.
Smith hopes to bolster the site to get more questions answered. She wants to develop a database of the most common inquiries, which lawyers could then reference as they write their responses. This, she believes, would not only help get the individual feedback quicker but also allow more people to get answers.
Lewis would like to eventually expand the offerings on the site to include an online dispute resolution forum. With this tool, people would be able to mediate their disagreements between themselves. Also, Lewis sees potential for incorporating a legal wellness checkup on the website that would enable individuals to learn where they might possibly need legal help.•