Volunteer Work Easier With Virtual Law Practice
For an upcoming Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project (LSNTAP) webinar, an executive round table discussion, I’m going to discuss some ideas that legal aid organizations can implement that would make it easier for private practice attorneys to volunteer their services.
As a solo practitioner, I know the main barrier for me is time and convenience. I provide fixed fees so it’s not a question of keeping up with a certain annual number of billable hour requirements. It comes down to these two roadblocks: 1) I may not have the necessary experience in the practice areas that see the most need for pro bono assistance or if I do, I can only provide a portion of the work needed and not full-representation, and 2) in order to initiate the work, my local legal services division wants to refer the prospective client to a physical law office.
I know I’m not alone in having these barriers. Even if you do have a physical law office, you may not have the time to meet face to face with prospective pro bono clients but could still potentially provide useful services to them remotely. So how can legal aid services help us private practitioners to get around these issues so that we can volunteer more?
1) Embrace Unbundled Legal Services
Educating legal aid services and attorneys in all different forms of practice about the benefits of unbundling legal services is a key solution to our country’s access to justice problem. Many of the individuals I come across online who are seeking pro bono assistance are ready and able to do a majority of the footwork themselves. They just need the evaluation, education and guidance from the attorney and then clear instructions for execution of their legal matter.
I know that there are many who are not able to handle any portion of their legal matters and for these individuals, full-service pro bono assistance is necessary. But based on the many individuals who have registered on my virtual law office over the past 4.5 years seeking free advice and help, they would rather take any assistance than either try to do it alone or to just not get help at all. Most of the cases that come through to my virtual law office are individuals who do not quality for legal aid services and cannot afford a traditional attorney’s billable hour fees or they have legal needs that are outside of the scope of the matters that legal aid will handle for their clients.
Legal aid services should be educated about how unbundling works and have a way to refer individuals to attorneys who provide these services. The legal aid office could determine if the case is appropriate for unbundling or if it requires full-service representation. The attorney receiving the referral will also be responsible for making this determination based on his or her practice. The best way to send the prospective client off to an attorney offering these services might be to first council that individual that the attorney the legal aid office is referring him or her to will be providing unbundled assistance and briefly explain what that means. The attorney likewise will have to carefully define the scope of the limited representation. See this Lawyers Mutual risk management handoutwith ideas for safely unbundling legal services.
Remember, unbundled legal services is not just legal document creation, but can include other tasks, such as limited court appearances, preparing exhibits, helping with discovery organization or coaching on strategy for a case. Resources are needed that can quickly educate attorneys how to provide basic unbundled legal services in needed practice areas. Webinars that are practice-area specific would be very useful in educating attorneys who may not feel confident in providing limited scope assistance in certain, needed practice areas that legal aid offices are unable to take on. For example, most legal aid offices will not handle no-contest divorces, but an attorney may be trained in the evaluation and drafting of the necessary documents to provide this service to those clients. The same may be accomplished for certain estate planning documents, such as living wills or health care power of attorney, where there is a need.
2) Forget about the physical office requirement.
When I first contacted my local legal aid office several years ago to volunteer my services through my virtual law office their hesitation was because I could not meet with clients face to face. The other statement I heard was that most of their clients did not have Internet access. Sorry. Just not buying that one anymore. I happen to go downtown to our public library fairly often where there is a huge computer lab as there is in every branch throughout our county. Every one of those computers is filled with folks using the free public access. Even if that service were unavailable, I can’t imagine that anyone does not have a family member or friend these days without Internet access on his or her mobile phone or computer. While access may still be a limitation for some, I’m not convinced it is the majority anymore.
That said, virtual law practice is an ideal way for attorneys to volunteer their services in a manner that does not take too many resources and in a way that can be convenient to the attorney and the client. I recently worked on a case for a client whose physical location is three hours away. I never met with her in-person. She worked the night-shift, and so we were able to complete her legal needs without her having to take time off of work which she could not afford to do as the sole provider of her family. The cost-savings and convenience of using the technology to deliver these services goes both ways to benefit the attorneys and the pro bono clients.
Legal aid offices could ask for attorneys who have secure client portals, regardless of whether they are calling themselves a “virtual law office”. Some of these firms may have a physical law office but want to use the technology for the pro bono work. A referral database could be set up that is state-wide. For matters that require in-person court appearances, the database could be narrowed down by county. Only those individuals whose matter would qualify for unbundling would be referred out. Attorneys could then use their chosen technology to communicate and provide these services pro bono.
In the future it would be awesome if all legal aid offices had a form of A2J where individuals seeking services could go online and have an avatar walk them through their legal concerns and at the end recommend what they might need and if it required an attorney who offered pro bono unbundled legal services, the system would refer them to a list of attorney in their state who provided that. Probono.net has links to state-specific sites where you can find more information about how pro-bono opportunities are made available in your state.
Maybe the integration of a referral database for unbundled services and/or virtual law firm services offering pro bono assistance could be added to each state’s site. I believe in my state the referrals from legal aid are limited strictly to geographic location. However, many of the pro bono clients I’ve worked with online were nowhere near my county of residence. This needs to change.
3) Consider “low bono”.
I’ll be writing more about this topic for National Pro Bono Week in October because it’s something that I provide for some of my clients online. Legal aid offices should consider encouraging attorneys to volunteer who are open to “low bono” work.
For example, maybe the client cannot afford a fixed fee or the billable hour, but what about paying a small fee of $50 a month or whatever they can budget until a smaller balance is paid off. For some of my online clients with families, I will offer payment plans where I break it down into small payments spread out over several months or a year. For an attorney, having the option of doing a combination of pro bono and low bono as it fits in with the budget needs of their law practice, might encourage more private practice attorneys, especially solos, to donate their time.
4) Private practice attorneys should be taking cues
I recently watched a tutorial video from LSNTAP about the “Next General Legal Services Desktop” which is based on iGoogle. The innovative uses of tech that come out of the legal services sector are really something that private practitioners should keep an eye on.
Based on this training webinar, I’ve been brainstorming ways that an attorney could set up iGoogle to create a desktop that was used for providing unbundled, pro bono legal services online with links to court resources, forms and other useful tools, including ways to deliver the final work product to the client online. Security is always the sticking point with these low-cost apps. But if attorneys can find secure applications that are free to low-cost and get the referrals straight from the legal aid offices using similar technology to work with their clients, this might be an alternative to providing pro bono services online and may encourage more volunteers.
Both the private and the non-profit providers of legal services should continue to keep the door open to sharing innovations and progress made for the benefit of the public we both serve. Virtual law practice is one solution to providing pro bono services that needs to be further built upon.
Marc Lauritsen was kind to point out to me the pro bono mentor matching program offered by Illinois Pro Bono. New pro bono volunteers can register to be matched with more experienced volunteers to help guide them through the process of delivering pro bono legal services. The site also provides a detailed search form for narrowing down volunteer opportunities. I’m not licensed in Illinois so I’m not going to register for an account, but it looks like they also provide volunteers with automated HotDocs forms. What more could a pro bono volunteer ask for to get started? Looks like a great model for other states to check out.