Article byPosted Featured AuthorJune 2019
Access to pro bono services in Mississippi has been made a little easier thanks to the State’s participation in the American Bar Association’s online legal advice clinic. Mississippi was one of eight states in the ABA’s pilot program – ABA Free Legal Answers – to offer income-eligible1 participants the ability to receive pro bono legal advice through an online forum. In this virtual pro bono legal clinic, attorneys can anonymously answer civil legal questions online when and where they choose. The online service, administered locally by The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP) and the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, is now available in 35 states. “Free Legal Answers is a no-cost, online version of the walk-in clinic model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer,” said Linda Klein, former ABA President who served when the program first launched in 2016. “It is an important part of the ABA’s efforts to expand access to legal services to low-income communities. With our partner states, the program also provides significant pro bono opportunities for lawyers. It’s a real win-win.”
The website, ms.freelegalanswers.org, allows attorneys to answer the question and close it out or request additional information and keep the question open to be answered later. The site also allows attorneys to track the time they spend on the website for reporting pro bono hours to the Mississippi Bar. In 2011, Tennessee became the first state to launch the online program, using software created by the Baker Donelson firm. All state programs since are based on the Tennessee model. Gayla Sanders, Executive Director of MVLP, said that despite the ease of use the program has been slow to attract users or attorneys to answer questions. The MVLP has been working on some initiatives locally to remedy that. One such initiative was a recent “Clear the Queue” event – the first of its kind in Mississippi – where attorneys from Entergy and Bradley devoted an afternoon to clearing pending questions that had been submitted to the ms.freelegalanswers.org website. In two hours, the participating attorneys cleared the queue, responding to 27 pending legal questions.
“Entergy is always happy to partner with MVLP and firms like Bradley to help the communities we serve,” said Christy Kane, Pro Bono Counsel for Entergy Corporation. “Because of the lawyers’ efforts that day, 27 people across the state of Mississippi got answers to their most pressing legal questions – issues that impact their families’ daily lives. That’s time well-spent! And now those same lawyers have been trained on the website and can help people whenever they have time, from work or home.”
Kane said Entergy has already partnered with law firms in Louisiana on a similar program and has plans to do the same in Texas and Arkansas.
Attorneys fielding the questions are only to provide direct answers, as well as any resources that might assist the user. The attorneys do not provide their contact information, write letters, make phone calls, or file documents for the user. The program answers only civil legal questions, not criminal. Typical questions include family law matters, such as divorce, child support, and custody; bankruptcy issues; consumer issues; employment matters; housing issues; workers compensation; and wills and estate planning.