How The ABA Helped Answer Over 200,000 Legal Qs

By Rachel Rippetoe | March 11, 2022, 8:04 PM EST ·

The American Bar Association celebrated a milestone for its web program ABA Free Legal Answers in 2022.

David F. Bienvenu

The site, which launched in 2016 and enlists volunteer attorneys to answer civil legal questions posed by lower-income users, surpassed 200,000 total questions in January.

To learn about what the program is doing to help close the justice gap, Law360 caught up with David F. Bienvenu, a partner at Simon Peragine Smith & Redfearn LLP in New Orleans and the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, which oversees ABA Free Legal Answers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

What does it mean to get to 200,000 legal questions? Where is that in terms of your goals when you started this program?

When Free Legal Answers was created, the software was developed at Baker Donelson in Nashville, and they did it initially with the Tennessee bar. And so it was successful there. Then they brought it to the ABA, and the standing committee on pro bono/public service partnered with Baker Donelson to make ABA Free Legal Answers available. And it took a lot of really diligent effort by George Lewis at Baker Donelson, who was my predecessor on the committee, to expand it and get states to start using the platform and to sign on.

We have about 45 states now that have committed to do it, some more active than others. In each state, there is a state administrator — in other words, someone in charge, usually at the state bar, but doesn't have to be the state bar. So I think the higher priority initially was to get as many states as possible to see the benefits of it and to embrace it. It doesn't cost the states anything. It's not licensed to them for money. They are responsible for administering it within their state. But, for example, the ABA carries legal malpractice [coverage] for lawyers answering questions on Free Legal Answers.

The number of questions obviously continues to increase. It can fluctuate. I think if you look at our last report, you'll see that the pandemic certainly raised the need. That we got over 200,000 questions submitted by this January was kind of a big milestone because between when we started in 2016 and March of 2020, we had gotten 100,000 questions. And then less than two years later, that number has doubled. There's no goal, like, we hope to get to 500,000 questions or anything like that. But we've continued to see more and more people use the service. And that's a good thing: It tells us it's successful, it's working to the satisfaction of those in need and those who are providing the services.

How do the free answers work?

Questions are posed by the user, the client, who has to meet certain income eligibility requirements to use it. And then a volunteer lawyer goes to the site, and he chooses questions that are up on the site, and will answer the question, or put the question back if he or she is unable to answer or doesn't get to it or whatever. It's a great opportunity for a lawyer who might be sitting in their office and realizing, you know, I'm staring out of the window daydreaming when I could go pick up on these questions and help somebody.

How has it been getting attorneys to volunteer? And how do you keep them going once they've signed up?

You have a certain segment of the profession that just has a natural bent toward volunteerism. And there are some attorneys that have answered dozens and dozens of questions over the years. And we try to recognize those attorneys. We have a sort of honor roll where we recognize attorneys that answered 50 questions in a year or 20 questions. We haven't been disappointed in the reaction of the volunteer attorneys.

What does a program like this do to help close the access to justice gap?

There's not enough money in this country dedicated to legal services, to employ enough lawyers to do the work to cover all the need. So you have that coupled with pro bono, volunteer lawyers, and still, roughly 80% of the legal needs of the poor are unmet. Every year, for the ABA, we go to Washington, we meet with our congressional delegations trying to protect funding for legal services, but you've still got that unmet legal need. So Free Legal Answers is a great opportunity to help address that. You get lawyers in the habit of doing pro bono work and make it as attractive and as painless as possible.

I don't want it to sound like I'm promoting that lawyers should only do pro bono when it's convenient for them, because that is not why Free Legal Answers was created, but it does help us reach a larger group of lawyers.

Can you talk a little more about how the pandemic impacted the program?

Number one, you had people who couldn't even get the legal service officers in the first place. Number two, you have more people who will have an eviction crisis. There were a lot of questions coming out of that, people facing homelessness. People didn't have jobs, and people couldn't pay the rent, and it was just this huge thing. We've seen an increase in traffic on most things, the highest obviously being family law and child matters.

I saw that the 2022 report showed the majority of questions were about family law or housing. When you look at those statistics, what does it say about the populations you've been able to reach with this?

I mean, these questions are about having a roof over your head in a safe place, and being able to find a way to feed your family and get them adequate medical care when they need it. Those are the basic, frontline needs of everybody. People who are not in the system of employer-provided insurance and don't make enough money, it's virtually impossible for people like that to find a lawyer to help them. So that's the space we're looking at. And a lot of states upped the eligibility. So in other words, what income they considered to be eligible for services under the site was raised. And some states have kept that increased eligibility number; they have not brought it back down since they raised it.

There's all sorts of challenges to people accessing services. There are those people that have to wait to get a bus to go to work at the crack of dawn, and don't get off in time, and they can't get off to go to an appointment. All of those things that make it harder and harder. So any technology that helps address that, it's a positive thing. You can access Free Legal Answers as long as you can access the internet. And actually, there's a lot of people that access the internet for Free Legal Answers going through public libraries.

The report also showed that states like Tennessee and Florida had the most attorneys sign up to help. What does it mean that Southern states saw the most activity?

We have somebody at Stanford who does the data study and collection for us. And I don't know whether there's been an analysis to determine whether it's just a higher poverty population, and that's why we're getting more, or whether it's a more active bar association program. But that, to me, demonstrates that particular bar's commitment. Also, Florida has one of the highest numbers of lawyers in the country.

It took us a long time to get up and running in California. That took a lot of work to develop, because it's so big, and there's so many regions within it. I mean, things like this take time, but people seem to embrace it and find that it's useful to them and helpful for them.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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