How One Legal Aid Clinic Has Gone Virtual

By Katie Buehler | May 10, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

The coronavirus pandemic has presented walk-in legal aid clinics with an existential crisis, but with the assistance of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, one clinic in Dallas is using a new virtual platform to press forward and seeing more attorneys volunteering to help.

Dan Garner

Fawaz Bham

Michelle Alden

The Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, a collaboration between the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, used to hold several weekly clinics at seven locations around the city to help low-income clients with legal issues ranging from divorce and family law matters to wills and employment issues.

But in early March, the program was forced to cancel its clinics through the end of May after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged Texans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people to fight the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Looking for a way to still provide legal aid to those in need, the program turned to Hunton to help move its clinics online.

DVAP Director Michelle Alden told Law360 it took two to three weeks to get the program put together and running smoothly before the inaugural virtual clinic April 16, which served 37 clients. Weekly clinics are now scheduled for Thursdays through the end of May, and they may extend into June and beyond.

"We plan to continue doing these virtual clinics for the foreseeable future," Alden said. "It might be awhile before we can hold clinics as we used to, which would include large groups of people coming together."

Hunton Pro Bono Committee Chair Dan Garner said the firm, which has a long history of aiding DVAP, was eager to help when the program announced the in-person clinics were canceled. Hunton had worked with DVAP in the past to develop a virtual clinic for small-business entrepreneurs, so the firm used that experience to build this project.

"There was no more conduit or pathway for someone to seek legal counsel through DVAP," Garner said. So Fawaz Bham, a Hunton associate who spearheaded the project, reached out looking to help, Garner said.

The virtual clinic's website replicates the form clients would normally fill out with pen and paper and includes a Spanish version. In addition to the form, clients are asked to answer questions about their specific legal issue, financial eligibility and to upload any relevant documents.

Once the client finishes the application, they receive a pop-up message with information about the date and times of the next clinic. Meanwhile, on the back end, the clients' information is aggregated into a spreadsheet so DVAP can quickly know how many clients have signed up for each clinic. DVAP can then share that information with the volunteer attorneys who will be calling the clients.

On the day of the clinic, the volunteers call the clients between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., allowing the attorneys to work around their billable hours. After the call, the attorneys can enter their notes and observations about the client's case electronically, where the information is linked to the client's application.

That way, the pro bono attorney who picks up the case in the future — which is sometimes an attorney who volunteered for the clinic or someone else in the Dallas area — will have all the information in one place.

Bham said the firm made sure to create a system that was accessible not only for Hunton attorneys but for attorneys from other firms.

"Even though it's designed and provided by Hunton, it's meant to be an open form," Bham told Law360. 

DVAP already has opened the clinic to other firms. Since the first virtual clinic, the program has worked with attorneys from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, McGuire Woods LLP, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and Haynes and Boone LLP to hold its weekly clinic, Alden said.

The virtual clinic system is also scalable, Bham said, allowing it to handle and process 1,000 client applications per month. So far, the applicant numbers have increased each week, with the largest clinic so far serving 77 clients.

DVAP would cap its in-person clinics at 45 clients to make sure they each had enough time with the volunteer attorneys, Alden said. While the virtual clinics are attracting large numbers of clients per week, the attendance hasn't quite reached the roughly 100 clients DVAP served some weeks at its multiple in-person clinics.

But those numbers may soon shoot up, Alden said.

The clinic hasn't yet received many pandemic-related cases, which she expects will become more common in the future. For example, Alden believes the clinic will see more eviction cases once the Texas Supreme Court's moratorium on eviction-related proceedings ends May 18.

"Normally after a disaster, people are first working on finding their footing, taking care of their families, figuring out the new normal," Alden said. "And then after that, they'll think about their legal issues a little more."

Along with more potential clients, the virtual clinics are attracting more volunteer attorneys.

Bham said 28 attorneys from Hunton volunteered for the most recent clinic the firm participated in — significantly more than the five to seven that would work the in-person clinics. That number even includes some attorneys from Hunton's Austin office.

Bham said he believes the flexible virtual clinic hours have helped attract more volunteers. It allows them to work with clinic clients and their normal clients throughout the day, compared with carving out time in their schedules for two-hour in-person clinics.

He said he hopes the number of clients served and attorneys volunteering continues to increase.

"We wanted to have them restore their clinic, serve these folks that really need help and really enhance the quality of legal services," Bham said. "Everyone is taking a leap in the technology space during these times in the pandemic. It was time to get the pro bono legal services realm into the next phase as well."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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