In the Spirit of Giving
For those of you who have heard me speak as I have traveled our great state and for those who have not, I always pause at some moment during my remarks to urge that if you hear nothing else, remember Free Legal Answers. There are many pressing issues facing us lawyers, but none more important than the obligation of every lawyer to serve the public in the interests of justice. Critical to that service is ensuring the public has access to justice.
Yet, the numbers clearly reflect that an overwhelming majority of those most in need have little or no access to a lawyer. The sad fact is that legal aid services, which serve the most vulnerable members of our society, are unable to do so for approximately 86 percent of those folks who meet the poverty guidelines and who would otherwise qualify for free legal services. That is to say nothing about people living above the poverty line but who barely can afford health care, housing, day care, transportation, and so on; they certainly do not have lawyers in their budget.
At the same time, while the need is so great, over the last three years, the number of reported pro bono hours has decreased from 1.7 to 1.5 million hours. Meanwhile, the population of Florida has grown, along with a rise in Florida Bar members to around 106,000 lawyers.
So why Free Legal Answers? I know your time is a precious commodity, as it is for all of us. I also know how difficult and overwhelming it might be to get involved in a protracted, pro bono matter. Free Legal Answers provides a simple and convenient way for all of us to help someone who is not quite as fortunate as us.
Florida Free Legal Answers is located at http://florida.freelegalanswers.org. This easy-to-use website allows Florida lawyers to offer free legal advice to low-income consumers online, 24/7, without leaving their offices or their homes. It is a virtual legal advice clinic that connects lawyers to clients anytime and anyplace.
You start by going to the website and creating a profile, which simply means typing in your name and filling out a couple of bubbles as to practice areas in which you can answer questions, such as landlord/tenant. Once you do so, you will start receiving notifications to any of your “smart” devices — phone, tablet, computer — or even your new fangled watch. Once you get a notification, all you have to do is click on the link provided and it will send you to a question posted by a pre-qualified citizen who needs your help. (The user must have a household income less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, must not be incarcerated, and must not request assistance with criminal law matters, etc.) If you can answer the question — Great! — if not, you say so, and the question goes back into the queue for someone else to answer. Either way, you are helping someone who might otherwise have no access to a lawyer. It is that simple.
The Bar offers this new, convenient online portal in partnership with a nationwide ABA program. This whole process can take as little as a few minutes of your time and you can do so from anywhere.
We know there are a lot of lawyers out there who are below capacity in terms of workload, which is a paradox, because we have members of the public who need lawyers — yet they’re not connecting. The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which was established to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income citizens in Florida, and is chaired by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, is working on technological and other solutions to try to bridge that connectivity gap.
In the meantime, one sure way you can help is with the Florida Free Legal Answers project. Another is the Florida Pro Bono Matters program at www.floridaprobono.org/pb-matters/. Similarly, this program can be accessed 24/7, anywhere and anytime, but significantly it allows a lawyer to access a complete case file posted by legal services.
Whether you choose one of these two easy-to-use sites or any of the many other ways to provide assistance, be a voice for the voiceless. We lawyers are blessed with unique qualities, experience, and expertise. We have a duty to use these talents for the public good. When we see a wrong, we cannot ignore it. We must seek equal justice not just for some, but justice for all. It is not just part of our oath. It is the fundamental principle of who we are and who we must be.
So, thank you for making a difference, and thank you for continuing to make a difference with heart!