Florida Free Legal Answers pioneered remote access
Eligible participants register, open an account, post questions about their civil matters, and wait for a response from a volunteer lawyer
Long before Florida lawyers had heard of “COVID-19,” or imagined participating in a Zoom trial, Free Legal Answers was pioneering the remote access frontier.
As the online legal clinic celebrates its fourth anniversary, with more than 900 Florida Bar members serving more than 12,000 low and no-income clients pro bono, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo reflected on the program’s success.
“Helping people in need is what lawyers do,” she said. “Thousands of attorneys have given their time to this important program to answer questions to civil legal matters for people who would not otherwise have access to legal advice.”
Nationally, ABA Free Legal Answers has recruited more than 8,000 volunteer attorneys from partnering states to answer more than 150,000 questions posed by low-income clients.
“It has become an important program for the ABA and our access-to-justice efforts,” Refo said.
And Florida remains a frontrunner in terms of volunteer attorneys recruited and clients served, says Florida Bar Assistant Programs Director Frank Digon-Greer.
But Digon-Greer is still not satisfied.
“Right now, we’re at an 86% answer rate, from the beginning until now, and during the COVID time frame, we were at 94%,” he said. “So that means there’s space to bring on more clients, more users to the website.”
The Free Legal Answers concept is simple. Eligible participants register, open an account, post questions about their civil matters, and wait for a response from a volunteer lawyer.
A temporary increase in eligibility requirements due to the pandemic now allows Floridians earning up to 400% of the federal poverty guidelines to qualify. That translates to individuals making less than $51,040, and a family of four making less than $104,080. Participants must be adults and may not be incarcerated.
Participating attorneys select from questions grouped by subject. Attorneys answer anonymously, but are given enough information about the questioner to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Digon-Greer says two categories always dominate the submissions.
“It’s family law, first, and landlord/tenant second,” he said. “When I say family law, it’s divorces, child support, custody, parental rights, paternity, anything that relates to family. It’s not just divorce.”
Digon-Greer has been creative when it comes to promoting the program, using vehicles big and small.
The ABA reached out for his help securing public service announcement space on electronic billboards along Florida’s major traffic corridors. Digon-Greer arranged the distribution of “Free Legal Answers” bookmarks at public libraries, where many low-income Floridians access the internet.
With the ABA’s help, he engaged State Farm Insurance executives to recruit in-house counsel in Florida corporate offices. He worked with Florida Bar communications staff and Sachs Media of Tallahassee to develop Facebook ads targeting volunteer attorneys and clients.
The biggest allure for attorneys is convenience and freedom of choice, Digon-Greer says. The program allows them to satisfy pro bono reporting requirements, any time of day or night, from any location with internet access.
Tallahassee attorney Bruce A. Minnick, a solo practitioner and prolific Free Legal Answers volunteer, agrees.
“I’ve probably far exceeded what the Bar suggests that we do [for pro bono reporting requirements] but I get a real kick out of it,” he said. “It’s easy for me to answer questions.”
Like many Florida lawyers, Minnick is enjoying the efficiency and convenience of remote legal proceedings during the pandemic.
“Now, I can get to court (via Zoom) without having to get out of my chair,” he said.
But that’s a far cry from performing pro bono service on Free Legal Answers, Minnick says, and it’s an experience he highly recommends.
“Unequivocally,” he said. “It brings you down close to humans. It takes you out of the rarified atmosphere of making money, and brings you down close to the people.”
Minnick is one of seven Florida lawyers who were recognized by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service for answering more than 50 questions in 2020.
The others are Luis E Basagoitia of Orlando; Raymond L. Bass, Jr., of Naples; Eric Buetens of Stuart; Leonid Nerdinsky of Hollywood; Kelly B. Puckett of Treasure Island; and Leah R. Wiederspahn, also of Tallahassee, and consistently one of the state’s top performers.
A new program, ABA Federal Free Legal Answers, allows qualified attorneys from any state to go online and answer questions related to veterans’ issues and immigration. To participate, attorneys must be accredited with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and follow VA accreditation standards and guidelines.
When Free Legal Answers first launched in Florida, Digon-Greer acknowledges, success wasn’t immediately clear.
“I remember at one point I had 200 questions pending to be answered, and I thought, oh no, where am I going with this?” he said. “It took time for attorneys to start getting into it, and to understand the benefits that it provides and how simple it can be to do pro bono work.”