Florida Free Legal Answers was social distancing before there was social distancing
In the past three years, Free Legal Answers has logged 11,059 client accounts
As it marks a third anniversary of expanding access to justice, Florida Free Legal Answers can proudly claim a new title — social distancing trailblazer.
Launched May 1, 2017, Free Legal Answers has recruited 882 Florida Bar members to answer questions from low-income Floridians — free of charge, and from the comfort and safety of their homes or workplaces, or any new combination thereof.
“It’s growing,” said Frank Digon-Greer, assistant director of programs at the Bar who administers Free Legal Answers. “We want to do more outreach.”
In the past three years, Free Legal Answers has logged 11,059 client accounts.
The figure represents people who met the original income limit of up to 250% of the federal poverty level and less than $10,000 in assets, or less stringent restrictions following natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Maria and Michael.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted administrators to raise the income restriction to 400% of the federal poverty level, and the asset limit at $500,000, “or essentially, no asset limit,” Digon-Greer said.
Digon-Greer has been able to identify about 23 pandemic-related questions so far, but the figure is expected to rise significantly.
After being vetted for income and asset limits, clients are assigned an online account and encouraged to post their non-criminal legal questions and wait for an answer. Volunteer attorneys are free to log in at their leisure and pick questions from a variety of categories.
The attorneys learn enough about the questioners to avoid conflicts of interest, then post their answers anonymously.
Surveys show the biggest allure for volunteers is being able to perform pro bono work — and receive credit for reporting requirements — when it’s most convenient.
Leah Wiederspahn, a Tallahassee attorney who works for a state agency, has consistently ranked as the leading, or second-most prolific responder, since Free Legal Answers went live. An early riser with a competitive spirit, Wiederspahn logs in daily.
The Florida native earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Florida and her JD at the University of Memphis. She became an early adapter after hearing about the program from friends at the Memphis firm, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, where the Free Legal Answers website was developed for the ABA.
So far, COVID-19 doesn’t appear to have spurred an increase in questions, which tend to be dominated by family law and landlord-tenant issues.
Wiederspahn’s experience matches Digon-Greer’s findings.
“I personally haven’t felt a big increase in the numbers of questions and only a little change in the character of them,” Wiederspahn said. “I would expect that to change in the next months as things tighten up.”
At the three-year mark, Digon-Greer’s analysis shows the questions grouped as follows:
• Family, divorce, custody – 3,577, or 36%.
• Housing, landlord-tenant, eviction, foreclosure – 1,760, or 18%.
• Other – 1,382, or 14%.
• Debts, purchases – 679, or 7%.
• Civil, constitutional rights – 657, or 7%.
Wiederspahn is hoping more Florida lawyers will volunteer to handle the expected rush in the coming months, but she’s worried that the legal community will be facing challenges, too.
“It has hit their bottom line as well and having their office staff home because they are furloughed, laid off, have no child care…lots of reasons,” Wiederspahn said. “Everyone feels this, just everyone.”