Florida’s Free Legal Answers is outperforming most states
Tech savvy and compassionate, Florida lawyers are outperforming most other states when it comes to volunteering for Free Legal Answers, the online legal clinic that is growing increasingly popular.
Since Free Legal Answers went live in May 2017, Florida attorneys have posted an average answer rate of 85%, said Francisco-Javier Digon-Greer, the Bar’s assistant director for programs.
“The national average is 75%,” he said. “We are 10% higher overall, but during the COVID time, March 1, 2020, until November 15, 2020, the [Florida] answer rate was 95%.”
The program is growing more popular in Florida.
Florida Free Legal Answers attracted 523 questions in October, surpassing 500 for the first time and forcing the ABA to reset a national tracking chart, Digon-Greer said.
“The graph on the computer software increased the mark to 600, so the next goal is to break the 600 mark in a month,” Digon-Greer said.
Digon-Greer attributes some of the increase to more generous income restrictions for clients. After the pandemic struck, national program managers raised eligibility to 400% of the federal poverty rate, or $51,040 for an individual, or $104,080 for a family of four.
If Florida exceeds 600 questions per month, it will likely happen in January, Digon-Greer said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on evictions expires December 31, and a “Housing/Landlord Tenant/Eviction Foreclosure” category consistently ranks as one of the most popular.
“Based on the current situation of COVID, I still believe we need to keep it at this level,” he said.
Long before the pandemic shuttered most courthouses to the public and forced tens of thousands of legal proceedings online, Free Legal Answers was demonstrating the convenience of digital practice.
It allows attorneys to log in any time of day or night and answer questions anonymously while earning credit toward their pro bono reporting requirements. Eligible clients post their legal questions — limited to civil matters — and wait for a response. Clients provide enough information to allow attorneys to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Tallahassee government lawyer Leah Wiederspahn, one of the program’s most prolific volunteers, told the Bar News in September that clients are feeling the sting of the pandemic.
“There’s an uptick that I have seen in eviction matters, and misunderstanding about the CARES Act,” she said, referring to the federal aid program that Congress has failed to renew. “Clients want to know what to do now, and do the protections continue?”
Other records are also being shattered, Digon-Greer said. The latest report shows that Free Legal Answers has served 10,017 clients since it went live in Florida, exceeding the 10,000 mark for the first time.
Next week, clients and volunteer attorneys will see some changes to the Free Legal Answers website that are designed to make the experience more user-friendly, Digon-Greer said.
Some states will offer the use of a Google translator that will allow questions to be answered in Spanish. Digon-Greer helped national program managers implement the feature.
However, the Florida site will not offer the translator, Digon-Greer said. Surveys showed that too few lawyers were comfortable using it to dispense legal advice, Digon-Greer said.