California Lawyers Foundation
Foundation Funds Free Legal Answers Program
By Oyango A. Snell
In September 2020, thanks to the support of the California Lawyers Foundation (CLF) and others, a new service was born that has since helped thousands of low-income California residents touched by disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires.
California Free Legal Answers is free for consumers and provided online. It relies on the help of volunteer attorneys to answer legal questions on topics like divorce, custody, housing, eviction, homelessness, consumer rights, finances, work, employment, unemployment, health and disability, civil rights, and education.
II. HOW IT WORKS
The American Bar Association developed the platform. The California Lawyers Association teamed up with Legal Access Alameda to offer the service to low-income California residents in a Northern California pilot program that was later expanded statewide with the partnership of the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative. The partnership was made possible with support from CLF, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the van Lӧben Sels/RembeRock Foundation, and the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation.
The platform screens consumers for financial eligibility, which currently tops out at 400% of the federal poverty line. Most who qualify are at or below 125% of the poverty line ($16,000 annually for an individual), and nearly nine in 10 have incomes below 250% of the poverty line. (For a family of four in 2022, that is $69,375). Consumers then submit their questions for the volunteer lawyers to answer. Reviewing attorneys review the answers first to ensure the consumers receive quality information. This step also allows attorneys to take on questions that might be outside the typical scope of their practice, with some guard rails in place.
From November 2021 to November 2022, the service received 2,615 questions. Volunteer attorneys were able to answer 759, and the others were referred to legal aid organizations, low-cost legal services, court-based programs, and the private bar where appropriate. These targeted referrals ensure that the consumers’ needs are addressed.
All this was accomplished with the assistance of one paid expert from the East Bay Community Law Center, 320 volunteer attorneys, 22 volunteer experts, and 12 student volunteers.
III. PRO BONO MADE EASY
San Francisco family law attorney Christopher Emley is a volunteer expert in the family law arena. Throughout his nearly 55-year legal career, Emley has provided countless hours of pro bono legal advice. But he said none of those experiences has been as convenient and seamless as Free Legal Answers.
Emley appreciates the ability to answer questions by email from the convenience of his home. He’s handled about 45 inquiries over the last 21 months.
“I’m not sitting across the desk from a client, so there’s no time pressure,” he says. “It’s fun. I’m at my computer. I can use my various legal research tools. If I have any questions, it’s all at my fingertips.”
Because of Emley’s extensive experience, he gets to review the more complex family law questions and answers before they reach consumers.
“I really like getting the interesting questions,” he said. “For the lawyers who want to keep their hand in to some degree but don’t want to deal with angry clients or angry opposing counsel, Free Legal Answers is ideal. You can use absolutely all your experience and your best judgment to help people figure out what to do.”
IV. LEARN MORE
With the holiday season upon us, I want to thank all the lawyers who have given their time to help launch this new program and make it successful. I encourage others to consider signing up to help. Your contribution can be done from wherever you choose to spend the holidays. Even a small investment of time can make a big difference to someone and also boost your own spirits. Interested attorneys can learn more and register here.
V. WHY SUPPORT THE CALIFORNIA LAWYERS FOUNDATION?
Formed in 2019, the California Lawyers Foundation is the charitable arm and partner of the California Lawyers Association. Both organizations share a joint mission of promoting excellence, diversity, and inclusion in the legal profession and fairness in the administration of justice and the rule of law.
A foundation grant recently helped a coalition of lawyers and judges launch a public education and engagement campaign to help combat one-sided attacks against judges. The campaign aims to demystify the third branch of government, abate unfair criticism of judges and the judiciary, and reinforce the importance of an impartial judiciary. A foundation grant also helped the Legal Education Access Pipeline (LEAP) expand its efforts to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for law school and legal careers.
Read more about the foundation’s work.
VI. PARTNERING WITH CLF
CLF welcomes donations from individuals, firms, companies, and foundations to help support its growing list of projects. The foundation has a Gift Acceptance Policy with details on how to contribute and the types of gifts accepted. In addition, CLF is interested in potentially co-sponsoring and supporting projects. To that end, the foundation has created a Co-Sponsorship Policy that outlines the requirements. In addition, there are other ways to support the work CLF does. There are numerous ways to participate in the foundation, from Facebook campaigns to Amazon SMILE designations. Visit the CLF website for more information.
Oyango A. Snell is the CEO and Executive Director of the California Lawyers Foundation.