The MSBA has long been committed to reducing barriers to the justice system for all Minnesotans. For many years volunteer lawyers have played an important role in helping our state’s neediest seek justice through our civil legal system. Doing pro bono work, however, is changing in the age of Google, Twitter, and the iPhone. Fortunately the MSBA and legal profession are adapting and changing the way we deliver pro bono services. New technologies enable new attorney-client connections and the implementation of new rules has made it easier for our senior lawyers to perform pro bono work after they retire. In short, it has never been easier to volunteer your legal services to those in need.
Expanding through Technology
There are several innovative ways attorneys can perform pro bono work using the latest available technologies. Some programs utilize Skype and web-based systems to reach pro bono clients remotely so the individual attorney doesn’t have to travel to the client’s location. Two notable examples of this are Minnesota Legal Advice Online (MLAO) and Legal Information Online Network (LION).
MLAO allows lawyers to provide online legal advice. Eligible users post a legal question to a private messaging system. Their questions are answered by volunteer attorneys. Lawyers can do this work from any place, day or night. How cool is that? Only the website administrator and the volunteer attorney answering a client’s question can see the client’s name. All information posted is held in strict confidence. MLAO is administered by Legal Services State Support, a project of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, and is funded through a grant from the Legal Services Advisory Committee. Currently MLAO has about 35 lawyers volunteering and they want more. More information about MLAO can be found at www.mnlegaladvice.org.
LION is a special service of Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota (LSNM) for eligible clients who have a legal question that can be addressed through internet legal advice. Eligible clients from 22 counties in northwest Minnesota can post a question on LION. Private attorneys on LSNM’s Judicare Panel or LSNM legal staff review questions and answer them when they can.
These really are revolutionary developments in the delivery of pro bono services. So whether you practice in the Twin Cities or Crookston, Marshall, or Wadena you are no longer confined to doing pro bono work in your home town.
The New Emeritus Lawyer
Another way the bar association is changing our approach to pro bono is by presenting the opportunity to a segment of our membership with more time to devote to providing free legal advice to the poor and underserved. Some of our members have retired or will be retiring in the next several years. I want to encourage these attorneys to consider volunteering as “emeritus” lawyers.
Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted an MSBA petition enabling lawyers on retired status to represent pro bono clients. In the past, retired lawyers could not provide this service without continuing to pay annual registration fees. The court created a new category—“emeritus status”—with the hope that retired lawyers would use their years of experience and training to help represent clients typically served through legal aid. The opportunities to serve range from brief online consultations, to regular in-person clinics, to long-term case representation. Full information on this program can be found on ProjusticeMN at www.projusticemn.org/emeritus. The MSBA’s Pro Bono Development Director, Steve Marchese, is also available to answer questions about obtaining emeritus status, locating free CLE courses, and finding volunteer opportunities. Steve can be reached at (612) 278-6308 or email@example.com.
The problem of domestic violence is not new. Lately it has gotten more public attention with media reports of domestic abuse in the NFL. The availability of legal advice for domestic abuse victims is crucial. For survivors of domestic abuse who are brave enough to stop the violence by seeking an Order for Protection (OFP), not having the help of an attorney can be devastating.
As a profession we know first-hand the effects of domestic violence. We lost two attorneys to domestic violence this past year: Nancy Sullivan and Kelly Phillips. These two tragedies only heighten our obligation as a profession to make sure all domestic abuse survivors have access to an attorney. We should set a goal that by 2016, every victim of domestic abuse will have access to attorney representation in Order of Protection proceedings and free legal advice will be available for those who can’t afford a lawyer. I can’t think of a better way to increase our profession’s commitment to pro bono than assisting victims of domestic violence.
Finally, for the past two years the MSBA has recognized lawyers who contribute at least 50 hours a year of pro bono representation. Earlier this year, the MSBA ran a full-page newspaper ad recognizing 952 attorneys statewide who contributed more than $21.7 million worth of free legal services to individuals in need of critical legal help. We know these numbers do not represent all the free legal work that our lawyers perform each year. Many of you don’t record or report your pro bono activity. Please do so this year. I would like to see more than 1,200 Northstar Lawyers recognized this coming year. I hope the new pro bono opportunities outlined above will make it easier for all our members—young and old—to boost their pro bono efforts in 2014-15. s