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Law Students Get Pro Bono Experience with ABA Free Legal Answers

By Tali K. Albukerk, National Administrator, ABA Free Legal Answers

ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA) is the first and only national online legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal questions to be answered by pro bono attorneys from their jurisdiction. Since its launch in 2016, and increasingly during the pandemic crisis, ABA FLA serves as a valuable and convenient pro bono resource for attorneys, clients and law students as it is entirely virtual and can address many legal questions, both typical and pandemic based, including family, housing, consumer, and employment matters.

In February 2021, ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org (ABA FLA) surpassed 150,000 questions submitted and 9,000 volunteer attorneys registered since launch. To date, 39 jurisdictions, including a federal site addressing immigration and federal veteran matters, are live for client access and an additional six jurisdictions have committed to participate.

As a pro bono opportunity providing legal research and writing experience, ABA FLA has been a popular medium for law schools across the country. For instance, since 2018, the University of Nebraska College of Law has received the ABA Free Legal Answers Pro Bono Leader recognition for its active participation on the site. Under the supervision of clinical associate professor Ryan Sullivan, Nebraska College of Law students assisted in answering 127 total questions in 2020.

“Last year brought challenges that no one expected,” said Professor Sullivan. “Answering questions through the Free Legal Answers Program was one way for the clinic and our students to support our community.” Northwestern Pritzker School of Law utilizes a similar model in which the school’s legal clinic professor works with students on strategies and tips for answering questions, pairs them in Zoom breakout rooms, and then reviews their drafts with them before posting on the answer on her account.

Since July 2020, DePaul College of Law has been matching students with attorney volunteers to answer questions on the site, answering over 200 questions so far. “Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been seeking ways for our law students to help fill the justice gap through remote service opportunities that could be done safely from home,” said Lauren Worsek, Director of the Pro Bono and Community Service Initiative and Assistant Director of Public Interest Law at DePaul University College of Law.

“[ABA FLA is] a great way for our DePaul community to provide remote pro bono legal services on an ongoing basis. Our volunteers love that the program is flexible, provides the opportunity to work on a variety of legal issues, and allows them to help people throughout the state who otherwise would not have access to an attorney,” said Ms. Worsek.

Similar models can be found at University of Arkansas School of Law, University of South Carolina School of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law and at Marquette University Law School in which law students work on answers to questions and collaborate with professors and local attorneys until well-drafted responses are ready to submit back to the client through the supervising attorney’s account.

“Unlike anything we’re doing in the classroom, this is something that gives students exposure to issues they would not see otherwise,” said Kristen Anderson a former University of Tennessee law student who helped coordinate UT’s pro bono efforts.

“This keeps me sane,” Ms. Anderson said. “These issues are very centered and very real. In class, we’re dealing with big picture, federal issues. But this – this is real life. This is what we’ll face in practice every day, and it’s teaching us what to do to get answers for our clients,” said Kristen Anderson, a former University of Tennessee law student who helped coordinate UT’s pro bono efforts, in a 2019 UT online article.

Suffolk University Law has developed a different model, utilizing ABA FLA with law students in the context of legal practice skills courses. At Suffolk, students were split into small groups to research questions posted on the site and drafted responses for their professors outlining their discoveries.

Law school researchers and their students are also using the data collected from submitted questions as a learning experience, including the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School. The Legal Design Lab produced a Digital Legal Needs Analysis based on ABA FLA submitted questions, identifying the types and seasonality of legal problems for advocates to better predict access-to-justice challenges before they occur.

In addition, Stanford is partnering with Baylor Law School to research housing-related questions submitted on ABA FLA to identify which specific problem scenarios are occurring most frequently among the platforms’ users, and also to propose content and automated replies that may be provided to these users for the given scenarios.

“Working on this project allows our students to examine the practical realities of the access to justice gap,” said Stephen Rispoli, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Pro Bono Programs at Baylor Law School.  “Although we discuss the issues in law school, by working on this project students get to learn about the real-life hardships that many Americans face and how a lawyer could help them. At the same time, they get to work on a solution by providing assistance with issues that many Americans face. This work, and other projects like it, are critical to closing the justice gap,” said Dean Rispoli.

Whether utilized by law students to gain hands-on experience in a clinic setting, legal practice skills course or research program, ABA FLA is a unique program that provides students with both a taste of pro bono legal service while in school as well as continued pro bono opportunities after graduation, from wherever they are practicing. For more information on ABA Free Legal Answers and how your law school can participate, please contact me at Tali.Albukerk@americanbar.org.