Pro Bono in a Pandemic
According to the federal Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) 2017 report, Documenting the Justice Gap in America, when low-income Americans sought help at an LSC-funded legal aid office for a civil legal problem, they received inadequate or no legal assistance for 62 to 72 percent of those civil legal problems.
The unmet civil legal needs of low income and vulnerable residents have only increased as the economy has worsened. Regular avenues for obtaining help are out of reach or simply overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Wisconsin has a vibrant pro bono network of programs at the state and local levels. But, like most law firms and courts, these volunteer programs were grounded in face-to-face interaction, so most had to shut down, at least temporarily, to stop the spread of COVID-19. After this pause, many pro bono efforts may look quite different.
Pro bono projects that were already operating on a virtual basis saw no adverse effects from the pandemic. Wisconsin Free Legal Answers (WFLA), for example, has always been an online legal clinic that uses volunteer attorneys to provide brief legal advice to clients through its website.
So far, the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, the Milwaukee Justice Center, the Eviction Defense Project, the Legal Clinic at Madison College, and others have been able to resume some operations by using remote video and teleconferencing services to assist clients.
When the decision was made to reopen as a virtual legal clinic, licenses for new software needed to be purchased, and law students and volunteers needed to be retrained. Clients also needed to be educated about how to use Zoom to participate in the clinic, so a bilingual instruction sheet was created.
Something is undoubtedly lost without personal interactions, but one positive side effect of this shift is that virtual volunteering allows current volunteers to keep helping and lowers barriers to entry for new volunteers.