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In a Blender: Pro Bono Service, Mentoring, and Legal Tech

Submitted by Teri Ross on Fri, 03/03/2017 - 8:06am

What do you get when you combine a client in need, a website, an attorney, a laptop, and a law student? An ultra-productive opportunity for service, networking, and learning!

In October 2016, Illinois Legal Aid Online launched the Legal Answers’ website (IL.FreeLegalAnswers.org), aiming to increase lower-income Illinois residents access to legal advice and services. The website is a secure, confidential forum where eligible clients create free accounts and post their legal questions. Questions are answered by volunteer attorneys who log in, preview questions in their area of expertise, then select one or more to answer.

Since launching this service demand has been high and last month just over 150 questions were asked by people from across Illinois. Half of those questions relate to family law issues. One of the challenges that ILAO has faced is meeting the demand for answers to clients’ family law questions posted on the website.

Over the past 3 months, lower-income clients have posted 50 (November), 60 (December), then 90 (January) questions in family law alone. Each month, ILAO’s 35 active volunteers have only been able to answer about half of the questions posted, leaving 30 or more clients without timely answers to their legal inquiries. So, to better respond to those clients with unanswered family law questions, ILAO tried something new.

Got a blender?

On Friday, February 24, we collaborated with the DePaul University College of Law for the first-ever in Illinois Legal Answers Pro Bono Clinic Day. All told, 15 lawyers and 25 law students devoted their afternoon to the clinic. The event started with lunch and a one-hour training on how to use the Legal Answers' website, best practices on responding to client questions, resources on IllinoisLegalAid.org, and substantive training on common issues in Illinois family law.

After the training, the participants created pro bono teams consisting of an experienced lawyer and 1-2 law students. For two hours, the attorneys mentored and advised the students in helping to research, draft, and reply to each client’s question.

In 2 hours, the pro bono teams answered 53 questions. The group responded to ALL of the unanswered family law questions and a few housing law questions too!

The event was the perfect blend of pro bono, mentoring, and legal tech.

Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea of DePaul College of Law commented, "Collaboration between DePaul College of Law and Illinois Legal Aid Online was on full display at the Legal Answers Clinic in family and housing law at the law school on Friday, February 24th. Throughout the afternoon, alumni volunteers and students worked in teams to answer questions submitted online from low-income residents in Illinois. Students were mentored, alumni were engaged, and access to justice was served. A win-win all around!"

At the end of the event, students enthused that it had been a fantastic learning experience. First year law student and Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Fellow, Hannah Thayer said, "The event was extremely beneficial because I was able to work hands-on with a practicing attorney to answer real life questions in a field that interests me. This experience allowed me to gain more knowledge of family law, deepening my interest, while also helping others in a time of confusion and need."

It was exciting to witness the collaboration and feel the energy and goodwill in the room. The first clinic was so successful, that DePaul and ILAO will partner again soon. ILAO is also working to create similar partnerships with other law schools. If you are interested in partnering with ILAO on a clinic day, please contact me - Nicole Capretta - at ncapretta@illinoislegalaid.org.

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