Grantee Spotlight - Volunteer Phone Hotlines Expand Service to Legal Aid Clients
The profession has memorialized our expectation for pro bono service in Rule 6.1: "Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services per year." NC Rules of Prof'l Conduct Rule 6.1 (2003). Or, as former NCBA President Martin Brinkley put it in his inaugural address, "That work is one of the title deeds to which each of us took delivery when we applied for a license to practice law."
Support for pro bono service has been an important part of NC IOLTA's grant-making from its inception in the mid-1980s. Broadening its support in 1992, the program proactively offered to make grants to volunteer lawyer programs being established across the state based on a per lawyer formula to make sure that volunteer lawyer assistance could be provided state wide. Support for such programs has continued, and, through 2013, NC IOLTA has granted over $10 million to support such programs. Today, lawyers around the state are expanding their pro bono service to legal aid clients through innovative hotline programs that allow them to dispense advice and brief counsel by phone.
Pisgah Legal Services Volunteer Lawyer Program—Pisgah Legal Services (PLS) in Asheville runs an exceptional volunteer lawyer program (VLP). They are able to improve the lives of more than 13,000 low-income people annually with the generous pro bono contributions of volunteer lawyers through the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyers Program (MAVLP). MAVLP is a pro bono referral program made up of more than 300 active private attorneys who volunteer their services to help meet the need for civil law representation of low-income residents of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Polk, Rutherford, and Transylvania Counties. In fact, the VLP accounts for approximately one-fifth of closed cases at Pisgah Legal Services. In 2012 alone, volunteer MAVLP attorneys donated 3,643 professional hours to help PLS clients meet their basic needs, a service modestly valued at $546,460. Recognition has also followed. The NCBA's Chief Justice Award has been bestowed upon the program three times since 1995, and the MAVLP received the Governor's NC Outstanding Volunteer Award in 2003.
In the mid 1980s the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyers Program was formally established as a cooperative effort between Pisgah Legal Services and private attorneys in their six-county service area. IOLTA has provided funds for the program since 1992. They use a team approach, developing groups of private attorneys to handle the most needed types of poverty law cases and offering support, mentoring, and training from the staff attorneys knowledgeable in those substantive areas (e.g. landlord/tenant; benefits, domestic violence, workers’ comp, homeownership/consumer, elder law, and non-profits).
Pisgah Establishes a Hotline—In 1996, Pisgah Legal Services received additional support from IOLTA to establish a legal "hotline" for intake and brief advice, based on one they had seen operating in Virginia. The hotline is staffed by trained attorney volunteers who provide intake and legal advice to clients over the phone. Before participating as a hotline volunteer, an attorney participates in a free nine-hour CLE program reviewing the fundamentals of poverty law. In addition, PLS provides each volunteer with a hotline reference manual. Volunteers sit with mentor volunteer attorneys as they gain confidence in the advice that they give, and their advice is reviewed by PLS staff attorneys afterwards. Some volunteers work from their offices; others prefer to serve at a PLS office.
Ward Hendon, a former trustee and chair of the NC IOLTA Board, was one of the original volunteers for the hotline program. "The hotline attorneys enjoy the work so much that they volunteer a number of years," says Hendon. “We find that many people can prevent or solve serious problems with well-timed advice by attorneys. And, thanks to the increased capacity provided by hotline volunteers, PLS staff attorneys can concentrate their efforts on cases involving extended legal services.”
This group of volunteers is now one of the MAVLP teams. "The hotline volunteers increase substantially the number of people that can be served through the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer Program and Pisgah Legal Services," according to PLS Executive Director Jim Barrett.
Legal Aid of NC Volunteer Lawyer Program—Legal Aid of NC (LANC) is the statewide, federally funded legal aid program in North Carolina. They now administer volunteer lawyer programs statewide using a taskforce that meets to exchange ideas and receive training under the supervision of two experienced VLP coordinators designated as private attorney involvement (PAI) practice group managers. However, they allow each office to manage its own local program to respond to the local bar and circumstances. They employ 12 VLP coordinators who are responsible for recruiting volunteer attorneys, interviewing clients, coordinating and tracking case referrals, closing cases, maintaining VLP records and statistics, coordinating presentations for client and community groups, organizing CLE events, and arranging appropriate recognition for attorneys. Managing attorneys in each office directly supervise the VLP coordinator. In addition to providing pro bono referrals of individual cases to private attorneys, some offices have developed other means of using volunteers to increase legal assistance to low-income clients, such as handling intake and brief advice, staffing clinics to handle particular types of cases, establishing law firm projects, and educating clients.
Legal Aid of NC and Lawyer on the Line—When the economic downturn forced LANC to lay off attorney staff at its Central Intake Unit (the statewide phone intake system established with support from IOLTA), they reorganized its operations as Call4All, a program implemented in partnership with the NC Bar Association Foundation. Intake is now handled by paralegals on staff to pre-screen clients (for eligibility and substantive problem information), and pro bono attorneys are recruited to provide advice and brief service. The NCBA provides recruitment, publicity, and recognition, and the NCBF Endowment has provided funding for one of the staff positions.
Recently renamed "Lawyer on the Line," this program provides an opportunity for private attorneys throughout the state to provide pro bono service to low-income persons by phone. Volunteers with Lawyer on the Line commit to one to four calls per month to Legal Aid screened and eligible clients, conduct one-hour telephone consultations with eligible LANC clients, and provide advice over the phone in a practice area of their choice at a time and location convenient for them. Legal Aid continues to provide malpractice insurance, a mentor, and training to volunteers. Areas of most need are: private landlord/tenant, public and subsidized housing, Medicaid, disability and non-disability issues in Social Security matters, consumer collections, employee rights, custody, guardianship, and simple estates.
The goal of recruiting 500 volunteers for this effort established by Martin Brinkley during his presidency of the NCBA in 2011-12 has been more than met. Over 750 volunteer lawyers (most new to pro bono work) have signed up and provided over 5,500 pro bono hours assisting just under 6,000 clients. Due to the overwhelming success of the program, Lawyer on the Line volunteers currently handle more than 38% of the cases that come in to LANC's Centralized Intake Unit, allowing LANC staff attorneys to spend their time on more complex cases, and significantly increasing the number of cases undertaken each year. LANC Director George Hausen notes, "Lawyer on the Line has allowed LANC to serve thousands of additional families while introducing hundreds of new volunteer lawyers to the importance of, and the satisfaction obtained by, doing pro bono work on behalf of the poor."
To volunteer for hotline or other pro bono service or to donate to legal aid visit ncaccesstojustice.com.