Students at Suffolk Law hear a lot about their obligation to provide pro bono services after they graduate, and not just because it’s part of the lawyer’s oath: the American Bar Association estimates that at least 40 percent of low- and moderate-income households face a legal problem each year; in spite of the effort of legal aid organizations, most of those who need assistance get none.

But a new, digital approach to expanding access to free legal advice is taking shape in Massachusetts—and thanks to a partnership with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Suffolk Law’s 1Ls got a hands-on look at the groundbreaking model.

About 300 students took part in an innovative exercise this March. Six Legal Practice Skills classes split into small groups to research questions submitted to Mass Legal Answers Online, a free, online legal advice website for low income Massachusetts residents run by MLRI, with the assistance of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association.

Mass Legal Answers Online is a “virtual” legal advice clinic – eligible clients post their legal questions to www.masslao.org, a secure website, and their questions are answered by volunteer attorneys through the same website. The questions researched by students were modified to protect client confidentiality, but were based on actual problems submitted by the site’s users, Professor Gabe Teninbaum said. Examples include questions about landlord-tenant issues, family  law, and foreclosure law.

Professor Kathy Vinson’s students tackled a question about a landlord’s access to a tenant’s apartment. Students had an hour to review the question, research the related details and draft an email to send professors outlining their discoveries.

“They’re used to having a lot more time to answer questions,” Vinson said. “It’s good to bring the real world into the classroom, so students can get used to researching under time constraints for real clients, and see the impact that their research answers have on the world.”

“We’ve trained students to do great legal research, and now we’re demonstrating how that legal research can be done more efficiently and effectively, using technology,” Teninbaum said.

“It’s also important that they get a healthy perspective on pro bono work, which is an affirmative obligation for every attorney,” he added. “You have to do work for those who can’t afford it — we’re trying to get students in that mode as 1Ls.”

It’s the first time that the new website, launched in November 2016 as part of the American Bar Association’s national Free Legal Answers project, paired up with a law school to conduct such an exercise with law students.

Rochelle Hahn is an attorney who serves as the Co-Director of the Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project at MLRI, which runs the site.

“I think it went really well,” Hahn said of the partnership. “It gave the student researchers a new appreciation for the difficult legal situations faced by our clients and reinforced that lawyers can–and should—use their skills and knowledge to make a real difference in someone’s life.”

The model for the growing service was first started in Tennessee back in 2011, Hahn said. Last year, the ABA launched a national version of the Free Legal Answers website, and is providing participating jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, with free access to the software, technical support and malpractice insurance for the attorney volunteers. Clients have asked Mass Legal Answers Online over 600 questions in less than five months, on topics such as child support, eviction rights, unemployment insurance, and bankruptcy.

Rachel Piccirillo and Tom McCarty were both in Teninbaum’s class, tackling a question submitted about a fallen tree branch. “This was a great way to get experience working on real-life issues and have a meaningful effect on our communities. It was also so rewarding to apply the research skills we’ve been building all year,” Piccirillo said.

Following the exercise, students’ answers were curated by professors, with the best responses sent along to the online service, which incorporated the students’ research into the development of stock answers to frequently asked questions.

Mass Legal Answers Online is continuing to expand its volunteer attorney panel.  Interested attorneys and law students can learn more at www.masslao.org or info@masslao.org In addition to in-kind support from the ABA, Mass Legal Answers Online is supported by the Boston Bar Foundation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

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