This blog post was originally posted on LawHelpNY’s blog

Because of the pandemic, people are turning online more than ever to look for information and resources to resolve their legal problems. The newly created COVID-19 resource page has quickly become one of the top accessed pages on LawHelpNY. Chats on LiveHelp have increased by 50% following the state of emergency declared in mid-March.

LawHelpNY is New York’s statewide legal information website providing access to Know Your Rights information, DIY court forms, as well as referral information for over 250 free legal service providers. LiveHelp is a real-time chat feature of LawHelpNY, through which visitors can obtain tailored assistance from a LiveHelp Operator in navigating resources to find the information they need related to the legal issues they’re facing.

Post-chat surveys show that LiveHelpNY operators are helping users find the information they need and more quickly. One user described the LiveHelp operator as very helpful in “providing more info than any other contacts I’ve made about the issue in the previous 2 weeks.”

The volume and types of LiveHelp chats demonstrate that the pandemic is impacting our most vulnerable communities in ways that will have long-lasting effects as courts remain partially closed and as they resume full operations.

“LiveHelp NY is a critical first point of entry for New Yorkers looking for help with pressing legal problems,” said Mark O’Brien, co-founder and Executive Director of Pro Bono Net, which powers LawHelpNY.

Our staff and volunteers quickly mobilized in early March to help connect people across the country to lawyers and legal services,” O’Brien said. “These vulnerable populations are being hit particularly hard by the pandemic and their legal needs are mounting.”

Because low-income individuals often reach out to LiveHelpNY before being connected with a legal service agency, LiveHelp’s experience is an early indicator of particular areas of need.

“LiveHelp gives us insight into the questions people are asking right now,” says Aimee Latorre, LiveHelp Program Coordinator for LawHelpNY at Pro Bono Net. Our content team evaluates the latest questions asked to inform the resources needed for the public which are then added to LawHelpNY’s Covid-19 resource page.

The increase in LiveHelp chats has fluctuated between 40%-75% weekly since New York’s shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March. We have seen a range of Covid-19-related issues. The most common chat topics involve questions about court operations, family law, housing, unemployment and public benefits. We have also seen a variety of systemic problems including decreased access to community services resulting from the pandemic, ensuing stay-at-home recommendations, office closures and general confusion about which services are still available.

Common questions include:

  • Are the courts open and is my case considered essential?
  • What can I do if my landlord is trying to evict me?
  • What options do I have if I lost my job because of COVID-19?
  • How do I manage my custody agreement during stay-at-home orders?
  • I’m stuck home all day with my abuser; how do I get help?

Facing legal issues while experiencing pandemic-related stressors has led to an increased sense of anxiety and urgency by chat users. LiveHelp operators have noticed that chat visitors require more support during these trying times.

“Pre-pandemic, our LiveHelp Operator program included training on cultural competency and responding with empathy. However, now more than ever, we need to slow down our engagement and connect on a human level, before jumping into the legal issues,” said Latorre. This has led to adjustments in training and operator schedules. Latorre created new shifts and added volunteer operators to respond to demand.

Launched in 2000, LawHelpNY connects those living on low incomes to legal information, legal organizations and related services. The New York arm is part of a nationwide LawHelp network, with 25 legal information portals powered by Pro Bono Net.

LiveHelp operators, mostly law students and recent law grads fulfilling pro bono requirements, take chats during regular business days from 9 a.m. ET to 9 p.m. ET. While they don’t give advice, they do help connect chat visitors to legal information, free legal forms and direct-service providers.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the entire LawHelpNY team, Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, and Molly McDonough, former Editor and Publisher of the ABA Journal, for contributing to this post.

About the Author:

Tim Baran is the Technology Innovations Manager at Pro Bono Net. After two decades in the legal profession as a law firm library director, legal technologist, and marketing director, he now engages the community to identify problems and collaboratively build solutions to help close the justice gap and improve access to legal information and affordable legal services.