On May 22, 2020, the Practicing Law Institute held a webinar to discuss how nonprofits can adopt and expand remote models at a time of immense legal need. Organizations that have offered in-person and remote services have been forced to transition completely to remote work.

Legal Information for Families Today’s  (LIFT) Director of Pro Bono Programs, Samantha Ingram, spoke about the shift to remote work as it continues to help pro se litigants self-advocate in New York Family Court. Carolyn Kim, an attorney and Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, (AAAJ) discussed how the organization is expanding its remote capacity. Together, they shared experience-tested tips on streamlining remote legal service.

Before COVID, LIFT did much of its work in person. It helped over 30,000 litigants a year, many through one-on-one in person meetings. Legal advice consultations have moved to the phone and a helpline that already answers 15,000 inquiries a year has become even more central to the nonprofit’s work, as program associates answer calls from their homes.

Both LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have longstanding remote programs. LIFT’s Family Legal Connection facilitates web-based video chats between pro bono attorneys and pro se litigants. The site has fillable court forms that allow attorneys to help their clients by filling them in and allowing clients to download and submit documents themselves. This process enables efficient limited scope representation on a remote basis.

In addition to providing legal support and education to Los Angelenos and using impact litigation and coalition building to advance civil rights, AAJC partners with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), to deliver remote naturalization assistance. It uses Citizenshipworks and other cloud-based services to provide remote legal assistance to immigration applicants, offering eligibility screenings, legal review and application help, provide information and help getting fee waivers and instructions on how to self-file. Citizenshipworks guides candidates through the application through simple questions and answers and flags any answers that require follow up by a pro bono partner.

Barriers to Remote Legal Service

Pro Bono Net’s Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz discussed Pro Bono Net’s remote legal support survey of non-profit legal support and immigration advocate groups. The study found that legal service providers need remote legal services to reach and stay in touch with clients. It found that some of the most common barriers to successful remote legal support were internet access and steady internet workflow. Those living in rural areas that lack internet infrastructure, and those who cannot afford to pay for in-home internet now face new barriers to legal help.

LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have worked to make the internet workflow with remote clients as simple as possible. Some keys to keeping things simple are using built in e-signature functionality and web-platforms that minimize additional downloads. Both organizations have found texting with clients particularly effective to stay in touch and follow up on unfinished legal matters was most effective in maintaining a steady working relationship—applicants and clients who did not answer emails and phone call follow ups were more likely to answer text messages. Kim and Ortiz both made clear that remote legal help platforms work best when organizations provide significant follow up and direct assistance to clients.

LIFT and Advancing Justice-LA have also used texting and phone calls to reach more clients who lack steady internet in their homes. One key challenge is getting clients’ assent to begin a limited scope representation—a legal requirement to begin providing them with legal support. E-signature makes things much simpler: clients can easily agree to limited-scope representation agreements. For clients who can’t get online, LIFT associates and volunteers have mailed and texted those agreements and gotten clients to verbally assent over the phone. Advancing Justice-LA has set up a drop box for local clients who need documents scanned to e-file.

These organizations are facing new challenges to delivering legal services by taking advantage of existing remote capabilities and innovating to meet their clients’ needs. By using cloud technologies, organized case management systems, and a willingness to adapt, LIFT, Advancing Justice-LA and their peer legal nonprofits are rising to the challenges of this crisis.