The COVID-19 pandemic has made pro bono services more necessary than ever. People have lost their jobs and homes. Poverty levels are rising. We’re seeing more communities being disenfranchised than ever before. The gap between those who can afford legal help and those who need it is widening. Low-income families need representation to protect their interests. Small businesses and nonprofits, which have been hit hard, need help to access resources.
At the same time, the pandemic has made offering pro bono services more difficult. In-person meetings aren’t ideal, which can make it difficult to connect with clients and get the information you need. Traveling to underserved communities can be problematic.
Much of the work is shifting to the virtual environment, which creates unique challenges for pro bono legal aid. Lawyers searching for opportunities related to disaster relief — COVID-19, droughts, earthquakes, etc.,— can now use the RE:ACT. This centralized database of national cases connects those in need with those who can help.
Underserved communities that need COVID-related legal advice can contact a toll-free national hotline as part of the Disaster Legal Services Program. By coordinating with state bar associations, the program is able to direct low-income citizens to the services they need. Lawyers who wish to help should be sure to check with their local bar association for opportunities.
Ask a Lawyer, a virtual advice clinic, offers another opportunity to provide pro bono legal aid. Users post questions about civil situations. Lawyers can then answer them with basic advice. Answering doesn’t qualify as long-term representation. The users who post questions have to go through a qualification process to ensure that they’re otherwise unable to afford legal assistance.
If you need help in navigating this new virtual legal world, look for training through pro bono resource centers like The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Regional resource centers are also available for guidance. On the flip side, if you’re comfortable with this new normal, consider hosting or teaching webinars that will aid other attorneys in adjusting.
As pandemic restrictions begin to lift, pro bono services will start incorporating in-person meetings and clinics once again. However, virtual pro bono work will remain vital for the most vulnerable.