Frequently Asked Questions for Volunteer Attorneys

What is Legal Answers?

Legal Answers is a secure, confidential website where Illinois residents can ask an attorney for help with a legal issue. Volunteer attorneys respond through the website providing information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation. It’s like a virtual walk-in legal clinic. The purpose of the website is to increase access to advice and information about non-criminal legal matters to those who cannot afford it. There is no fee to use the system.

Who are Legal Answers’ clients?

Legal Answers addresses the ‘connectivity’ problem that many lower-income people face. People living in rural areas often cannot find legal help because there are very few legal aid and pro bono resources in their communities. People living in urban areas may lack transportation or child care, or they may work during the day. Legal Answers lets people get legal help without traveling to a particular place at a set time.

Users are screened and are only able to post questions once they are determined to be eligible for the service. Questions relating to criminal law matters are not allowed. Qualified users are Illinois residents who are earning <250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines who are not incarcerated and have less than $5,000 in total assets. Users must provide their name, county, and zip code in order to request advice.

How does Legal Answers work?

Client Users

Client users who meet the eligibility requirements sign the use agreement, create a username and password, and post a request for legal advice by providing facts about their case. Users will be asked to select a category (such as “housing” or “debt”) that best describes their question. Users can attach files or images to their post. The attorney may ask for additional information before responding to the user’s request, but the user will have a choice to respond to that request or not. Users’ name and county, but no other identifying information will be shared with the volunteer attorney. Once a volunteer attorney posts a response to the user’s post, then the user will receive an email with an instruction to log back in to see the response. Users are informed that there is no guarantee that a question will be answered. If a question is not answered within 30 days, the user will receive an email with instructions to seek elsewhere and a web link to ILAO’s Get Legal Help resource. Users agree to post no more than 3 legal questions per year on 3 different topics. A client user can follow-up with an attorney on each question as many times as the attorney and user choose to do so.

Volunteer Attorney Users

Attorneys who wish to participate must also create a username and password and sign a use agreement. The attorney will need to provide contact information and an ARDC number so that the program manager may check to ensure that the attorney is licensed and in good standing in Illinois. It is important after creating an account that the volunteer attorney clicks on “Manage Subscriptions” tab to identify which legal practice areas the attorney will be answering questions.

How will the volunteer attorney be providing pro bono legal services?

As this is a virtual clinic, the volunteer attorney and client will interact asynchronously (not in real time) via the secure online portal. Once an attorney is logged on to the website, there will be a list of questions that have been posted for volunteer attorneys to answer. These questions can be sorted by a Category that corresponds with the volunteer’s attorney legal knowledge or practice area. Each question will also have a Subject Line in which the client in their own words described the legal problem. The Category and Subject Line functions are tools to help attorneys quickly decide which questions they would like to review and answer. The volunteer attorney will remain anonymous on the site so that clients will only see “Volunteer Attorney” unless the attorney chooses to provide their name. Attorneys should only take questions that they feel qualified to answer.

What happens if the volunteer attorney cannot answer a user’s question?

The volunteer attorney might be unable to answer a user’s question for a number of reasons including a conflict of interest, user’s failure to respond to request for additional information, or the question falls outside of the attorney’s expertise. If the volunteer attorney determines they are unable to answer a question, the attorney can place the question back in the queue so that another volunteer may try to assist the user. If an attorney takes a question and doesn’t respond within 3 days, the question will automatically return to the open questions queue.

If a client user asks or needs more assistance that can be provided online, then the volunteer attorney should refer the client to ILAO’s Get Legal Help for further assistance and resources.

What are the expectations regarding commitment and involvement?

Legal Answers provides a way for attorneys to volunteer their time in the way that best fits their schedule. Volunteer attorneys can choose where and when to log in. Volunteers can choose and pick which questions to answer. Each week, there will be an email reminder about questions that have yet to be answered by any volunteers. This program is a quick, easy way to make an impact for someone who otherwise would not have had access to legal help.

What type of relationship exists between the client and volunteer attorney?

When a client submits a question and receives an answer from a volunteer attorney, an attorney-client relationship is formed. That relationship will be limited in scope and duration. The representation will be limited to providing an answer to the legal question within the secure website and will not involve any continuing representations beyond that answer. There will be no expectations by either the volunteer attorney or the client that the attorney will continue to provide representation in the matter.

How do volunteer attorneys check for conflicts of interest?

Under the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, Legal Answers is a Pro Bono Limited Legal Services program and as such the general rules requiring conflicts of interest searches do not apply. The limited nature of the services significantly reduces the risk of conflicts of interest and the circumstances of the program make it harder to check systematically for conflicts of interest.

The only conflicts of interest that would preclude an attorney from answering a client question is when an attorney knows a conflict of interest exists at the time the attorney is answering a question. This includes when the attorney knows that another attorney within the same firm may be representing one of the interested parties. The client’s name and any opposing party name will be provided to the volunteer attorney so that the attorney can recognize known conflicts of interest. If, based on the information the client provides, the attorney gains actual knowledge of a conflict of interest precluding representation, the question will be returned to the queue to be accepted by another volunteer attorney.

Conflicts created by a volunteer attorney’s limited scope representation through Legal Answers will not be imputed to other members of the volunteer attorney’s firm unless the volunteer attorney knows another attorney in the firm is disqualified. The volunteer attorney’s participation in Legal Answers will also not preclude the attorney’s firm from undertaking or continuing the representation of a client with adverse interests to a client being represented by one of its attorneys under Legal Answers.

For more information, see this video.

What about professional liability insurance coverage?

Volunteer attorneys who provide brief advice and counsel via the website will be covered by professional liability insurance maintained by the American Bar Association (ABA). If an issue of malpractice arises, the ABA can trace each answered question back to the attorney who answered it. The ABA may have to contact attorneys participating in the program from time to time related to this insurance coverage.

What is the policy regarding privacy and confidentiality?

The Legal Answers website is designed to guard client privacy. Only the user’s name, county, and opposing party information (if applicable) is shared with the volunteer attorney. Client requests for information and the response of the volunteer attorney will be maintained in a database for review by the Illinois program manager to measure the effectiveness of this program.

For each visitor to the webpage, the web server automatically recognizes only the user domain name. This is the information that is collected for statistical purposes. Aggregate information is collected on which pages users access or visit on this website. The information collected is used to improve the content of the webpage and is not shared with other organizations for commercial purposes. Information may be disclosed when legally required at the request of government authorities conducting an investigation, to verify or enforce compliance with the policies governing this website and applicable laws, or to protect against misuses or unauthorized use of this website.

With respect to cookies: Two non-personal temporary cookies are sent. These are eliminated when you log out of the site. With respect to ad servers: There is no partnership or special relationship with any ad server company.

Can I accept a case for further representation?

If a volunteer attorney chooses to communicate with a client outside of the Legal Answers website for the purposes of taking the client’s case either on a pro bono or fee basis, the volunteer attorney must contact the Illinois program manager. The program does not provide malpractice insurance for your services beyond the legal advice provided within the Legal Answers website. Also, if a volunteer attorney communicates outside the Legal Answers website, the attorney-client relationship formed online is ended. A new attorney-client relationship is formed when the attorney communicates or provides services outside the website. Legal Answers is not liable for any communication services provided outside of the website.

Volunteer Attorney’s Navigation of the Site 

When an attorney’s account has been approved by the program manager, there will be a notification email. To get started, visit il.freelegalanswers.org and select “Sign In” at the top right side of the screen. After entering the username (which is the email address), the site directs to the webpage with a list of all the questions that have been posted.

Questions are coded by flags. Questions older than 10 days are indicated by a red-outlined flag. Questions 25 days and older are indicated by a solid red flag. Questions not answered within 30 days will be closed and the client user notified.

There are a few different ways to view questions in the queue:

1) A list of all of the questions is the default view;

2) A list of questions 25 days are older can be sorted by clicking on “Importance” under the “Sort” button;

3) A list of questions filtered by legal categories can be sorted by clicking on “Filter.”

4) A list of questions taken by yourself by clicking “Home” on the menu and looking at questions in your personal queue.

Selecting Questions to Answer

It is possible to read the first few lines of each posted question by clicking “Preview.” To see more details, click the subject to be taken to the question detail page. To select a question to answer, click “I want to answer this question” on the bottom of the question detail page. “Answer Now” or “Answer Later.” If the question is not responded to within 3 days, the question will be moved back into the queue. “I want to return this question” returns the question to the full queue.

Once selecting a question, reply to the client by providing an answer in the text box. The reply may include follow-up questions. The client will not know the volunteer’s identity unless the volunteer chooses to provide it. If and when a client responds, the volunteer attorney will receive an email notification prompting logging back into the website to read and possibly respond.

Subscribing to a Category

An attorney may subscribe to a category if they only want to answer certain types of questions. To subscribe to a category (for example, Immigration), click “Manage Subscriptions” at the top of the screen. Scroll down to the Category and click the red circle so that it changes to a check mark. It is possible to unsubscribe at any time.

Contact the Program Manager with Questions

In Illinois, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) serves as the state administrator for Free Legal Answers. For any questions or technical problems, contact PILI’s Managing Attorney Elizabeth Boe at eboe@pili.org or 312-832-5125.