By Elsa Reale-Gottfried, Managing Attorney of Community Legal Aid Volunteer Legal Services Program

As legal aid advocates, we never have the resources to provide everyone who can’t afford an attorney with the civil legal assistance they need and deserve. The need is just too deep. A national study conducted by the Legal Services Corporation in 2022 found that low-income Americans did not receive any or enough legal help for 92% of their civil legal problems.

This reality shapes everything we do. We screen cases and create priorities to try to reach those who need us most. Those who gain the greatest benefit from our assistance. Those who probably can’t help themselves.

Yes, this can lead to frustration, stress, and burnout for our team at times.

But it can also fuel innovation, bringing programming to the next level of efficiency, enhancing access, and empowering underserved Ohioans in new ways.  

Community Legal Aid is celebrating one such innovation with the launch of its Virtual Pro Bono Divorce Clinic presented in partnership with Ohio Legal Help. Combining the power of technology with the expertise and commitment of volunteer attorneys, this new platform will more than double the number of clients reached under the current in-person model. The Virtual Pro Bono Divorce Clinic was made possible with a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation.

The Virtual Pro Bono Divorce Clinic will give eligible clients the information and tools they need to move forward with simple divorce proceedings. The model is one part self-help, and one part attorney assistance. Participating clients will have access to an online dashboard designed to collect all the information necessary for the broad array of complicated forms required for a divorce. Rather than just providing the form, the platform prompts clients to provide the information in a user-friendly guided interview that populates the forms accordingly.

To support the client’s self-help activities, specially trained volunteer attorneys from Community Legal Aid’s Volunteer Legal Services Program are on hand to provide information and answer questions. Users can click a comments button to leave questions for the attorney, and all forms are reviewed by the attorney before filing. The model provides an easy way for attorneys to give back while also filling a deep need in the community.

Other innovations of the model include:

  • The online clinic is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Because many low-income clients don’t have consistent access to computers, the format is also designed to be easily used on a cell phone or mobile device. This will help ensure assistance to those clients who never have access to a desktop or laptop computer.
  • To overcome case attrition rates and help clients keep track of all the moving parts, the online clinic implements unique messaging features. Users will receive SMS text messages notifying them when forms are complete and reminding them when items still need attention. The messages are also designed to check in on the progress with filing, final divorce orders and outcomes, and any barriers to success.
  • The Virtual Pro Bono Divorce Clinic will replace, at least in part, the traditional in-person divorce clinic model. Access for both clients and volunteer attorneys will be dramatically increased. Many clients work non-traditional hours or are caregivers, preventing them from attending traditional in-person clinic hours. Likewise, volunteer attorneys have professional and personal commitments of their own. Rather than committing to one certain day and certain time, this platform allows clients and attorneys both to access content any time, and to take as long as they need. Additionally, it removes the transportation barriers many low-income clients experience. Finally, there may be sensitive client situations that call for a quick response and may make meeting with an attorney stressful or scary. It’s believed this model will help ensure better access in these special circumstances.

The vision for the virtual clinic model has been evolving for a long time - indeed, for as long as the legal aid field has been stretching to meet as much need as possible. A clinic focused around simple divorces was a natural first step as assistance with divorce is one of our most frequent requests. Leaders are considering expanding the model to address other substantive civil areas that might lend themselves to the approach. Simple estate planning including wills, powers of attorney, and living wills - is one such possibility.

Attorneys who are interested in learning more about Community Legal Aid’s Volunteer Legal Services Program are encouraged to reach out to us. The organization provides training and tailored support to ensure every volunteer attorney has what they need to help fulfill Community Legal Aid’s mission of transforming the lives of clients through legal advocacy.