Frequently Asked Questions from Volunteer Attorneys

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Who is the site administrator?

Juliet Holmes-Smith of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project administers Free Legal Answers ME. Contact Juliet by email at jholmes-smith@vlp.org  or by phone at 207-523-8233 with questions about using the site.

How does  Free Legal Answers ME work?

Free Legal Answers ME is based on the walk-in clinic or dial-a-lawyer model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer. Lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation.

Users who meet eligibility (see Eligibility below) sign the use agreement, create a password, post a request for legal advice information and provide facts about their case that will help the lawyer answer the question. Users will be asked to select a category (such as "housing" or "debt") that best describes their question.

What are volunteer attorneys expected to do?

Volunteer attorneys are encouraged to:

  • Engage in a dialogue with user concerning their problem so that the attorney can determine if the matter involves an actual legal issue,
  • Inform the user about the appropriate state and/or federal law that applies to their situation,
  • Suggest options regarding how the user may proceed with the matter,
  • If applicable, provide them with legal forms or other documents that can assist them by attaching them to the response, and
  • Direct uses to other resources by providing links to websites and phone numbers of other organizations/services where they might receive additional assistance - those can be found right on the site at: http://maine.freelegalanswers.org/OtherHelp

The lawyer 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. The users' name and county, but no other identifying information will be shared with the volunteer lawyer unless the user includes it in their question narrative. Users are informed that there is no guarantee that a question will be answered. If a question is not answered within 35 days, the user will receive an email from the website administrator instructing them to seek assistance elsewhere. The user will also be provided with a list of additional resources.

Lawyers who would like to participate must create a password, provide contact information and their Bar number, sign the lawyer use agreement and request approval from the website administrator. Before the lawyer's account is activated, the website administrator checks to ensure the lawyer is licensed in Maine and is in good standing with the Maine Board of Bar Oveerseers. Once a lawyer has been approved by the website administrator, the lawyer receives an email notification and can begin answering user questions.

Lawyers may log in at any time to review a list of user questions and select the one(s) they want to answer. Lawyers will use the categories provided by the user (such as "housing" or "debt") to help determine which questions they would like to answer. A lawyer will have the opportunity to read the full question before deciding to take it from the list and answer it. Once a lawyer takes a question from the list, the lawyer has 3 days to provide, at minimum, one answer to the question. Lawyers will be allowed to ask follow up questions if they need additional information in order to answer the user’s question. The lawyer's identity is not revealed to the user unless the lawyer decides to do so, a client has made a specific request for the name of the attorney in connection with a complaint or if required by law. Once a lawyer answers a question, the user will be sent an email to alert them they have a response waiting.

Lawyers will be able to view a log of questions they have answered in their history.

Who is eligible to use  Free Legal Answers ME?

A user is eligible to post question on the site if he/she:

  • Has household income less than 250% of the federal poverty level (unless your state required a different amount);
  • Does not have liquid assets exceeding $6,000 in value (this includes checking and savings account balances, as well as the value of any stocks or bonds);
  • Is not incarcerated;
  • Does not request assistance with criminal law matters.
  • Is an adult.

Users must provide their name, county, and zip code in order to request advice.

Users agree to post no more than 3 separate legal questions per year. They can follow-up with an attorney on each question as many times as the attorney and user choose to do so.

What kinds of lawyers should participate?

All lawyers are welcome! While there are certain types of legal questions that regularly come up at legal clinics, we need lawyers with different areas of expertise and practice to volunteer. We hope the website will appeal to lawyers who want to give back but have been unable to participate in traditional pro bono work due to family obligations, schedule or geographic location. We also hope to engage lawyers who already provide pro bono and are willing to give more of their time to those who need it.

What happens if a lawyer cannot answer a user's question?

A lawyer might be unable to answer a user's question for a number of reasons. Some examples might be a conflict of interest, user's failure to respond to lawyer requests for additional information, or the question is determined to fall outside the lawyer’s area of expertise.  If a lawyer determines that (s)he cannot answer a question, the lawyer may place the question back into the queue so that another volunteer lawyer may try to assist the user. If a lawyer takes a question and doesn't respond within 3 days, the question will automatically return to open questions queue.

What type of relationship exists between the client and lawyer?

When a user submits a question and receives an answer from a lawyer, there will be a lawyer/client relationship formed between that client and the lawyer who responds. That relationship, however, will be limited in scope and duration as described in the use agreements for both users and lawyers. The representation will be limited to providing an answer to the legal question and will not involve any continuing representation of the client beyond the act of providing such an answer. The lawyer will provide short-term, limited legal services to a client (the eligible user of this site) without expectation by either the lawyer or the client (the eligible user of this site) that the lawyer will provide continuing representation in the matter. Both the eligible users and lawyers must consent to the limited nature of this relationship both as to scope and duration as indicated when they accept the terms of the use agreement. Eligible users and lawyers who do not accept the terms of the use agreement will not be allowed access to the site.

How do lawyers check for conflicts of interest?

Under Maine law (RPC 1.2(c) and 6.5), because of the pro bono publico nature of the limited scope representation provided through  Free Legal Answers ME and because of the involvement of VLP as the administrator, the general rules for lawyers as to conflicts of interest do not apply to lawyers' participation in  Free Legal Answers ME. Instead, the only conflicts of interest that would preclude a lawyer from answering a question for an eligible user of  Free Legal Answers ME are conflicts of interest that the lawyer actually knows of at the time that they view a client's question. This means that the possibility exists, and the clients agree that they understand, that a lawyer who answers a question, or another lawyer with whom they practice in a firm, may actually be representing other parties with an interest in the question. The user's name will be provided to the lawyer so that the lawyer can make sure not to answer the question if the lawyer knows that (s)he would have a conflict of interest.

What about professional liability insurance coverage?

Volunteer lawyers who provide brief advice and counsel via the website will be covered for communications within the website by professional liability insurance maintained by American Bar Association.

Is there a confidentiality issue with client information/lawyer advice being housed on the internet?

This site is designed to insure client privacy. Since the web program is administered through a platform that limits access based on a screening, confidentiality will be maintained since only the website administrators have access to content between a client and a lawyer. Information available to the website administrator and the lawyer responding to a client request shall remain confidential, subject to the limitations of the Privacy/Confidentiality Policy. However, client requests for information and the response of the lawyers participating in  Free Legal Answers ME may be maintained in a database for review in order to measure the effectiveness of the project. Steps will be taken to maintain the security of this database and it will only be utilized by the administrator but an absolute guarantee of security is not possible when using the internet and internet based systems.

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 the pages users access or visit on this website.

The information collected is used to improve the content of the Web page 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 our website and applicable laws or to protect against misuses or unauthorized use of our website.

How do I navigate the website?

When your account has been approved by the website administrator, you will receive a notification email. To get started you will go to maine.freelegalanswers.org and select "Sign In" at the top right side of your screen. After you enter your username (which is your email address) and password, you will automatically be directed to a page that lists all the questions that have been posted for lawyers to answer.

You will notice that the questions are coded by flags. These flags lets you know how long each question has been in the queue. Questions with red-outline flags are those that have been posted for more than 10 days and questions with filled-in red flags are questions that have been in the queue for at least 25 days. Questions that are not answered within 30 days will be closed by the administrator and the client will be notified.

You have three ways in which to view questions in the queue:

  1. You can view a list of all the questions in the queue; this is the default view.
  2. You can view a list of questions that have been in the queue for 25 days or longer by clicking on the "Importance" option under the "Sort" button.
  3. You can view questions by legal categories by clicking on the "Filter" button.
  4. You can easily view any question you have taken to answer by clicking "Home" on the menu and looking at questions in your personal queue.

The client is asked to use the Subject line to tell you, in their own words, what the question is about (for example, eviction, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.). The Category and Subject functions are tools to help lawyers quickly decide which questions they would like to review and answer.

How do I select question(s) I want to answer?

You can read the first few lines of each posted question by clicking the "Preview" button. If you decide you want to see more details of the question, click the subject to be taken to the question detail page. When you have found a question you'd like to answer, click the "I want to answer this question" button on the bottom of the question detail page. If you eventually decide you do not want to take a question you can click the "I want to return this question" to send it back to the full queue. You can also decide if you want to answer a question immediately by clicking "Answer Now" or answer the question later by clicking "Answer Later". Please respond within 3 days of taking a question. If you fail to respond within 3 days, the question will be moved back into the queue.

Once you have taken the question, you will be able to reply to the client and provide an answer or ask follow up questions. If you ask the client a question, you will receive an email when the client responds and a prompt to log back into the website to respond.

How Do I Subscribe to a Category?

If your area of practice is specialized and you only want to answer certain types of questions, you can subscribe to a Category and receive an email notification each time a question in that particular Category is posted.

To subscribe to a Category (for example, immigration), click on the "Manage Subscriptions" tab at the top of the screen. Scroll down to the Category you are interested in and click on the red circle. When the red circle changes to a check mark, you have successfully subscribed to that category. You may also choose where you want to get subscription emails. To change it from your username email, click on your email address next to the green check and enter your different email address. Click the save icon to save your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.

How do I record my pro bono hours?

Each time you attempt to log out of the website, you will be prompted to enter the time you have spent researching and answering questions. You may log your time in tenth of an hour increments. You may view your hours at any time by clicking on "Log My Hours" from the menu.

How do I contact the administrator with a question?

If you have a question or run into a technical problem with the site, you may contact the administrator by emailing the maine site administrator.

I'm logged in, but I don't see any questions. How do I find the current questions?

Most likely, you have the 'Filter' option engaged. This means you filtered to one or more categories and there are no questions in that category at this moment. To see a list of all questions, click the blue 'Filter' button and click "Clear All" at the top. That should reset the page so you can see all the questions currently in the Available questions queue.