Frequently Asked Questions from Volunteer Attorneys
This FAQ is divided into two parts. Part I provides an overview of Mass Legal Answers Online, and answers questions on topics such as conflicts of interest, confidentiality and malpractice insurance. Part II answers specific questions about the logistics of using the website.
How does Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers work?
Mass Legal Answers Online 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 through the website without any expectation of long-term representation. All communication between the client and the attorney takes place via a secure website.
How do clients sign up for and use the site?
Users who meet eligibility requirements (see Eligibility below) sign the user agreement online, create a username and password, post a request for legal advice and provide facts about their case. Users are asked to select a category (such as “housing” or “debts”) that best describes their question. They provide their name and the name of the opposing party, if known. Users are informed that there is no guarantee that their question will be answered.
How do lawyers sign up for the site?
Lawyers who would like to participate must create a username and password, provide contact information and their Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers number, sign the lawyer use agreement online and request approval from the website administrator, who will check that the lawyer is licensed in Massachusetts and in good standing. Once a lawyer has been approved by the website administrator, he or she receives an email notification and can begin answering user questions through the website.
How do lawyers answer client questions?
Lawyers select the questions they want to answer from a list of open user questions. (See Navigating the Website below) Lawyers answer these questions by posting the answer to a secure space in the Mass Legal Answers website. All communications between the attorney and the client must go through the website. Attorneys and clients will be notified via email when someone has updated or responded to a question on the website. However, the questions, answers and advice should only be posted to the website. They may not be relayed in any other way, such as email, telephone or in person meeting. Attorneys are permitted to print and/or save their attorney client communications in their own backup systems, as they would with any other client.
Is this service anonymous?
No. You will see the client's name attached to the question. Similarly, the client whose question you are answering will see your name attached to your answer, although they will not see your firm, email address or any other contact information.
Users of Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers must meet the following criteria:
- Household income must be less than 250% of the federal poverty level;
- Liquid assets cannot exceed $6,000 in value (this includes checking and savings account balances, as well as the value of any stocks or bonds held outside of retirement accounts);
- Must not be incarcerated;
- Must not be requesting assistance with criminal law matters.
- Must be age 18 or older.
- Cannot already have a lawyer helping them with this legal issue.
Users must provide their name, county and zip code in order to request advice.
Users must also agree to post no more than 5 new legal issues per year.
Which kinds of lawyers can participate?
To join Mass legal Answers Online, lawyers must be registered to practice law in Massachusetts under one of the following statuses:
- Pro bono retired
- Pro bono inactive
- In house counsel
and must be in good standing.
Under certain circumstances, it may be possible to participate in Mass Legal Answers if you are sponsored by a legal services organization; please contact the site administrator, info@masslao.
Is there a required time commitement?
There is no specific time commitment, or number of questions that lawyers need to answer to participate in Mass Legal Answers Online. However, we encourage you to answer at least one question per month if possible. You can answer the questions at any time, from anywhere.
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 or including online links, and
- Direct users to other resources by providing links to websites and contact information for other organizations/services where they might receive additional assistance - those can be found right on the site at https://mass.freelegalanswers.org/OtherHelp
What kind of training and support is there for lawyers?
Attorneys who are actively participating in Mass Legal Answers Online can attend free trainings sponsored by legal services programs throughout the state. Regularly offered trainings include: the fundamentals of Landlord/Tenant Law, Family Law 101 and 102, Guardianship of Minors, and Unemployment Law. See the full calendar of trainings at www.MassProBono.org.
Other learning opportunities include email lists in landlord-tenant, family law, guardianship, bankruptcy/consumer, and unemployment insurance and monthly lunch-time roundtable discussions in family law, guardianship and bankruptcy/consumer. The email lists and roundtables are managed by the Volunteer Lawyers Project but are open to Mass Legal Answers volunteers.
All panel lawyers will have access to a library of legal resources. See our Training and Resources page.
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 include 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 should contact the site administrator to place the question back into the queue so that another volunteer lawyer may assist the user. The lawyer should let the administrator know why the question needs to be placed back in the queue. If a lawyer takes a question and doesn’t respond within 3 days, the question will automatically return to the open questions queue.
Lawyers should only try to answer a question if they are competent to advise in that area of law.
What type of relationship exists between the client and lawyer?
When a user submits a question and receives an answer from a lawyer, a lawyer/client relationship is established. 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 through the Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers website 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 from either the lawyer or the client 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 when they accept the terms of the use agreements. Eligible users and lawyers who do not accept the terms of the use agreement will not be allowed access to the site.
There is no attorney client relationship between the eligible users of the website and the state or national administrators of the website.
What about conflicts of interest?
Under Massachusetts Rules of Professional Responsibility (RPC 1.2 and 6.5), because of the pro bono public nature of the limited scope representation provided through Mass Legal Answers Online and the involvement of MLRI and VLP as the administrator, the general rules for lawyers regarding conflicts of interest do not apply to lawyers’ participation in Mass Legal Answers Online. Instead, the only conflicts of interest that would preclude a lawyer from answering a question for an eligible user of Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers are conflicts of interest that the lawyer actually knows of at the time that they receive or answer 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. If based on the information the user provides, the lawyer actually discovers a conflict of interest precluding him or her from answering, the question must be sent back to the site administrator for referral to another volunteer lawyer.
What about professional liability insurance coverage?
Volunteer lawyers who provide brief advice and counsel via the website will be covered by professional liability insurance maintained by the American Bar Association. If an issue of malpractice arises, MLRI can trace each answered question back to the attorney who answered it. The site administrators may have to contact lawyers participating in the program from time to time with questions related to this insurance coverage.
Malpractice insurance coverage is limited to liability for only those claims that are made against a volunteer attorney in relation to the legal guidance provided through the website. It does not cover any contacts or communications made outside the website, including telephone conversations or in person meetings. If an attorney receives notice of a claim, you must provide the ABA national administrator written notice of the claim within 30 days with full details, as set forth in the user agreement.
Is there a confidentiality issue with client information/lawyer advice being housed on and transmitted through the internet?
This site is designed to ensure client privacy. Since the web program is administered via email through a platform that limits access based on a screening, confidentiality will be maintained since only the website administrators (state and national) have access to content exchanged between a client and a lawyer. Information available to the website administrators 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 responses of the lawyers participating in Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers 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 administrators 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 consumer domain name. This is the information that is collected for statistical purposes.
Aggregate information is collected on the pages consumers access or visit on this website.
The information collected is used to improve the content of the website 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.
What is the relationship between www.masslao.org and mass.freelegalanswers.org?
Mass Legal Answers Online is part of a national initiative sponsored by the American Bar Association to create legal advice portals in every state. As part of this initiative, the ABA is providing the software for free to participating states, hosting and providing technical support for the state websites, and providing malpractice insurance for pro bono attorneys providing legal guidance via the websites. Mass Legal Answers Online is the Massachusetts site for the ABA national initiative. When users go to www.masslao.org, they will be immediately taken to the Massachusetts section of the ABA’s national website mass.freelegalanswers.org, where all questions and answers are transmitted and maintained.
Who is administering Mass Legal Answers Online?
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, with the assistance of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, is administering Mass Legal Answers/ ABA Free Legal Answers in Massachusetts. The project is funded by the Boston Bar Foundation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.
What if I want to do more for the client than answer the question through the website and take the case pro bono?
If you wish to provide additional assistance to the client beyond answering the question through the website, you can take the case on a pro bono basis. However, if you decide to provide additional pro bono service to the client outside the scope of this website, you must make it clear to the client that a new lawyer/ client relationship is being formed and that Mass Legal Answers Online/ ABA Free Legal Answers is not involved in this new relationship.
The professional liability insurance provided by the ABA that covers your participation in Mass Legal Answers Online /ABA Free Legal Answers does not apply to any additional assistance provided to the client outside the scope of this website.
If you are interested providing additional pro bono assistance to the client beyond answering the question through the website, but you are unable to provide this assistance under your own malpractice policy, please contact us at email@example.com. We will see if the case is eligible for a pro bono referral to you through a legal aid program.
Additionally, we would like to keep track of the number of pro bono cases that are generated from the website. Please let us know if you do decide to provide additional pro bono representation of your client beyond the scope of this website.
How do I refer clients to other sources of legal help?
- the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, www.masslrf.org (gives contact information for free sources of legal aid including legal services programs, nonprofits and court based programs) and
- our list of Lawyer Referral Services, http://www.masslegalservices.org/content/lawyer-referral-services, (lawyers for a fee)
"To get additional legal help with your problem, you can try one of the following:
www.masslrf.org: use this search to get contact information for free and low cost sources of civil legal help, and links to legal information
If you need to hire a lawyer, you can use one of the lawyer referral services on this list. They will give you contact information for specific lawyers, includng lawyers that may offer reduced fees.
Click this link for more referrals to other legal help in Massachusetts."
How do I sign up?
Click the Volunteer Attorney Registration link in the top horizontal menu. You will be asked to agree to the Use Agreement, then provide some basic contact information and your BBO number. Once you submit your registration, you will received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org so you can verify your email address. If you do not see this email, check your spam folder. Your account will not be activated until you click the link in the verification email to verify your email address.
How do I log in?
Go www.masslao.org or https://mass.freelegalanswers.org and select “Sign In” at the top right corner 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. We call this list of questions "the queue."
I'm having problems logging in; what can I do?
Make sure you are logging in as an attorney, not a client. Also make sure that you are using the email address that you used when signing up for Mass Legal Answers Online.
If you are still having a problem, you are likely using the wrong password. You can click the link to reset your password. You will need to check your email to finish the reset process.
How do I see the questions that users have asked?
Click the "Home" link in the navigation menu to see open questions in the queue.
You can sort these questions by legal category (e.g. Housing, Family Law) or by how long they have been open. Click the "Sort" button and select "Kind of Problem" to sort by category, or "Importance" to sort by how long they have been in the queue.
By default, you will see all open questions in the queue. If you only want to see questions that fall into specific legal categories, click the "Filter" button, then select the categories you are interested in. Click the "Apply Filter" button when you are done. These filters will remain in place every time you log in to the website. To remove the filters and see all questions again, click the "Filter" button, then click "Clear All."
What do the flags next to the user questions mean?
You will notice that the questions are coded by flags. These flags let 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 and will be closed if no lawyer is able to answer them. Questions that are not answered within 30 days will be closed and the user will be notified.
How do I select the questions I want to answer?
You will see the user's name, the opposing party, the legal category, legal deadlines (if known), the user's short summary of the issue and the date the question was opened right from the queue. If you want to find out more about the question, click the "Preview" button; this displays the first few lines of each posted question. If you decide you want to see more details of the question, click the subject line to be taken to the question detail page. To take the question, click the “I want to answer this question” button on the bottom of this question detail page. Otherwise, click the "Home" button to return to the queue.
Once you click the “I want to answer the question” button, the question moves out of the general queue into your personal queue and other volunteer attorneys will no longer be able to see or take the questions. If you eventually decide you cannot take the question, click the "I want to return this question" link at the bottom of the screen 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."
How many days do I have to answer the question?
Please make your initial contact with the client within 3 calendar days of taking a question. If you need more information before you can answer the question, this initial response can take the form of asking for more information. If you do not communicate with the client within 3 calendar days, the question will be moved back into the general queue.
How can I see the questions that I have taken but have not completed yet?
Questions that you have taken but have not finished answering are in your personal queue. All questions in your personal queue show at the top of the general queue, under the heading "Your personal queue." Click the "Home" button in the navigation menu to go to your personal queue. From the queue, click the "Subject" line in the question to go to the full question detail screen and to communicate with the client.
How do I communicate with the client to find out more information or answer the question?
Go to to the question detail screen by clicking on the "Subject" line for the question from your personal queue. To initiate contact with the client, click the "Answer Now" button at the bottom of the question detail screen. This will open up a box with the heading "Post your response." Type whatever you would like to communicate to the client into this box. You can also attach files. When you are finished, click either the "Submit" or "Save as Draft" buttons at the bottom of the screen. The client will be notified by email that a response is waiting in the website, so they can log back in and see it. When they log in, the client will see your response and your name. They will not see any other contact information
The client will have a chance to respond to your inquiry. You will receive an email when the client responds and a prompt to log back into the website to respond. To continue the dialogue, use the "reply" button at the bottom of the question detail screen. All responses from both you and the client will show on the question detail screen.
Important -- for security purposes, the website will time out after 15 minutes of no activity. You should click the "Save as Draft" button regularly so you do not lose your work if you are called away while in the middle of preparing a response.
I am finished answering the question. How do I close it?
When you determine that you have completed answering the question, click the “Mark as Closed” button at the bottom of the full question detail screen. This will end any further communication between you and the client. It will also generate an email to the client with a short feedback survey about their experience using the website.
If possible, we ask that you keep the question open for a day after you have answered it, to give the client a chance to ask any clarifying quesitons about your response.
How many questions can I take at one time?
You can have up to 10 questions open at any one time.
Can I get notifications when people ask questions in a particular category of the law?
Yes! 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 the default - 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 keep track of the time I have spent helping clients?
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. Your hours may be viewed at any time by clicking on “Log My Hours” from the navigation menu.
Where can I see previous questions I have answered?
Click "Question History" from the navigation menu to see your question and answer history.
What if a user's question isn't answered?
When users sign up for the site, they are told that it is possible that their question might not be answered. If a question is not answered within 30 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.
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 email@example.com.