Article of Interest

Article of Interest

Distance Lawyering: We Need Your Help
By: Michelle Cheng and Jenny Smith

Of the millions of Texans in desperate need of legal aid, rural residents are among the most difficult to reach.

The handful of legal aid organizations operating in Texas lack the resources to open enough offices to help everyone in a state stretching from the Panhandle to the southern Rio Grande.

That’s why the Distance Lawyering Project is so important.

This pilot project, a partnership of the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s Technology Committee and the Texas Young Lawyers Association, connects rural self-represented litigants with volunteer attorneys through videoconferencing. Sign up online to volunteer. Once you sign up, you will be matched with a pro bono coordinator at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT), or Lone Star Legal Aid (LSLA), who will match you with a litigant that qualifies for the program.

Long-distance conferencing programs like Skype bring the much-needed expertise of pro bono attorneys to the far reaches of this vast state, providing critical legal guidance that many low-income Texans would likely never receive otherwise.  Most often, the residents are seeking an uncontested divorce by using Supreme Court-approved divorce forms, which bypass many of the legal fees that prevent many Texans from finalizing their divorce for years or decades.

These residents qualify for legal aid services but are unable to get a volunteer attorney at already overwhelmed legal aid organizations.

Using modern technology, volunteer attorneys can provide valuable assistance to these clients without leaving their offices.

Assisted pro se programs are one of the lower-cost service-delivery models for helping more people gain access to the courts and have their voices heard.

Volunteer attorneys would be expected to remotely help the litigant prepare his or her initial petition using the forms. The attorney would then connect with the litigant again prior to the end of the 60-day waiting period to assist with preparation for final judgment. The project may involve an assisted pro se relationship between the litigant and the attorney volunteer, though the volunteer attorney will not be expected to travel or to make an appearance on behalf of the litigant.

This project will also allow courts to move through their dockets more easily. 

Please contact Jocelyn Fowler, staff attorney at the Texas Access to Justice Commission, with any questions you may have by email or by phone, (512) 427-1859.

Michelle Cheng serves on the Texas Access to Justice Commission as chair of the Technology Committee and is an attorney at Whitehurst, Harkness, Brees, Cheng, Alsaffar & Higginbotham, PLLC, a trial firm focused on catastrophic injury cases nationwide.  

Jenny Smith serves on the Texas Access to Justice Commission and is an attorney with the Austin-based firm, Cobb & Counsel, PLLC, a commercial litigation boutique with significant experience representing regulated industries challenging local, state, and federal regulations, responding to Texas state agency investigations, and opposing class actions.

Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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