In-house lawyers may think their day job expertise doesn’t translate well to improving access to justice for the average person, but a group of five lawyers at AIG Canada recently discovered they have hidden talents that can change the lives of many in just one day.
Last month, Dahlia Tessler, Soloman Lam, Eric Pardu, Miho Felicio and Len Loewith spent a day working the phones at Pro Bono Ontario’s Free Legal Advice Hotline. The hotline deals with five areas of law: civil litigation (not family or criminal law); consumer issues such as consumer debt/protection; corporate law for charities, non-profits and small businesses; housing matters; and employment law. Each call is about 30 minutes in duration. It is estimated that more than 7,100 people have been helped by the hotline since it was launched last September.
“The litigators among us took on the civil procedure law matters and some employment law matters and the solicitor side took the consumer, corporate and housing law matters,” says Dahlia Tessler, assistant general counsel at AIG Canada in Toronto.
AIG initially focused its pro bono efforts on locations where the company has the greatest concentration of lawyers, but Eric Kobrick, deputy general counsel at AIG in New York and founder of the company’s pro bono program, says even one lawyer can make a difference.
“It makes us appreciate what we have in the way of skills to help others and it makes us better lawyers,” says Kobrick. “There have been several instances where attorneys have worked on matters that bear no relationship to what they do on a daily basis. There is just a great need in society for free legal services — we have an ethical duty as lawyers to do it and it’s good for the company in terms of strengthening bonds with those we work with.”
Tessler says it is always surprising to see just how much you can help someone in just 30 minutes.
“You’re able to walk somebody through a small claims matter or determine what forms they need to fill out for something or what to do if they are thinking of speaking to their employer about something,” she says.
If they receive a question that stumps them, they can put the call on hold to look up legislation or to research something they haven’t addressed in a long time, such as how one goes about issuing stocks — or how to tackle a trademark application for a startup.
“Pro Bono Ontario also have excellent resources available based on repeat questions they have received,” says Tessler. “I do think the most surprising thing is how much help you’re able to provide and how thankful the callers are. You always want to be confident in the advice you’re giving, but once you start speaking to them, you realize how much help they need and many questions are consumer-type questions.”
Kobrick says the hotline demonstrates that pro bono work can come “in all shapes and sizes.” While lawyers are, by nature, conservative and don’t like to give advice unless they “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’” at the same time, they don’t always realize how much expertise they have. Often, many of the questions that come through on the helpline are common sense and people just need help with some research and deciphering forms.
“A lot of people are concerned about taking on too much [with a pro bono project] and have the misimpression it involves litigation and going to court, so they think you must need to have a litigation background. I think the hotline work is a bite-sized opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life in 30 minutes. You don’t have to be a litigator; you don’t have to have any specialized training to participate,” he says.
AIG did one full day at the hotline and is hoping to do another in the fall.
“You really get to speak to a variety of people and [it] is very rewarding and giving back to those who can’t afford to see a lawyer in person. The hotline is particularly helpful to members of the community who can’t leave their homes due to child care,” says Tessler.
Pro Bono Ontario executive director Lynn Burns says that, with the introduction last fall of some new technology, those serving on the hotline have been further powered by having a stronger knowledge management system at their fingertips.
“It’s been beyond our expectations in terms of people calling us for help and the number of people we are able to serve,” says Burns.
BMO Financial Group did a week of service in April and it was the group’s third time doing a sponsor week. BMO also reaches out to its external counsel and has brought McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP.
“Not only are they doing a lot of good pro bono work as a legal department, but they are really becoming true corporate leaders in access to justice by telling their external firms it’s important to them,” says burns.
RBC’s internal lawyers also took a turn on the hotline in March and Weston did so last year and also reached out to its external counsel. Others include Chubb Insurance, Ontario Power Generation and Interac Corp. with half a dozen lawyers each spending some time on the phones with individuals who could not otherwise afford to access legal help. The Association of Corporate Counsel in Ontario has also spent a week’s worth of time on the phones.
“For small teams, it’s a great way to spend the day together and it’s a good team-building opportunity. They really enjoyed it. Chubb served 77 clients that day,” says Burns.
Up to 80 low-income Ontarians can call in to the hotline for free legal advice every day. About 80 per cent of queries to the hotline are resolved with a single call.
Before a team of lawyers takes on a day at the hotline, they can hold a conference call to discuss who is comfortable taking on certain kinds of matters.
“For the sponsor week, we had a conference call with BMO and Blakes and the lawyers signed up to answer the various lines based on their expertise. A lot of them are willing to take housing even if it’s outside their area of expertise,” says Burns. “But I don’t think anyone feels they are giving legal advice in an area they have no expertise in.”
“Once you tell them about the possibilities and the opportunities, whether it’s an entire legal department or reaching out to external counsel, I find the legal departments want to be part of those opportunities just as much,” says Burns. “Every single person says: ‘It is so different from my regular day and so rewarding.’ For many people, if we weren’t here, there is nowhere else for them to turn.”
The Pro Bono Ontario Legal Advice Hotline is 1-866-466-7256