A few months ago, during the Philadelphia Bar Association (PBA)’s free legal hotline night, LegalLine P.M., a volunteer lawyer helped a caller with a problem that attorney Mike Jones says illustrates precisely what the decades-old program sets out to do.
The caller was a renter, needing advice about how to deal with a negligent landlord. She’d requested repairs, and pest control, but nothing had been done. She was worried about escalating her demands, for fear she might be evicted. She didn’t know what to do, or where to turn for help.
She called in to LegalLine on one of its free Wednesday call-in sessions, spoke to an attorney with experience in housing issues, and learned about her rights and the resources available. By the time she hung up the phone, the caller, who was low-income, had a referral to a free legal service where she could get representation in dealing with her landlord.
“We are a compass during a storm, providing clarity and direction to those in need,” says Jones, secretary of the Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and co-head of Legal Education and Mentoring.
The Philadelphia Bar Association has hosted LegalLine for more than two decades, to provide free to low-cost legal advice to Philadelphians after typical work hours, when many people don’t have time or access to private phone calls.
The phone lines are open every third Wednesday, from 5 to 8pm. Occasionally, they have themes, like domestic affairs, or bankruptcy, tax and employment law, when experts in those areas will answer calls.
According to the PBA, LegalLine has advised more than 5,000 people with legal problems over its 20-plus years of service. In that time, approximately 350 lawyers have donated upwards of $75,000 worth of time.
“The common misconception is that lawyers are all fancy suits and fast talk and only take high value cases with wealthy clients,” says Hillary Ladov, chair-elect of the PBA’s Young Lawyers Division. “But there’s a lawyer for everyone, and everyone will need a lawyer at some point in their life.”
Most of the calls to LegalLine concern family issues, like divorce and custody; property issues, like tenant-landlord disputes; and, increasingly, estate issues, like “making sure assets are getting distributed properly,” Ladov says.
Unlike in criminal cases, there is no guarantee of legal representation for these sorts of civil issues, which are often the first legal problems people have. For many, that means going without lawyers, a growing concern among housing advocates, for example, that led to City Council passing a law last year guaranteeing eviction lawyers for renters faced with losing their home.
LegalLine’s lawyers don’t take on cases; they answer legal questions, and then, if needed, refer callers to expert lawyers in private practice or to legal aid organizations, like Community Legal Services, that can represent them in court. Sometimes, Ladov says, just knowing there are resources out there to help can give community members hope in solving their problems.
“It’s incredibly important for the community to know that they have legal resources available to them at a free or low cost,” Ladov says. “The case may not always go the way the client wants, but the lawyers providing solid service is key.”
LegalLine’s success depends on lawyers volunteering to answer the phones, something Ladov says the PBA’s Young Lawyers Division has long been able to provide. And she says feedback from the community has been generally positive.
Now the key to ensuring LegalLine provides the most help to the most people is ensuring that most Philadelphians know it is there for them.
“LegalLine is here to stay and I encourage members of the community to take advantage of [its] resources if you have issues or know someone that has an issue,” Ladov says. “Our young, ambitious lawyers have a drive to help others.”
LegalLine P.M. happens every third Wednesday of the month from 5-8pm at (215) 238-6333.Photo by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash