By Samantha Moppett
Currently, some of the hot-button phrases in the legal field are “access to justice” and “closing the legal aid gap.” Yet, the issue of how to address the failure of the justice system to adequately serve all people irrespective of wealth and position is largely neglected in the law school curriculum.
To address this shortcoming, Suffolk’s first-year legal writing classes partnered with a pro bono organization that runs an online legal advice clinic for low-income people. In this way, we integrate real world legal research into the first-year curriculum and introduce students to the role that they can play in closing the legal aid gap.
Specifically, we worked with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), a not-for-profit poverty law and policy center that serves Massachusetts. MLRI has been partnering with ABA Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal assistance clinic that the ABA created to provide a forum for low-income people to seek advice and counsel on civil legal questions from a volunteer lawyer within their state. The Massachusetts legal advice website is Mass. Legal Answers Online—www.masslao.org. Essentially, Massachusetts attorney-volunteers log into the website, select questions to answer within their expertise and reply with legal information and advice. Currently, 32 states have similar virtual clinics to provide low-income communities with access to legal services.
For this exercise, 1Ls served as research assistants for MLRI. In class, we placed students into small groups and presented each group with one research question that we preselected. The questions covered civil matters such as child support, tenants’ rights and divorce. The students collaboratively researched and drafted an email in response to the question posed. At the end of the class, the student groups emailed their responses to us. We shared the best answers with MLRI to review and, as appropriate, adopt and post on the website.
There were many benefits to the exercise. Students had an opportunity to engage in legal research for a real client under realistic time constraints. Moreover, the students were introduced to the importance of pro-bono work and encouraged to continue to engage in pro bono work as law students and lawyers. MLRI also received needed research assistance. More importantly, the exercise assisted in closing the legal aid gap and providing low-income citizens with access to justice.
Samantha Moppett is a Professor of Legal Writing and Associate Director of Legal Practice Skills at Suffolk University Law School.