Without question, the types of technology that the legal community has adopted to deal with the problems brought about by COVID-19 have been impressive. Retrofitting a system of justice—one that presupposes large groups of people working together and talking to each other—for a socially distanced age could not have succeeded without internet-delivered technologies that substantially provide the attributes of in-person interaction.
In many cases, however, it’s been the humble telephone that has served as the backbone of the legal community’s effort to provide legal services during the COVID-19 epidemic—just as it has for decades. Never more than a few feet away, the telephone remains the most reliable, lowest-common-denominator form of communication available.
When COVID-19 first arrived in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court stumbled, abruptly cancelling scheduled oral arguments. When oral arguments resumed, they weren’t conducted via Zoom, Webex, or some other technology befitting the highest court in a technologically advanced nation. Instead, in May 2020 the justices reached for the humble conference call to hold oral arguments for 10 high-profile cases that had been postponed. The court also allowed the public to listen in on the proceedings—a first.
High courts in Alaska, Massachusetts, Virginia, Vermont, Missouri, and Nebraska also turned to the telephone for oral arguments.
And now the telephone is playing a large role in addressing access to justice issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Legal aid clinics across the country are being replaced, or at least supplemented, with telephone clinics. The American Bar Association reported that its Free Legal Answers service experienced a spike of activity from March 1 through mid-April, receiving more than 5,000 inquiries, many related to COVID-19. The ABA also reported that nearly 500 attorneys signed up to participate in the program—approximately 2.5 times the usual number of volunteers. Launched in 2016 by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the program is currently available in 42 states.
State bar associations have similar phone-in help programs, many of which are specifically aimed at COVID-19 legal issues:
- The State Bar of Arizona provides an Arizona Attorneys Respond Legal Hotline specifically for people with COVID-19-related legal problems. Callers can obtain a free 30-minute consultation with a local attorney in either English or Spanish.
- In Georgia, the State Bar of Georgia offers a free, 45-minute telephone consultation for small business owners who need help sorting through their problems during COVID-19. The Georgia program serves businesses with fewer than 25 employees and 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups. Legal topics addressed include navigating CARES Act legal issues, commercial leases and contract enforcement, insurance coverage, and employment law issues.
- The Alaska Bar Association is providing free legal advice over the telephone for civil matters arising from COVID-19.
- In Iowa, the Iowa State Bar Association is operating a COVID-19 Legal Advice Hotline. For callers who meet income eligibility guidelines for free legal assistance, the hotline will make a referral to a legal aid organization. Other callers will be connected to an Iowa attorney participating in the program on a pro bono basis.
Legal aid groups are also using the telephone to provide quick answers to individuals in their jurisdictions.
- In Tennessee, for example, the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands conducts free legal aid clinics over the telephone. The program connects local citizens with attorneys to answer questions about bankruptcy, landlord-tenant issues, medical bills, debt collection, and filing applications for unemployment benefits and government assistance.
- A similar program is operating in Kentucky. The Kentucky Access to Justice Commission, along with several legal aid organizations in the state, offers a COVID-19 Legal Helpline service for local residents.
These telephone services are supplying the means for the public to obtain quick—and often free—answers to legal questions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. And for home-bound attorneys who are required, current interruptions notwithstanding, to provide a certain number of hours of pro bono service annually, these programs provide an opportunity to deliver much-needed legal services in a safe, socially distanced manner.
Interesting side note: Although most people know the story of Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, few are acquainted with the history of the conference call—an equally important invention. When Bell Labs invented the conference call in 1956, the technology was capable of transmitting both voice and video to multiple participants. Bell Labs saw an opportunity in videoconferencing, which it believed would be purchased as an alternative to expensive cross-country travel for business meetings. Unfortunately, prohibitive pricing (fees began at $700 per month in today’s dollars) prevented the technology from becoming an immediate commercial success.