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Annual Meeting 2011

Pro Bono Goes High-Tech, and Homeless Veterans Benefit

Posted Aug 4, 2011 6:53 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Skype can be used to talk to your spouse, catch up with a friend, or talk over a business matter. The Minnesota Justice Foundation has found another use for the technology—linking low-income people in need of legal help with lawyers who have the expertise to counsel them.

This spring, the foundation used video technology to link homeless veterans in Duluth with volunteer bankruptcy lawyers in Minneapolis. Sara Sommarstrom, program director of the Minnesota Justice Foundation, explained at an ABA Annual Meeting program Thursday how that was accomplished.

The foundation sent about a dozen volunteer law students from Minneapolis to help homeless veterans in Duluth fill out legal forms for their pro se cases. Two legal aid lawyers with expertise in family and elder law were there to help.

Also standing by were volunteer bankruptcy lawyers at Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis. The firm had interactive TV, the same technology that is used at courthouses throughout Minnesota. One vet being chased by debt collectors used the courthouse video system to meet with a Faegre & Benson lawyer. Another used Skype on a law student’s laptop to meet with a lawyer at different firm recruited at the last minute to avoid a conflict of interest.

Sommarstrom says video technology has lots of potential in a state where lawyers and law students are concentrated in just two cities: Minneapolis and St. Paul. Some rural counties have fewer than 10 lawyers in all, and they can’t provide pro bono help to all the residents who need it. “We have a county that literally has two attorneys,” she said.

She spoke at a program called “Lawyering in the Digital Age: Using Technology and Social Media to Assist Underserved Populations.” The ABA Division for Public Services was the primary sponsor.

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