With social distancing guidelines preventing attorneys from meeting with their clients face-to-face, a law office in Clark County has opted to host a free legal clinic over video, while another organization has posted resources online.
Clark County’s courts have all but shut down, compounding the uncertainty surrounding legal matters, civil or criminal, for many people.
In response, Navigate Law Group has created a website where attorneys will host free virtual legal clinics. The first clinic is 5 to 7 p.m. today. People can sign up at lawchat.bubbleapps.io and set up a free, 20-minute call with an attorney who has expertise in a relevant legal area.
“We know a lot of people have legal questions right now both related and not related to coronavirus,” said Eli Marchbanks, attorney with Navigate Law Group.
About 78 percent of the legal needs in the country go unmet by lawyers, according to the law firm. To try and do its part, the firm hosts clinics in the community on a regular basis, Marchbanks said. On the last Thursday of every month, Navigate Law Group and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program hold a general clinic at the Vancouver Community Library. Attorneys from different backgrounds of practice advise attendees in 20-minute sessions.
The clinic has gained popularity. More than 30 people usually show up to ask for help, Marchbanks said. That’s why the Volunteer Lawyers Program stepped in, he said, to help with intake and placement with the right attorney.
The firm’s family law attorneys hold a clinic at the courthouse every month geared toward people who are trying to handle their own family-related cases without a lawyer. It is also popular enough that attorneys not working with Navigate have volunteered their time.
Marchbanks and another Navigate employee also visit the Camas Public Library twice a month to answer legal questions on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to host any of the (in-person clinics) while the stay-at-home order was in place. Setting up a virtual clinic is a way to keep helping the people who rely on those clinics,” Marchbanks said.
Attorneys at Navigate are not meeting with clients in their physical office unless there are special circumstances. The transition has been smooth because the firm has always been “technology heavy.”
“Having everyone switch to working remotely was pretty painless. We’re having weekly virtual meetings with everyone at the firm, and several smaller virtual meetings per week, and client meetings have all been via video or phone call. We’re very lucky that we’ve been able to essentially stay fully operational,” Marchbanks said.
Right now, the only attorneys volunteering for Navigate’s virtual clinic are its own. It has attorneys with expertise in family, domestic violence, estate planning and probate, business, employment, criminal, consumer, guardianship and real estate law.
The firm plans to track the legal issues people have when they sign up for the clinic and recruit more lawyers from around the county and elsewhere, if needed.
Elizabeth Fitzgearld, executive director of the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program, announced in late March that attorneys are advising clients with urgent and emergent civil legal needs by phone.
Staff are working from their homes to triage cases, return calls and emails, and address safety concerns.
“The courts are a mysterious beast, and with the intersection of unemployment, debt, and health crises, we know more folks will find themselves needing our help soon enough,” she said.
Northwest Justice Project, which serves low-income clients statewide dealing with legal matters, has posted changes to its services and COVID-19 resources to the front page of its website. The organization also runs the website washingtonlawhelp.org, which now features a coronavirus section with legal tips for medical care denials and unemployment.
The Northwest Justice Project’s field offices have been closed since March 16, when the organization transitioned to helping people remotely.
Attorney Philippe Knab said that beyond making staff available as much as possible, the organization is also advocating for changes to court rules, such as urging Clark County Superior Court judges to adopt a moratorium on evictions.
“We’re dealing with a totally different world, a different legal universe right now,” Knab said. “We do really think that our clients are the folks who are going to be hit hardest with what’s going on. The risk for unemployment will be higher for our clients due to a lack of resources.”