Telephone Advice Project makes legal advice easily accessible

This is part of a series that highlights a grant provided by the Foundation.

When a legal problem arises, it’s important to seek professional help.

Walking into a law office, though, can be intimidating, and difficult to fit into a busy schedule.

But a $5,000 grant from the Centre County Community Foundation is helping to make legal advice just a phone call away. The grant was given to MidPenn Legal Services over the summer, and it helps them run a program called the Telephone Advice Project: Help is on the Line.

“People wouldn’t think they could be immediately connected to a lawyer, but they can be,” said Brenda Zimmerman, a staff attorney at MidPenn and manager of the Telephone Advice Project.

From 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, people can call 1-800-326-9177 and receive legal advice from two full-time lawyers, Zimmerman being one of them, or other attorneys who are available as back up. Zimmerman said the program is capable of taking about 70 calls a week, in English or Spanish, and that the issues people most often have questions about are landlord-tenant disputes and how to deal with debt.

Callers from 11 counties, including Centre County, are eligible for the program. In most cases, they can be connected with an attorney immediately, at which point the attorney gathers facts about the person’s circumstances and provides legal advice over the phone. According to Zimmerman, every caller gets a follow up letter that confirms the advice that was given and includes written materials that MidPenn hopes will be helpful to the client.

Most of the time, Zimmerman said, callers simply want to know what their rights are and what they can expect in the future, and attorneys are able to resolve the matter by phone advice alone. But if it’s the kind of case that will need further services, they will receive follow-up service from a lawyer in one of the local offices where they live.

The formal telephone advice project began in September 2007. In September 2011, MidPenn Legal Services began the process of expanding to provide the program in all 18 counties in the MidPenn legal services area. They’re hoping to achieve this goal by the end of June 2012.

Zimmerman said that judging from the results of surveys they send out to callers, people are very pleased by the program, which she said gives many people who wouldn’t be able to come in for face-to-face counseling the opportunity to receive professional legal advice, which often prevents their problems from escalating.

“The response from the clients is absolutely positive,” she said. “Our clients face many barriers,  including disabilities, work schedules, and a need for childcare or transportation. It’s an instant service, and it also deals with all of those barriers that our clients face that would prevent them from coming into the office.”

Though giving legal advice over the phone goes against the traditional practice of face-to-face meetings that law firms usually employ, Zimmerman said that it’s what many clients want, and that she’s glad her organization has found a way to better serve clients who need help.

“People are so appreciate that they can talk to a lawyer right away and get their questions answered. It’s very rewarding,” Zimmerman said. “The greatest source of satisfaction is that the clients are satsifed. People comment on their surveys that even though you might have only been on the phone for 30 minutes, you really made a connection and helped calm their fears.”

More information about MidPenn Legal Services can be found on their website. For more information about the Telephone Advice Project, check out this brochure.

-Erin

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