MBA celebrates 
25 years of Dial-A-Lawyer

Issue March/April 2016 By Malea Ritz

This year, the Massachusetts Bar Association celebrates a quarter-century of pro bono assistance at the 25th anniversary of the monthly Dial-A-Lawyer program.

An anonymous hotline offering free legal advice, the program assists approximately 1,100 callers each year. Although it helps all Massachusetts residents, it is more specifically geared toward aiding those who have fallen through the cracks of the legal and criminal justice system. The program also gives lawyers an opportunity to volunteer their time to a short-term commitment.

The lines open on the first Wednesday of every month from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The program is also offered twice a year for Western Massachusetts residents.

"It's a very useful way for trying to provide some general legal guidance to people who call in," said past participant Mark C. Laredo. "It's the type of thing that lawyers should be proud of -- to give back to our community."

Elizabeth O'Neil, the MBA director of public and community services, launched the MBA's monthly Dial-A-Lawyer program in 1991. Prior to then, the MBA had coordinated call-in programs with other local organizations, such as Ask-A-Lawyer with The Boston Herald and WBZ's Call for Action.

"I saw that there was a real need to help people that have one legal question," she said. O'Neil noticed that people sought direction, but "were kind of scared calling up a lawyer." As a result, she wanted to do something more -- on a hotline -- where anonymity is easier.

The program has adapted over the years with technology, O'Neil said. In its initial stages, it was nothing more than a room full of phones that rang continuously without a pause between calls. "It wasn't a string and soda cans, but we didn't have all of the bells and whistles and online statistics that we have now at our fingertips," she said.

Today, the MBA can track aspects like how long callers have been waiting, how long the attorneys have been on the phone and topics being discussed. Although some of the most frequently discussed topics revolve around family laws, such as divorce, support and custody, many areas of concern have been cyclical with the economy and world events, O'Neil said. When the economy was poor, the program saw many more calls regarding mortgage foreclosures as a result of job loss. Additionally, the program has advised callers who were affected by floods, 9/11, the Hampden County tornado and the Boston Marathon bombing.

"That's the nice part of Dial-A-Lawyer -- because we have the infrastructure, we can turn it on very quickly as a response to get our attorneys out there helping," O'Neil said.

Although limited exclusively to the information they're receiving from the caller, lawyers can always answer general questions, and sometimes give more specific insight, depending on their practice. They are not required by law to do pro bono cases, and thus their participation is solely voluntary. Different lawyers bring diverse specialties to the table and can redirect callers to a different lawyer present if there's one available who better suits their needs.

Particularly in debt situations, three-year program participant Samuel A. Segal said he can be helpful in laying out options and steps to take action to give callers more peace of mind. "As attorneys we understand the power of negotiating and [that] you have leverage, even as a debtor," he said. "[It's about] giving people the sense that they themselves have some negotiating power, even if the people themselves feel like they're in a weak position."

"You can make a meaningful difference in people's lives, especially on an important issue or point people in the right direction," Segal said. "That is why we do it. Everyone is doing this program because they like it."

Malea Ritz is an associate editor with The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal.