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
"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