COVID-19 Legal Hotlines Provide Hands-On Advice In A Virtual World

Serving the public, as the mission statement of the North Carolina Bar Association proclaims, has never been more important than now. To that end, the North Carolina Bar Foundation assembled a volunteer workforce of lawyers, paralegals and law students to help North Carolinians navigate the legal uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building on the spirit and concept of the annual 4ALL Statewide Service Day, the North Carolina Bar Foundation created COVID-19 Virtual Legal Hotlines. Stretching from May to September, six hotlines were held targeting various areas of the state.

The hotlines were conducted in partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina and relied on media partners who have supported 4ALL in the past. Television stations WLOS (Asheville), WFMY (Greensboro), WBTV (Charlotte), WRAL (Raleigh), WNCT (Greenville) and WECT (Wilmington) promoted the hotlines and shared the call-in numbers with their viewers.

The initial hotline, serving Western North Carolina, was also conducted in partnership with Pisgah Legal Services and the Buncombe County Bar. All total, 3,689 citizens were assisted by 233 attorneys and 97 paralegals and law students. In addition to Western N.C., the hotlines targeted the Triad, the Triangle, Eastern North Carolina and Charlotte, where two events were held.

How did it work?

“Callers would have taken one of two paths to connecting with an attorney,” said NCBF Senior Director Kim Bart Mullikin. “When the caller phoned the hotline, they first encountered a menu of press number options, including family law, tax law, bankruptcy law, housing or eviction and business law.

“If the caller did not select a specific area of law or pressed zero, he or she was connected with an intake volunteer (paralegals and law students) who spoke with the caller to assess his or her basic legal need, question or issue. The intake volunteer would then transfer the caller to the relevant attorney queue.”

Alison Ashe-CardMany volunteers participated in multiple hotlines, including Alison Y. Ashe-Card who volunteered for every hotline.

“I decided at the age of 10 to go to law school because I wanted to help people,” said Ashe-Card, who serves as Associate Director, Diversity & Inclusion, in the Office of Career & Professional Development at Wake Forest University School of Law. “Participating in the COVID-19 Virtual Hotlines allowed me to do just that in a unique way.

“As lawyers, we have a responsibility and duty to assist our community. We are a service profession. As lawyers, we have the knowledge and skills to address legal issues unlike anyone else.”

Ashe-Card noted that the questions she received ran the gamut.

“However,” she said, “in the hotlines that took place in May and June many of the questions I received concerned receipt of or eligibility to receive stimulus checks, unemployment compensation issues and concerns about workplace safety issues in light of COVID-19.

“A consistent theme through all of the hotlines was the appreciation expressed by everyone with whom I spoke. In fact, many of my conversations started clients expressing their appreciation before they described their legal issue.”

Ceretta AmosCerretta Amos of Smith Anderson in Raleigh agreed that people were appreciative of the assistance they were receiving.

“Some were a bit upset or bitter and the call was more about providing some form of hope or being an ear for them,” Amos said. “Some people called to vent as well. A lot of people needed assistance outside of a 3- to 5-minute call, so I tried to provide additional resources that could provide support to them. I knew the impact of this pandemic was large and really affected people outside of the health risk, and the hotline made that very clear.

“I cannot fully remember all of the questions, but generally I received several questions regarding PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans and the impact on small business and the loan forgiveness portion. There were several questions regarding other options and grants available for small business owners as well.”

Richard BoyetteRichard T. Boyette of Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog in Raleigh, a regular participant in the 4ALL Statewide Service Day, said the experience was quite similar to the annual event even if it was conducted virtually.

“Although I cannot recall any specific distribution of subjects,” Boyette said, “they probably tended more heavily towards benefits and economic issues, and less of the estates and domestic relations calls that were fairly numerous in my 4ALL experience.

Many of the calls required referrals to the Lawyer Referral Service.

“Similar to 4ALL, even when a specific answer could not be provided, the callers were generally very appreciative of our time and effort listening and trying to help them. I found the overall experience very rewarding. There is clearly a need for this type of service.”

Hannah WyattHannah Wyatt, Staff Attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina in Morganton, agreed that hotlines provided a service that is greatly needed at this time.

“I think that they are a really great tool to reach people who are experiencing new, frustrating, and often baffling issues as a result of the pandemic,” Wyatt said. “When I signed up for the Hotlines, I volunteered to respond to a variety of different issue areas. However, I almost exclusively received calls regarding unemployment benefits.

“Often, the best advice I could give was to ‘hang in there’ – that both the initial application and appeals process can take a long time. While callers were inevitably disappointed that there was no quick way to address their delays, I think it helped to hear from a professional working in this legal area that the wait time was not unusual.”

Wyatt appreciated the fact that she was able to help individuals identify or strengthen their confidence that they were eligible to apply for Unemployment Insurance Benefits (UIB) or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

“In my experience, many North Carolinians do not realize that they qualify for PUA in particular,” Wyatt said, “because the program is designed to cover workers who are ordinarily left out of state unemployment insurance programs, such as self-employed workers, independent contractors, and workers who have not worked long enough to qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits.”

Rachel RoyalDebbie HarrisRachel Royal and Debbie Harris were among several NCBA Paralegal Division members who volunteered for multiple hotlines. Royal is a paralegal in the City Attorney’s Office in Wilmington and Harris serves as Clerk to the Board and Assistant to the County Manager for Davidson County Government in Lexington.

“My biggest takeaway was that I was able to screen the calls that could not be assisted by this program,” Royal said, “and thus kept from wasting an attorney’s time who could have been helping someone with an actual legal question.

“One lady called in to offer her opinion on the restrictions put in place by the governor, and I directed her to the governor’s office for those remarks. She did not have a computer, so I looked up the email address and phone number and provided them to her. Another lady called to report that a club her son worked at was open in violation of the governor’s order, and I directed her to call local law enforcement.”

Harris added that she thoroughly enjoyed working on the hotlines, and would readily do so again.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to provide a much-needed service to folks in our communities who have struggled over the past several months to find answers to their legal questions,” Harris said. “One of the great things about the platform was that it didn’t matter where you were located in the state, you were able to help from the coast to the mountains!”

“I am hopeful that the Foundation will continue this venue of providing answers to the citizens of North Carolina in the future and think our membership will continue to be very willing to provide these services.”

Manisha PatelManisha P. Patel of Greensboro noted that the calls she fielded were very similar to those she receives during 4ALL as a family law practitioner.

“I specifically answered questions about absolute divorce and how to respond to filings for divorce and other possible claims to review with a local attorney before sending any kind of response,” Patel said. “Another interesting question I received was about the interplay between child custody and child support in North Carolina and how one does or does not affect the other.”

The process, she added, was very simple, and setting up to participate was a breeze.

“I received a few emails with instructions on what program I needed to download to have calls ported to my work computer, and then being able to answer the calls over the internet when the family law calls were routed to me. All of this happened over the internet and made it so easy to help people with legal questions especially in light of the pandemic and various court issues and legal questions in general. The whole process was very seamless and the NCBF made it so easy to participate from any location in North Carolina.”

Victoria Alvarez Walter Fisher Jr.Walter D. Fisher Jr. and Victoria A. Alvarez of Troutman Pepper in Charlotte also gave high marks to the effectiveness of the process that was implemented by the Foundation to connect callers and volunteers from anywhere in the state.

“Working on the COVID-19 hotline was easy and enjoyable for me,” said Fisher. “The technology employed by NCBF was easy to use to register for the event and to field calls. The resources and guidance provided by NCBF were extremely helpful in preparing me to confer with callers, including details regarding how to greet callers, information and contact details for other agencies to which callers could be referred for issues that could not be addressed fully in a five-minute phone consultation, and information on the substantive legal issues and questions most likely to be presented by callers.”

The callers, he added, were unfailingly polite and grateful for the opportunity to speak with a North Carolina-licensed attorney knowledgeable about real estate laws and regulations.

“I was somewhat surprised that a relatively high percentage of the callers I spoke with were residential landlords who wanted to understand their rights and obligations to their tenants during the COVID-19 eviction moratorium period,” Fisher said. “I received calls regarding a broad array of real estate scenarios and legal issues, and I was relieved to find that the materials provided by NCBF, combined with my prior knowledge, prepared me to respond capably to all of the inquiries.”

Alvarez received a variety of questions and comments from callers, all of whom were grateful for her assistance in these trying times.

“I agree with Walter that the technology was efficient and effective and that the Foundation provided sound resources,” said Alvarez. “I received questions on a broad range of civil issues, many about applying for and receiving unemployment benefits, but also about how to help ensure their work environment was as safe as possible when they returned.

“Some callers told me about their challenging and difficult circumstances caused by the pandemic – even though our phone consultations were brief, everyone expressed so much gratitude for my time.”

Tawanda Foster Artis serves as Senior Staff Attorney in the Legislative Analysis Division of the N.C. General Assembly, and is also a member of the NCBA Board of Governors. She participated in the 4ALL Statewide Service Day shortly before the full-blown onset of the pandemic set in, and like so many 4ALL volunteers have often commented, the hotlines were beneficial to everyone involved.

“North Carolina citizens benefitted from having immediate access to valuable free legal information,” Artis said, “while attorney volunteers were able to serve their community. Most importantly, everyone was able to participate in this opportunity while staying safe at home during the pandemic.”

Artis said she answered calls in the domestic violence and family law areas, mostly involving divorce and child custody questions.

“Managing family issues can have a tremendous impact of people’s lives,” Artis said. “Whether it’s about providing for their children, or ending their marriage, these are important and oftentimes issues that need immediate attention, especially now when people are having to spend most of their time at home and with their families.

“Attorneys have a responsibility to contribute to their communities through pro bono work – the COVID-19 Virtual Hotlines were a great way to meet this responsibility and impact the lives of many in our state.”

Brandon RobinsonAttorney Brandon Robinson of Durham also serves on the NCBA Board of Governors and is a member of the NCBF Board of Directors. He participated in five hotlines over several months, which provided him with a unique perspective.

“The types of questions had a distinct pattern depending on where we were in the progress of the pandemic,” Robinson said. “During the first early hotline calls in late spring or early summer, the number one issue I spoke to callers about was the CARES Act’s implications for foreclosures and evictions. I also received a couple calls about potential liability for employers and owners of public accommodations in the event of infections due to lack of PPE and social distancing protocols.

“As the summer of 2020 progressed, I fielded far fewer calls about COVID-19 and the CARES Act, but continued to field a high volume of calls about landlord-tenant issues. By the time that the hotline program was drawing to a close, I spoke with callers mostly about estate administration issues, and landlord-tenant issues unrelated to the pandemic.

“I could not discern a difference in COVID-19-related anxiety based on geographical region of the state, but overall, people were less anxious about the pandemic as the summer wore on, and more concerned about the general types of civil legal needs that lower-income citizens would have even without a pandemic and its resulting economic fallout.”

Setting aside two hours from billable time in a private practice on five separate days was a financial sacrifice, Robinson added, but each time he volunteered he knew that he had done something worth that sacrifice.

“Of all the phone calls I fielded through this program, I never felt that a single one was wasted, and each of my callers believed that I had empowered them with correct and actionable information. I did not ‘solve’ any of the underlying problems giving rise to the calls, but I did show each caller how to effectively navigate a situation that the caller neither desired nor expected.”

“The greatest accomplishment of NCBF’s COVID-19 Hotline initiative is that it empowered North Carolinians of diverse backgrounds, from all corners of the state, to respond to COVID-19 in a way that left them hopeful that they could still emerge from 2020 strong and resilient. That means a lot in a time of uncertainty and sudden change.”

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.

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