Jan. 20, 2016 – They may not be Monsieur Gustave H. of the Grand Budapest Hotel, but like the legendary concierge they offer guests attentive recommendations and directions. They are the volunteer lawyers for the Appellate Practice Section’s brand new virtual Appellate Help Desk, which serves pro se litigants with civil cases in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
Too Many Appeals Dismissals Due to Procedural Missteps
The “help desk” idea sprang from discussions with former Chief Judge Richard Brown, Judge Brian Blanchard, Clerk Diane Fremgen, and Chief Staff Attorney Jenny Andrews. The Appellate Practice Section’s pro bono committee had been finding volunteer appellate lawyers for pro se litigants for more than 15 years, but it noticed that few referrals came from the court of appeals. Pro se parties do call the court with questions, but the clerks cannot give legal advice. As a result, appeals get dismissed due to procedural missteps well before the court can determine whether they merit referral for pro bono counsel.
The solution was to direct pro se litigants to a volunteer appellate lawyer who could answer procedural questions, supply forms, and provide “brief legal advice.” But since calls come from all 72 counties, stationing the volunteer lawyer at the Clerk’s office in Madison (e.g. the courthouse clinic model) did not make sense. So the Pro Bono Committee began exploring ways to provide legal advice online. That’s when attorney Amelia Bizzaro, a member of the Appellate Section’s Board of Directors, hit upon an idea: Harness the power of Google!
How It Works: Volunteering from Your Office, Home, or Anywhere
With help from attorney Dustin Haskell (State Public Defender), the pro bono committee set up an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a toll-free Google Voice number with voice messaging at (414) 671-9041. Fremgen and attorney Shelley Fite (Federal Defenders) compiled a list of questions frequently asked by pro se litigants along with all the correct answers. Attorney Freya Bowen of Perkins Coie assembled the “Pro Bono Help Desk” booklet used to train volunteer lawyers.
Colleen Ball is an appellate attorney at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office. She coordinates the Appellate Practice Section's pro bono appeals committee.
Here’s how the system works: When pro se litigants file a notice of appeal in a civil case, the Clerk’s office mails a notice telling them how to contact the Appellate Help Desk for assistance. The litigant either emails the Help Desk or calls and leaves a voicemail, which Google automatically transcribes to text. A volunteer lawyer “staffs” the Help Desk for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That entails checking the email/voicemail queue and responding to questions from wherever the lawyer happens to be working that day – in the office, on the road, or at home.
A nifty aspect of Google Voice is that it allows the volunteer lawyer to call the pro se litigant from her desk or cell phone, but the litigant sees only the Help Desk phone number, not the law firm or cell phone number. If that sounds complicated, trust attorney Mike Apfeld of Godfrey & Kahn, who freely describes himself as “digitally impaired” but says, “If I can do it, anyone can.” Attorney Philip Babler of Foley & Lardner agrees: “The technology makes it easy to log in from anywhere to answer questions.”
‘Anticipate the Client’s Needs before the Needs are Needed.’
That’s Monsieur Gustave’s motto, and it’s what volunteers find themselves doing. Many callers don’t really know what they need.
“It takes a fair amount of time to uncover the procedural questions callers need answered so that we can provide advice, guides, and forms,” says attorney Sarah Huck of Reinhart Boerner, but these are the circumstances in which we are able to help the most.”
Attorney Kathy Keppel of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown says, “Callers seem to appreciate the opportunity to talk through an issue with an experienced appellate lawyer.”
But, adds Apfeld, “This process makes it painfully apparent that what these callers need most is an attorney to provide them with substantive advice.”
Volunteer attorneys can now sympathize with the frustration felt by the Clerk’s office.
“Many pro se litigants need direction on what to do next or where to find resources,” says Fremgen. “Helping them often involves sifting through the story of their case. Clerk staff cannot meet this need, and until the Appellate Help Desk opened, the only resource we could offer them was the printed guide.”
70 calls in 10 weeks
The Appellate Help Desk opened in October 2015. The information about the Help Desk is linked at the bottom of the page on the Wisconsin Court System Self-help law center webpage on appealing a court decision.
During its first 10 weeks, it responded to more than 70 calls and emails, sometimes three or four from the same litigant. Future plans include setting up a simple Google site, creating an easy-to-use “brief template” to help pro se litigants comply with formatting requirements, and drafting a basic “model appellate brief” because many pro se litigants don’t know what one looks like.
Spritzing L’air de Panache is not required. Patience and wise counsel are.
To volunteer, email Colleen Ball.