The phone was ringing again.
Lynn W. Beck answered, expecting another caller seeking legal information about filing for bankruptcy or dealing with a foreclosure.
But this one was different. The woman on the other end of the line was saying that her neighbor had shot and killed her dog. She wanted to know what to do.
Beck, a bankruptcy attorney in Wilmington, pondered the question for a moment and then suggested that the woman call her district attorney.
The conversation was over as quickly as it began and soon Beck was reaching for another ringing phone. She was one of the more than 460 lawyers across the state who gave their time to answer legal questions from the public during the N.C. Bar Association’s fifth annual 4ALL Statewide Service Day on March 2.
Beck was stationed at a makeshift call center in the Wilmington office of the Williams Mullen law firm. Other call centers were staffed by lawyers in Asheville, Cary, Charlotte, Greensboro, Greenville and Raleigh.
The centers started taking calls at 7 a.m., with local TV news stations broadcasting toll-free numbers, and shut down the lines 12 hours later. By the end of the long day, the lawyer phone jockeys had fielded 8,648 calls statewide.
Past NCBA president Janet Ward Black of Greensboro created the event because she wanted to encourage lawyers to venture beyond their comfort zones while also helping the community.
“We’ve all gotten to be such specialists that we don’t realize we can do things outside of our practice area,” she said. “We wanted to do this to help us all remember that we can provide the public with information about normal legal questions.”
Those “normal legal questions” were accompanied by a few unusual queries, including one from a caller who asked if it was OK for him to bury a human body in his yard. In Greensboro, Black took a call from a woman who claimed that she’d eaten a rice dish that was so spicy it had caused one of her retinas to peel away from the rest of her eye.
“Even if the restaurant did something wrong, she would need an expert opinion to link the detached retina to the spicy rice,” Black said. “I tried very hard to tell her that she didn’t have a very strong case. But that’s where you’re kind of getting into legal advice. Hopefully, I identified the hoops that she needed to jump through to be successful.”
Black and the other lawyers taking calls had to walk a thin line when dealing with callers. They were not supposed to give overly specific legal advice or refer callers to particular lawyers. Instead, they offered general help, detailing the steps a person needed to take to pursue a case or helping to identify the potential strengths and weaknesses of a claim.
“We try to help the caller focus on what’s relevant,” said Edward T. Shipley III of Smith Moore Leatherwood in Wilmington. “By narrowing the issues and pointing them to the right kind of attorneys, I think we really help people.”
Anonymity was the order of the day. To avoid creating the impression of an attorney-client relationship and other conflicts, the callers and lawyers were in the dark about each other’s identities. The namelessness also helped callers feel more comfortable, especially when they were talking about dire financial situations.
Questions about bankruptcy, foreclosure and unemployment dominated this year’s call-in day, said Wilmington volunteer Christopher K. Behm, a partner at Block, Crouch, Keeter, Behm & Sayed.
“It’s a sad indicator of the current state of our economy, I’m afraid,” he said.
Shipley, who co-chaired the event, said he was bothered by some of the woeful tales he heard while manning a phone for several hours.
“You get some really unfortunate ones where people are in bankruptcy or looking for a legal solution for certain calamities,” he said, adding that the call-in day highlights the need for affordable legal services and affirms the value of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Following the success of the call-a-lawyer day, NCBA president Martin H. Brinkley of Raleigh last summer created a similar program, which he dubbed Call 4ALL. Brinkley’s program alleviates some of the burden on Legal Aid and provides another way for private attorneys to assist the poor.
Lawyers agree to perform triage on cases for Legal Aid, spending up to an hour on the phone with each potential indigent client. At the end of the consultation, the lawyer can take the caller on as a pro bono client or send a memo to Legal Aid summarizing the case. Then the agency determines whether to take further action.
So far, about 400 lawyers have signed up for the program and have handled at least 1,000 cases in collaboration with Legal Aid, Brinkley said. He hopes to have 500 lawyers involved with the initiative by the NCBA’s annual meeting in June.