A Day in the Life of a PBO Hotliner

Prior to Ontario’s most recent provincial election, I didn’t know much about Pro Bono Ontario (“PBO”), a registered charity since 2001 which serves just under 30,000 clients each year from 11 locations. I wasn’t a litigator, and my clients were large corporations, not regular, everyday Canadians, so it wasn’t part of my world. But earlier this year, PBO gave a most impressive presentation to the Legal Innovators Roundtable describing how it was achieving maximum impact with a modest budget through its Free Legal Advice Hotline, using a thoughtful blend of volunteers as well as old and new technology. It sounded like PBO was really starting to reimagine the entire legal services space for pro bono services. I was intrigued.

In addition to the hotline, PBO provides four other service offerings – (Law Help Centres, medical-legal partnerships, children’s programs, and corporate pro bono for start-ups and non-profits) – each of which follows best practices and includes extended malpractice coverage for volunteers via LawPRO. These programs reach people who fall outside the scope of Legal Aid Ontario and who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

As an operations guy, I was curious about the hotline supported by PBO staff and up to six volunteer lawyers a day who give advice around civil litigation, employment, housing, consumer protection and debt, powers of attorney, and small or personal business issues.

A hotline sounds pretty mundane and pretty 2005, right?

Right – until one looks under the hood to see how it all comes together.

Unlike the vast majority of Canadian law firms, everyone working on the hotline is supported by, and uses, state-of-the-art technology; Salesforce for case management, a custom knowledge management system within Salesforce (that includes over 400 lawyer-drafted FAQs along with hyperlinks to primary source law and relevant forms), New Voice Media to manage call centre functions, and Nintex DocGen for document assembly. After a call, clients receive follow-up resources, completed documents and instructions for sending and/or filing documents, as required – and just as importantly, clients are asked for feedback on the service. All data collected is used for reporting and improvement purposes.

I agreed to give the hotline a whirl and I would be lying if I attended without some anxiety. At least the system was set up to only send me calls for areas of law in which I felt relatively comfortable; I secretly hoped it would be a slow day with few calls!

PBO’s call center is located in very plain, shared office space in midtown Toronto. Like any call centre, the space is filled with a bank of desks, each equipped with a computer and headset. At the front of the room is a large screen showing how many calls are waiting, how many are in progress, and how many are in wrap-up mode (volunteers making notes to file).

I took my seat and the first call arrived soon after our official 9:30 am opening. A record immediately popped up on my computer screen with the client’s name, intake information, and detailed notes made by a previous volunteer in connection with a prior call.

“Good Morning, Pro Bono Ontario, my name is Mitch. How may I help you?”

The caller was 71 years old and following up on prior advice that I was able to review while she was on the line. She needed help with a demand letter to her neighbour whose contractor had damaged her house. After asking her a few questions, I created the letter through Nintex DocGen in no time at all, then emailed it to her for printing and signing. As there were no other issues, I asked her to stay on the line after our call to answer a short questionnaire. I entered my notes to her record, then clicked ‘ready’ on the phone system so that it knew to send me another call.

For first time callers, I quickly filled out the short intake questions and verified that callers were financially eligible for PBO services. For calls dealing with issues about which I was less familiar, I could easily toggle to the custom knowledge management system for answers – and there was always CanLII and Google on hand as well. I want to thank all the law firms out there who posted memos on aspects of law that weren’t covered by the PBO knowledge management system!

On the calls went until noon. Then an hour break for lunch. Back at 1 pm, with the final call coming in before our 4 pm closing. All in all, it wasn’t terribly taxing.

However, the calls revealed a part of Canada that many lawyers never see; meanness and evil at a micro level. Canadians do take advantage of other Canadians and newcomers simply because they can; without fear of consequences. But at about 18,000 calls each year, PBO is making life for these bad actors a little less comfortable.

Sometimes the stories told during calls made me angry, sometimes they made me sad. Sometimes the answer I gave had little to do with law; I simply worked through the matter in a common-sense way with the caller. A little too often, the legal options available to callers were less than appetizing. Do you sue the landlord for the $500 damage deposit he illegally demanded (and received), when you’re on Ontario Works? How do you economically chase an un-registered car sales outfit that deliberately hid damage to the vehicle you purchased? How do you deal with a contractor who kept the deposit without performing the work? At the end of the day, while I didn’t have perfect solutions for everyone, I got the impression that simply being able to discuss their rights and options with a lawyer helped these callers and their perception of the justice system.

Most remarkable about PBO’s hotline is its efficiency; over 80% of calls are resolved through providing summary legal advice and brief services; and 97% of callers who received drafting assistance reported that they were able to file their court forms or send the letters prepared for them. It’s no wonder that the hotline’s client satisfaction rate consistently hovers around 88%.

In short, I was so impressed that I agreed to join the PBO board of directors.

PBO has successfully made the transition from an exciting idea with a lot of potential, to a proven delivery system with demonstrable results. It’s a model that should be further explored to improve, and even integrate with, Ontario’s cash-strapped legal aid clinic system. Doing the same thing over and over again, has not solved the access to justice to crisis in this country – it’s past time for new ideas, new arrangements and new partnerships.

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