Tacoma attorneys offer free coronavirus legal assistance

If her friends had so many questions about the legal ramifications of COVID-19, Meaghan Driscoll knew others would too.

Driscoll — no relation — is an attorney at Connelly Law Offices in Tacoma. That means she knows a lot of lawyers, and as guidelines and mandates in response to the coronavirus outbreak poured in, she watched her friends and colleagues try to quickly figure out what it all means.

What Driscoll heard were questions she was sure others would ask too — about employment rights, or parenting plans, or the temporary eviction moratorium.

In times of crisis and growing isolation, Driscoll identified a connection that needed to be made. There are lots of lawyers in Tacoma and Pierce County, she thought, and lots of people who suddenly need legal advice.

“Let’s try to connect these people,” Driscoll recalled thinking.

With the help of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association’s TacomaProBono program, that’s what she’s trying to do.

Last week, TacomaProBono — which is used to providing assistance, in person, from a physical office on Tacoma Avenue — began answering coronavirus-related legal questions online. A team of volunteer lawyers is ready to respond, free of charge, Driscoll says.

So far, attorneys have taken turns working 2-hour shifts throughout the day, according to TacomaProBono volunteer coordinator Ashley Duckworth, and they’ve been able to answer questions the same day.

Typically, Duckworth says pro bono attorneys schedule an appointment for a follow-up phone call to discuss the matter, but sometimes an email response is enough.

“As a community, I think it’s important to come together and share resources and knowledge. There are an incredible number of lawyers who want to participate in this and who want to help,” says Driscoll. “We all know there is a lot of uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear. Our hope is that with the virtual clinic, we can take away some of the guesswork and some of the fear that people have.

For the most part, Driscoll said, the questions “matched the reality” of what she and other attorneys thought they might receive.

“What we expected and what we saw is that there are a lot of people wondering if they are allowed to go to work or if they are required to go to work. Questions about essential employees and what that means,” says Driscoll. “We’ve also heard from many small business owners wondering what they can do to comply with the governor’s order, but also make sure their business doesn’t go under in this difficult time.”

Driscoll says the pro bono lawyers also answered a number of family law questions, particularly how “visitation is affected by orders.”

While some questions are simple to answer, others are not, says Driscoll.

She points out that we are in uncharted territory and that the legal terrain changes daily.

Meanwhile, with some courts closed, applicable case law to rely on is not always available.

“We do our best to advise people and let them know where the guardrails are,” says Driscoll. “We help advise them and give them an idea of ​​how to move forward.”.

According to Laurie Davenport, director of development and outreach at TacomaProBono, there have also been a number of housing issues.

Given the sudden rise in unemployment, says Davenport, the increased hardship is already evident and people are worried. As the crisis unfolds, she expects volunteer attorneys to spend much of their time discussing the implications of the state’s temporary ban on residential evictions, including the unknowns. which remain.

During more normal times, TacomaProBono handles a heavy workload of evictions through its Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project, so that’s the direction Davenport is willing to give.

This experience is also part of what scares Davenport, and another reason why she thinks the effort is important.

“When things get back to normal, there will be an overwhelming explosion of evictions,” predicts Davenport.

“We need to get people’s questions and get an idea of ​​what’s going on.”

This story was originally published April 2, 2020 5:05 a.m.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and underground news columnist for The News Tribune. A recipient of the McClatchy President’s Award, Driscoll lives in downtown Tacoma with his wife and three children. He is passionate about the City of Fate and strives to tell stories that otherwise would not be told.

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