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Project Gets Affordable Legal Aid to Rural Montanans

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Virtual aids like Zoom have become more common tools for attorneys, allowing them to meet remotely with clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. (NicoElNino/Adobe Stock)
Virtual aids like Zoom have become more common tools for attorneys, allowing them to meet remotely with clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. (NicoElNino/Adobe Stock)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
April 9, 2021

HELENA, Mont. - A Montana program is reaching rural residents who struggle to afford legal representation when they need it.

The Rural Incubator Project for Lawyers, or RIPL, is a two-year fellowship that helps folks with common legal matters - from divorce and landlord-tenant disputes to receiving Social Security disability insurance.

Walter Clapp, founder of Honor Coin Law, recently became one of the first alumni of the fellowship. He said many people fall into the category of "modest means."

"Folks are not below the poverty line, so they don't have access to free legal services," said Clapp. "But they also can't afford $300 an hour. And so, there's this huge unmet legal need."

There are currently 10 attorneys in the RIPL program. Its partners include the Montana Legal Services Association, State Bar of Montana and University of Montana Law School.

Clapp noted other states have similar models.

He said RIPL provides a spectrum of services. In other words, representation doesn't have to look like a lawyer sitting next to a client in the courtroom.

It also involves answering basic legal questions, which can happen over the phone. Clapp said that's important.

"Just talking to somebody who knows the answers for you can be such a relief and a lift of stress off of a person," said Clapp.

Clapp said COVID-19 also has changed the ways folks in hard-to-reach parts of Montana get legal help.

"You get us some documents, we can talk to you and you can also do it by Zoom," said Clapp. "And COVID actually made all of this a lot easier, and access to rural America so much easier, because everyone suddenly became Zoom-proficient."

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