Volunteer Legal Services Project handles about 1,260 cases per year. However, that only serves about 25 percent of the clients seeking civil legal services in the Rochester area. How do we increase pro bono resources?
A panel consisting of the Hon. Henry J. Scudder, presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department; Gail M. Norris, vice president and general counsel, University of Rochester; and Carolyn G. Nussbaum, managing partner at Nixon Peabody LLP, spoke about the real and perceived obstacles to attorneys volunteering for pro bono assignments.
“As employees paid by the state of New York, there is a mindset that we can’t do anything. Instead we should be looking at what we can do,” Justice Scudder said, later referencing the Fourth Department’s written pro bono policy, and noting Volunteer Legal Services Project as the approved clearing house for pro bono assignments.
Managing partners of the 25 largest firms and general counsel from the Association of Corporate Counsel’s local chapter were invited to The Strathallan Hotel on Thursday for a breakfast presentation sponsored by AppealTech, Avalon Document Services and GLC Business Services.
Norris, speaking on behalf of corporate counsel, noted that her peers are used to having only one client.
“But it is our professional responsibility to represent those who can’t afford legal advice for the basic necessities of life. We are uniquely qualified to help. If not us, who?” Norris asked.
Nussbaum described the partnership Nixon Peabody has with Xerox Corporation, so private firm attorneys can help local corporate counsel navigate the client issues common in civil pro bono cases. Their private firm/corporate counsel program extends to locations across the U.S.
Anthony Piazza, partner at Hiscock & Barclay, served as moderator for the panel discussion. He encouraged audience participation and several attorneys shared their thoughts and experiences.
VLSP Board President Aileen Shinaman opened and closed the one hour breakfast program. A short video clip from an interview with NYS Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stressed the special responsibility of the legal profession to help those who are fighting for the basic necessities of life.
“It is essential that we dedicate ourselves to meet that need,” Judge Lippman said in the taped interview.
“If every local attorney took one case or worked one legal clinic, we could cut the turn-away rate in half,” said VLSP Executive Director Sheila Gaddis.
Current unmet needs include pro bono assistance in domestic violence cases, securing divorces and custody. The collection clinics have been overwhelmed with clients in recent years and over 95 percent of defendants in consumer credit cases go unrepresented.
Through the course of the discussion it was made clear that VLSP’s liability insurance covers an attorney taking a pro bono case through their offices, and the VLSP staff attorneys provide materials and guidance for many of the needed services such as name changes and wills.
Volunteers are needed for the Help Center, and these positions only require a 1.5 or 2 hour commitment.
Many of the clients seeking services through VLSP have minimal education and limited reading skills, so someone to help them fill out forms and answer questions can smooth the path for them to handle, for example, a pro se uncontested divorce. Many Spanish speaking clients similarly struggle with what goes where on forms and documents, and an attorney’s assistance can help move them towards resolution.
– Photos by Nora A. Jones