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Pro Bono Spotlight: Technology brings legal services to rural residents

In 1977, Paul E. Richardson was in law school in Syracuse and the practice of law looked quite a bit different than it does today. He recalls working at IBM after earning his undergraduate degree at Hampton University, then his first position after law school at the Onondaga County Attorney’s office.

Paul Richardson

Paul Richardson

“Nothing was automated,” Richardson remembers. “Working in Family Court with juvenile delinquents, notes were taken by hand, pleadings and motions were typed on typewriters.”

Shortly thereafter, Richardson started a 32-year career with Allstate Insurance as staff counsel. First in the Syracuse office and later at Allstate headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois, he and his colleagues learned to use dictation equipment and were supported by a large clerical staff.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t very efficient,” Richardson laughs. “The practice of law has definitely reduced its real estate footprint. Fewer clerical jobs and fewer book shelves. And client expectations have grown right along with technology.”

Like so many baby boomers, Richardson came through the 1980s kicking and screaming as personal computers, email, and mobile phones began changing the way law was being practiced.

Fast forward to 2017

Today many law offices allow attorneys to work from home or remote locations as long as they have internet and cell service.

Retired from Allstate for a couple of years now, Richardson continues to use his years of legal experience to help underserved rural clients via webcam — a technology that did not exist when he started to practice law.

He participated in resolving eight consumer debt and landlord/tenant matters through “Closing the Gap,” a partnership between the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY); Legal Assistance of Western New York (LawNY); Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, Inc. (VLSP); and Pro Bono Net with the goal of getting needed legal services to rural clients.

Richardson generally came to the VLSP offices at the Telesca Center to connect to clients in need in

Chautauqua, Tompkins, Yates, and Wayne counties (in addition to Monroe County). VLSP staff was on hand to ensure the video connection was working properly, and the rural clients traveled to their local LawNY office in Bath, Elmira, Geneva, Ithaca, Jamestown or Olean.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when someone is being sued, it is a traumatic experience for the individuals involved,” Richardson added. “Clients want someone to listen and are much less apprehensive about a summons once an attorney explains what to do.”

He acknowledges that being able to see each other face-to-face — without traveling all around the countryside — is a use of technology he did not imagine when he trained to be a lawyer.

After nearly 40 years of client counseling, Richardson admits the specific facts and faces begin to blur. Someone is unable to pay off a car loan; their credit card debt has them painted in a corner; a tenant falls behind in their rent.

“Rural families have the same issues as urban clients,” he notes. “Clearly they can’t afford an attorney, and it is that much more complicated in outlying areas to find legal services. All of the remote clients I have seen have been grateful.”

Rural clients

Funding for the Closing the Gap program was discontinued, but certainly the need still exists. As a result, VLSP is adding debt relief to the Family Law Remote Assistance Project which previously only helped with Family Court petitions and issues.

Scott MacPherson, VLSP staff attorney and coordinator of the Family Law Remote Assistance Project, welcomes Rochester-area attorneys to participate in the remote client connections.

“Debt issues often compound the struggles rural families already face. Advice from our volunteers can be critical in helping rural families to get their lives and finances back on track. We are always seeking new volunteers as we receive an increasing number of requests from families for guidance,” MacPherson says.

“The technology can be intimidating to new users, but a VLSP staff member will be there to get the laptop and webcam up and running for our volunteer attorneys. Once shown how the technology works, many volunteer attorneys are comfortable making the client contact via their own computer and webcam.”

To volunteer for a consumer debt or family law case to handle via webcam, contact Scott MacPherson at (585) 295-5712 or by email at [email protected]

Honor Roll

VLSP offers a wide variety of opportunities for attorneys to provide full representation to low-income clients or provide advice at monthly clinics. Practice areas include divorce, wills, unemployment, insurance, guardianship, consumer, bankruptcy, collections, child support, custody and visitation. Attorneys in our Micro-Entrepreneur Pro Bono Program render advice to low-income entrepreneurs.

Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County announced its “Honor Roll” of attorneys and paralegals who recently took cases or staffed clinics.

May 2017 Honor Roll

Solo Practitioners: Lorna Affronti; Opal Bailey; Eugene T. Clifford; David Dollinger; Patricia Gibbons; Charles Gifford; Barbara Heyne; Ardeth Houde; Phillip Hurwitz; John McQueen; Robert Nicolais; Tracy Powell; Blanca Owen; Paul Richardson; Barbara Orenstein; Ernest Santoro; Robert Schwartz; Gary VanGraaifeiland; Paul Watkins; Seymour Weinstein; John Wieser

Attorneys at Firms: Michael Arnold (Barclay Damon LLP); Sanjeev Devabhakthuni (Barclay Damon LLP); Anthony Piazza (Barclay Damon LLP); Paul Sanders (Barclay Damon LLP); Jerry Solomon (Barclay Damon LLP); Gary Cohen (Basch & Nickerson LLP); C. Bruce Lawrence (Boylan Code LLP); Christopher Werner (Boylan Code LLP); Sarahann Forgione (Paralegal, Bryant & Stratton College); Lesley Niebel (Faraci Lange, LLP); Steven Levitsky (Handelman, Witkowicz & Levitsky, LLP); Cristina A. Bahr (Harris Beach PLLC); Amanda Dwyer (Harris Beach PLLC); Beth Wilkens (Harris Beach PLLC); Diana Clarkson (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Michael Corelli (Summer Associate, Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Benjamin Mudrick (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Kevin Pregent (Summer Associate, Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Glenn Schieck (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Jesse St. Cyr (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Rachelle Nuhfer (Lacy Katzen LLP); Wedade Abdallah (Legal Aid Society of Rochester); Judi Bogart (MCC Paralegal Student); Donielle Noble (MCC Paralegal Student); Helen Perkins (MCC Paralegal Student); Lucien A. Morin (McConville Considine Cooman & Morin, P.C.); Sarah Brownlow (Nixon Peabody LLP); John Garrett (Nixon Peabody LLP); Jenny Holmes (Nixon Peabody LLP); Kenneth Hunt (Nixon Peabody LLP); Mary Magee (Parrs Perotto & Magee, LLP); George Schell (Schell & Schell); Leah Farrar (Thomson Reuters); Cindy Lapoff (Trevett Cristo Salzer & Andolina P.C.); Vicki Economou (University at Buffalo Law Student); Sam Havens (University at Buffalo Law Student); Emily Stouffer-Quinn (University at Buffalo Law Student); Nathan Van Loon (Van Loon Menard, Attorneys at Law)

Government: Michael Tuohey (Appellate Division); Lisa Paine (NYS Mental Hygiene Legal Services);

Corporate Attorneys: Tom Zell (Xerox Corporation)

Nora A. Jones is a freelance writer. She also contributes to the VLSP blog at She can be reached at [email protected]