DMBA, Cooley team up to expand pro bono services Full Service Partnership

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

The term pro bono originated from the Latin pro bono publico, for the public good, and the dictionary definition means just that -- doing professional work donated for the public good. And attorneys are familiar with the concept of providing their skills for free to those less fortunate.

Well, giving just got a lot easier, thanks to a program that launched in late January. It's called the Cooley Law School-DMBA Pro Bono Mentorship Program, and will expand the pro bono services offered in the greater Detroit area.

The program is a collaboration of Cooley Law School and the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association, and has been in formulation stages for months. The kickoff to the program took place January 20 with a breakfast in the 40th floor offices of Dickinson Wright in the Comerica Building.

The idea for this partnership grew months ago, said Lorraine Weber, executive director of the DMBA Foundation. She said herself, E. Christopher Johnson Jr. and John Nussbaumer were kicking around ideas on how to develop a partnership with Thomas M. Cooley Law School that would give students at the school representation in the Detroit area, and also allow those law students to receive mentoring from practicing attorneys.

"We talked about how something like this might work," Weber said.

She could not have picked a better pair to brainstorm with.

Nussbaumer is a professor at Cooley, and the associate dean in charge of the school's Auburn Hills campus. And he is no stranger to the importance of pro bono work in the legal community. Besides serving on several bar association's pro bono committees, Nussbaumer volunteers for Cooley's Service-to-Soldiers and Senior Pro Bono Outreach programs.

Johnson is a well-recognized proponent of pro bono efforts. When he served as vice president and general counsel to General Motors North America, he led the charge for pro bono for years. As an associate professor and graduate program corporate law and finance director, he has continued with those efforts. And as co-chair of the DMBA Foundation, and a member of several bar association's pro bono efforts, Johnson champions the practice.

"And the result of that idea kicks off today," Weber said. "Cooley needed a place for law students to have urban law experience, and we were interested in promoting pro bono and giving our attorneys resources to assist them in handling those cases."

"And so, it was kind of a perfect match," Weber said.

Johnson called it "a great collaboration between the law school and the legal community."

"It's a great opportunity to really show our commitment to legal service opportunities," Johnson said.

Getting Cooley students involved in the program was easy. Dionnie Wynter, assistant director of Cooley's Center For Ethics, Service and Professionalism at the Auburn Hills campus, said she sent out an e-mail to students who qualified for the program, and expected to get four or five responses.

"And we got 84," she said.

The list was pared down to six students each from the Auburn Hills and Ann Arbor campuses, but other students will be added during subsequent semesters to keep it around 10 students each semester.

"Cooley has a culture of pro bono, and we highly encourage students to arrange their time to participate in these types of programs," Wynter said.

Eligibility required the students to be in good academic standing and completed their first year of law school, as well as classes in Personal and Professional Responsibility and Research and Writing. Students also had to commit to the case from beginning to end, and attend a pro bono orientation course.

Attorneys who commit to the program need only to be willing to volunteer their time, and be a licensed member in good standing with the State Bar. Then, they will be paired with students, who they will mentor, while also fulfilling their own pro bono commitment.

The State Bar of Michigan has a voluntary pro bono standard that calls for representation of three low-income clients for a minimum of 30 hours of professional services or representation.

Edward H. Pappas, the co-chairman of Dickinson Wright and former president of the State Bar of Michigan, called it "a unique program" that benefits everyone.

Dennis Donahue, administrator of the DMBA's Access to Justice Programs, called it a four-win situation. Needy clients will receive legal representation; law students are introduced to real cases and the pro bono concept with mentoring from established attorneys; those attorneys get assistance in pro bono cases; and the legal providers who refer cases have another method to ensure deserving clients get the best legal representation they deserve.

Donahue said the cases the students and the attorneys handle will be referred from any number of the local legal services providers, including the Michigan Legal Services, Michigan Legal Aid and Defender Association, the United Community Housing Coalition, Neighborhood Legal Services of Michigan, Elder Law of Michigan, and others. In the future, other entities also may refer cases, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said those providers will use a case-evaluation method to determine what cases to forward to the pro bono mentorship program, but those cases will likely be landlord-tenant issues, consumer law, family law, and probate matters such as wills and power of attorney. A few impingements may also find its way into the mix, and tax and bankruptcy might be added in the future.

"We should get a wide variety of cases," Donahue said.

At the breakfast, he also said there will be a wide range of attorneys involved in the program, from attorneys at General Motors to the individual practitioners "and everything in-between."

Pappas said pro bono work "is a very important part of an attorney's life." Many sole practitioners devote a large amount of time to pro bono work, and many firms, large and small, have in-house established pro bono programs, he said.

He said pro bono work is vitally important because locating funding for those who need legal assistance is very difficult.

"There are more people who need legal work and can't afford it than there are lawyers who provide the services," Pappas said. "This program will go a long way in assisting people who need help."

He and others said putting the importance of pro bono work in the minds of students while they are still in law school sets a great example, and benefits the justice system as well by providing a public service.

Rob Mathis, who is on the Pro Bono Service Council for the State Bar, credited the DMBA, Cooley, and the lawyers who are buying into the program. He said more and more attorneys are involved with pro bono work.

Richard D. Jackson, 33, a second year law student at Cooley, said he was excited to be selected for the program.

"I think any attorney, and even attorneys in training, like us, need to recognize they have an obligation and duty to help," he said.

Jackson said having access to justice is what a democratic society such as ours is all about. And even though law school students may not feel they are ready to work, a program like this promotes pro bono habits for the future.

Nussbaumer agreed.

"Hopefully, we can get pro bono into their DNA as part of who they are as lawyers," Nussbaumer said, "so that when they get out into private practice it's not something extra or onerous that they have to do, or think about doing, it's something they really think of naturally as part of their professional obligation."

Nussbaumer and Weber hope the program flourishes and continues.

"We're looking at this as a long term partnership and we think it'll be successful," Nussbaumer said.

"We're just excited to see how it moves forward," Weber added. "We'll keep our fingers crossed so we can expand our services, and try to keep it going."

Photo by Paul Janczewski

From left, Rob Mathis, State Bar of Michigan Pro Bono Service Council; E. Christopher Johnson Jr., Cooley associate professor and co-chair, DMBA Foundation; Lorraine Weber, executive director of the DMBA Foundation; Dionnie Wynter, Cooley associate director of Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism at the Auburn Hills campus; Cooley student Richard D. Jackson; Cooley Associate Dean John Nussbaumer for the Auburn Hills campus; and Dennis Donahue, DMBA Foundation Access to Justice Program administrator.

Published: Tue, Feb 1, 2011