By Tom Kirvan
David Sherbin, senior vice president and general counsel for Delphi Automotive, was fresh from passing the bar exam in 1987 when he got his first taste of pro bono work.
It was an experience that still resonates with him today, some 25 years after he began his legal career with one of Chicago’s principal transactional law firms.
“I probably handled between 25 and 30 divorce cases as a pro bono lawyer, which was quite an education for a corporate securities attorney,” Sherbin said of his volunteer legal efforts over a five-year period with the firm formerly known as Katten Muchin & Zavis in the Windy City. “As I look back, it was truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my legal career.”
Sherbin, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and his juris doctorate from Cornell University Law School, made his comments during an April 19 luncheon program at Delphi’s headquarters in Troy. The program served as the kickoff for the company’s pro bono initiative, and included presentations from representatives of the Family Law Assistance Project in Oakland County, the Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the Mobile Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
The three groups figure to benefit greatly from Delphi’s generosity, which is expected to involve upward of 15 attorneys on the corporate legal staff. The new Delphi was formed in 2009 when it purchased assets and liabilities through bankruptcy of the former Delphi, now know as DPH Holdings Corp.
“This pro bono work is something that I’ve wanted us to become involved with since I joined Delphi more than six years ago, but the timing just wasn’t right,” Sherbin said, noting that he came on board with the former company in the fall of 2005, days before it filed for bankruptcy protection. “We are now a new company and I feel we are in a position to give back, and to make a difference for the less fortunate in the community.”
The company’s commitment to the pro bono cause is “music to the ears” of Joe Papelian, a past president and current board member of the Oakland County Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting legal aid work in the greater Detroit area.
Papelian, who has served as deputy general counsel of litigation for Delphi over the past 14 years, told those attending the April 19 luncheon that “you’re not a complete lawyer until you give back” to the community, a message he has taken to heart throughout his legal career. A former assistant prosecutor with Oakland County and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Papelian has worked tirelessly on behalf of various legal aid groups and said that he has been impressed with the caliber of the organizations represented at the luncheon.
“As part of my involvement with the Oakland County Bar Foundation, I have had the opportunity to see the work of these groups firsthand and I have been unbelievably impressed by the level of service they have extended to those in need,” Papelian said.
Michael Byrnes, director of Clinical Programs at the UDM School of Law, said the Mobile Law Office has enabled the school to take its “legal show on the road” each week, not only across Metro Detroit and Michigan, but also to more than 20 other states. The Mobile Law Office, which has grown from one to three retrofitted RVs that the school utilizes, makes a stop every other week at the Adams-Pratt Oakland County Law Library. There, law students, UDM faculty members, and volunteer attorneys meet with clients in need of assistance with a “specific focus on elder law and veterans issues,” according to Professor Brynes, who earned his law degree from UDM in 1977 and formerly worked with the New York Attorney General’s Office before moving into academia.
While many of the cases involve veteran and elder law issues, the UDM program also handles immigration, urban, juvenile, and mortgage foreclosure matters, according to Tammy Kudialis, director of Project SALUTE. The acronym, in this instance, stands for “Students and Lawyers Assisting U.S. Troops Everywhere,” and it has become a watchword for UDM’s efforts to provide free legal assistance to veterans.
“We have trained over 1,200 attorneys to assist us with the veterans clinic and the response we have received from veterans everywhere we have gone has been amazing,” Kudialis said. “They are incredibly grateful for the help we have offered, for assisting them in obtaining benefits that they have earned in service to their country.”
Cooley Law School Professor Ashley Lowe, director of the Family Law Assistance Project in Oakland County, also spoke at the Delphi luncheon, encouraging members of the company’s legal staff to volunteer at twice monthly intake clinics and in helping low-income clients with divorce, custody, and personal protection order (PPO) matters.
“Most of the clients we serve are survivors of domestic violence,” Lowe said. “Providing PPOs for them is a way that we can make an immediate impact in their lives, offering them safety and some peace of mind.’
Lowe said that many of the cases are handled by Cooley law students working under the supervision of FLAP attorneys and pro bono lawyers.
“It has proven to be a great way for our students to gain practical legal experience while also instilling in them the importance of pro bono work as they embark on their careers,” she said, noting that Cooley also offers volunteer opportunities in a host of other areas, including bankruptcy, immigration, real estate, and tax assistance.
Lynda Krupp, managing attorney of the Civil Law Group for the Legal Aid and Defender Association, said that the Detroit-based organization is the “largest provider of free legal services” to the indigent in Michigan even though it has absorbed a “40 percent staff cut” because of federal budget reductions over the past few years.
“We seek pro bono attorneys who would be willing to assist with outreach intake at locations in Ferndale and Southfield,” Krupp said in a handout to those attending the luncheon. “Initially the pro bono attorney would work with an LAD attorney in interviewing and providing legal advice to prospective clients.”
The LAD also offers monthly pro se divorce clinics in Macomb County, at which “pro bono attorneys help the clients prepare the pro se pleadings and explain the divorce process,” according to Krupp.
Following the presentations, Delphi General Counsel Sherbin encouraged members of the company’s legal staff to immediately become involved in the pro bono opportunities, stating that “it is incumbent upon us to give back” and “to make a difference in the communities where we live, especially when the needs are so great.”