State Bar of Michigan holds Pro Bono Workshop

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

Chief Justice Marilyn J. Kelly of the Michigan Supreme Court welcomed the leaders of legal aide organizations, private law firms, law schools, and the judiciary from across the state who came together at the Michael Franck building in Lansing to learn how to "Nurture the Power of Pro Bono."

The event, sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan, was held on May 26.

"I'm grateful to the State Bar for its continued leadership in Access to Justice," said Justice Kelly.

"You know, better than most, what a great job the agencies are doing, but you are being inundated. In Michigan there are approximately 180 legal aide attorneys out of 32,535 active attorneys.

"That makes a ratio of 17,666 eligible low-income clients for every one of the legal aide attorneys. National and state studies have estimated that no more than 20 percent of civil legal needs of the poor are being met.

"What, if any, good news is there in all of this? If there is to be any good news, we have to make it. There are many bright spots due to the attorneys who stepped up to fill the legal services gap in their communities."

Justice Kelly gave some examples of how pro bono work is being encouraged. For example:

1) Dykema's Bloomfield Hills office began offering a free legal clinic in September for Ferndale public school students and their parents. More than half of these students and their families fall below the federal poverty line.

2) Two pro bono attorneys tried fruitlessly to find an elusive contractor who had walked away from a job for an elderly woman. When they couldn't find the contractor, they completed the home repair job themselves.

"I believe that judges can and should play an important role in encouraging pro bono work. To this end the newly created Supreme Court office of Access and Fairness, headed by Lorraine Weber, has distributed an electronic pro bono tool kit to every judge in Michigan. This tool kit suggests many ways judges can encourage pro bono services.

"The core principles of our legal system,--due process, equal protection,--have little meaning to those who can not afford a lawyer. As members of the Bar, we must see that our Constitution works for the equal benefit of all.

"An open and fair legal system must be a team effort that includes the courts, court services, state bar, bar foundation, local legal aid programs and the indigent defense system.

"Your leadership on this issue is critical, judges, lawyers and litigants who look to you for guidance will not be disappointed. We can create a climate where pro bono work is not only encouraged, but is the norm."

"This is the second SBM statewide survey," said Bob Gillett, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, opening the discussion of the 2007 SBM pro bono survey, "the first was done in 1996.

"I think the largest question of the survey is 'how do private lawyers think about pro bono?' The idea is that if we know how they think about pro bono and what is motivating them or discouraging them from doing it, then we can do a better job of engaging those lawyers and recruiting them and retaining them as volunteers."

Linda Rexter, Michigan State Bar Foundation, continued, "The report documents that 66 percent of the lawyers did some pro bono services and 30 percent made contributions to legal aide programs.

"The level of donations remained about the same in the intervening ten years. The average donation was about $100 per lawyer, the average time spent on pro bono declined from 36 hours to 30 hours in 2007.

"We found that lawyers do not apply a uniform definition of pro bono and some lawyers definition is not the same as what counts as pro bono service under the State Bar's voluntary pro bono standard."

"The Bar Standard focuses on helping low-income persons while some attorneys include work done free for friends who are not low-income or for clients who were expected to pay for services but did not.

"Fifty percent of the lawyers did work they considered pro bono but which does not fit the SBM definition."

Breakout sessions for the attendees included:

--Recruitment presented by Ann Lossing and Marilyn Hackett, Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, where they learned the different methods of recruiting new volunteers to a pro bono panel.

--The importance of Recognition in maintaining volunteer enthusiasm and commitment presented by Justin Sheehan, Community Legal Services.

--Rural pro bono addressing the challenges of delivering pro bono services where there are few lawyer and great distances between client and services by Ken Penokie, Legal Services of Northern Michigan.

--Heidi Naasko, Dykema Gossett, PLLC, explained the opportunities law firms want for their pro bono lawyers and how to engage their services.

--Lorraine Weber, Director of Access and Fairness, Michigan Supreme Court and Jennifer Bently, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, discussed involving the judiciary in pro bono programs.

--Ann Sankaran, Pro Bono Manager, University of Michigan Law School, explained what kinds of cases and clients are well suited to law school pro bono resources and how to access those resources for clients.

The session concluded with a presentation on large group and community pro bono opportunities such as Access to Justice Centers, expungement clinics, and immigration and naturalization clinics.

Published: Thu, Jul 8, 2010

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