WMLS Sets Pro Bono Record

May 5, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Fiscal 2004 was a banner year for the Pro Bono Program of Western Michigan, with increases in both financial contributions and donated legal services.

For more than 30 years, the Pro Bono Program, a division of Western Michigan Legal Services (WMLS), has been offering free legal help to residents in 17 West Michigan counties. The agency targets the region's residents who otherwise would not have access to legal counsel, advice or representation.

The agency reported total contributions of $846,000 during 2004 — $204,000 in monetary contributions and a record $642,000 in donated legal services. More than 200 attorneys donated time last year. Along with Pro Bono staff, they closed a total of 216 cases.

In comparison, the financial contribution for 2003 was $198,500, and the value of donated legal services was $468,000, adding up to a 27 percent increase over 2003's total contributions of $666,000, said Pro Bono Coordinator Paul Abrahamsen. Staff and volunteer attorneys closed on 210 cases in 2003.

Abrahamsen said the total financial contributions typically fall in the range of $200,000 from year to year, the lion's share of which comes from local firms and attorneys.

WMLS Executive Director Michael Chielens said the agency had set a goal of $185,000 for 2004 monetary contributions, so it was pleased to top that. He said it's difficult to try to set a goal for volunteer hours because the agency doesn't know from year to year how many cases are going to close and doesn't count the hours in the total until a case has closed.

WMLS tries to sign up 200 to 250 lawyers each year, he said, noting that recruitment is getting a little tougher. Abrahamsen attributed that to the fact that there are a lot more pro bono programs operating today and vying for volunteer help.

Donations of time and services are the primary funding source for the program and a cornerstone of the agency's mission, Chielens said. Monetary contributions generally tend to make up 20 percent to 25 percent of total contributions.

Law firms and attorneys make donations to the Michigan State Bar Association, which, in turn, distributes the funds to pro bono legal programs throughout the state. Contributors can designate which pro bono program they want the money directed to.

"Fortunately, almost all the lawyers from this area designate us," Chielens said.

He attributed the increase in donated time last year to WMLS's continuing efforts to provide pro bono lawyers with cases that need to be litigated.

"By and large the cases are litigated and take some time to resolve," he explained. "We don't ask them to do really easy cases. A lot of pro bono programs elsewhere might have them do some real easy advice and counsel, but what we need is lawyers that will take on litigated cases."

WMLS conducts an annual roundup of lawyers for the program with a mass mail appeal to every licensed Michigan lawyer in the 17-county region, Chielens said. Every October, the agency recognizes volunteers with a Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Award program in both Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

To qualify for free legal services under the program, residents must have an income level of no more than 187 percent of the poverty level, require assistance with a civil case and have a non-fee generating case.

WMLS gives priority to cases involving custody actions, bankruptcy and family law matters where abuse is involved. Like other pro bono programs, WMLS typically has to turn away some clients simply because they don't qualify based on the agency's priorities. The agency, for example, will only handle a divorce that involves domestic violence and bankruptcy cases where a person's wages are getting garnished, Abrahamsen explained.

"Obviously, if we had more attorneys we could increase or stretch the priorities and help more people," Abrahamsen noted. "One thing the private bar allows us to do is expand our available assistance into areas that are not your traditional legal aid type areas. People can handle the areas they're experts in."    

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