Pro bono work elevates profession

September 3, 2010
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The full Latin phrase, points out Mike Chielens, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, is “pro bono publico” — “for the public good.”

And that should be the spirit behind the work and time that lawyers provide without charge, as well as financial donations, as part of their professional commitment, he said.

“It’s really part of the lawyer’s oath,” said Chielens, whose organization is the focus of much of the pro bono effort in Grand Rapids. “It is free; lawyers are supposed to do some free work. We believe this is a profession and we’re not out there making widgets — we’re providing a valuable public service. Part of that should be free legal service.”

As lawyers prepare to mark Pro Bono Month in October, the Michigan Supreme Court is accepting comments about proposed changes to the State Bar of Michigan’s code regarding the pro bono standard. (See related article above.)

“Legal Aid, in some ways, is no different from many charities, in so far as we continually struggle to recruit volunteers and raise private donations to meet unmet needs,” Chielens added.

He estimated that about 40 percent of the 4,200 lawyers in the 17-county area served by Legal Aid meet the standard of taking pro bono cases or donating money to the organization.

“There is a culture of pro bono that has been established in West Michigan for some time. I suspect that our region is ahead of any other region in Michigan as far as meeting the obligation under the voluntary standard,” he added.

In addition to financial donations from lawyers, Legal Aid receives state, federal and United Way financial support to provide free legal services to the needy, Chielens said. The nonprofit organization, with a budget of about $4.3 million, covers a territory from Ludington south to the Indiana border and east to Ionia County. Its 56 employees, including 36 lawyers, last year saw 11,000 cases in six offices.

“But we have many more clients than what we can handle,” Chielens said. “There were a lot of people we gave advice to who really needed someone in court, but given the restraints on our time and our resources, we weren’t able to give them that full service.”

Legal Aid recruits lawyers to take pro bono cases in high-demand areas, such as family law and bankruptcy, as well as to provide specialized expertise such as issues of employment, taxes, estates and insurance.

Typical cases include divorce, defensive custody and domestic violence matters, in addition to bankruptcies often due to job loss, divorce or medical bills, Chielens said.

“We screen 10 to 20 bankruptcy cases a week and hardly take any of them, really,” he said.

Clients must have incomes at 200 percent of Federal Poverty Level or lower, and cases are evaluated to determine whether they can benefit from Legal Aid services.

Every year, Legal Aid recruits lawyers for pro bono cases. The volunteers have malpractice insurance under the organization’s policy and Legal Aid reimburses out-of-pocket costs, Chielens said. The pro bono crew closed 200 Legal Aid cases last year, most of them litigated, he added.

During October, Legal Aid will host receptions in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo to honor the pro bono lawyers, he said. Each year, the organization awards the John Blachous Award in Kalamazoo and the Michael Barnes Award in Kent County to recognize a volunteer.

“Pro bono work, for me, is the best part of the profession,” said Joy Fossel, a litigator for Varnum, who is the Michael Barnes Award recipient for 2010.

“You are truly helping people who otherwise would not have legal assistance. The economic realities don’t necessarily allow you to take every case on its merits because of financial reason. Pro bono work allows you to do exactly that.”

A lawyer since 1988, Fossel said Varnum encourages its lawyers to devote time, not just money, to pro bono cases.

“Sometimes the cases take on a life of their own, and sometimes they are relatively short,” said Fossel. “Their cases are just as important to them as the great corporation cases are to the corporation or to the person of means.”

In a press release, the State Bar noted that Michigan’s high rates of unemployment, poverty and foreclosures have boosted demand for pro bono legal services. The bar’s motto for October is “Now more than ever — pro bono is more than just the right thing to do.”

“October provides us with an opportunity to highlight the unmet legal needs of the poor and to recommit ourselves to the spirit of our voluntary pro bono standard,” State Bar President Charles Toy said.

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