Volunteer attorneys step in to help those most in need

REGION – A few years back, Probate Judge David Stowe noticed more and more people in his Pro Se Divorce Court who could have greatly benefited from a little legal advice, if only they could have afforded it. Representing themselves, many of these individuals were women who had domestic violence issues and no money to hire an attorney.

With the efforts of local leaders from Legal Services of Northern Michigan (LSNM), the Women's Resource Center (WRC), the local attorney bar association and legal professionals group, a monthly divorce clinic was organized to offer free consultation for those trying to navigate the process on their own.

At the same time, there were other pro bono legal aid efforts going on: the LSNM was building a roster of attorneys willing to accept pro bono cases from those who meet federal poverty guidelines and Third Level Crisis Intervention Center was offering its Free Legal Aid Clinic and making referrals to attorneys for pro bono or reduced fee work when necessary.

"We were all looking for volunteer attorneys and all providing some services for people who were either below the poverty line or for the 'working poor,'" explained WRC Executive Director Jo Bullis.

These "working poor" earn too much to qualify for traditional supportive services for the indigent population offered by LSNM, yet can't afford to pay the prevailing private attorney rate for services, said Deputy Director, Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn.

So these organizations, joined by the Women Lawyers Association (which also provides a monthly clinic), started meeting to talk about collaboration and offering more services and better utilizing their resources. The result of those meetings was the creation of the Law – Enhanced Access Project, or L.E.A.P. for short. In addition to pooling resources, the hope was that by promoting the work of pro bono attorneys, more would get involved to help with increasing demand. A grant through the local United Way gave the "seed" money for L.E.A.P in 2004. The Three Generations Circle of Women Givers has provided total funding since, said Bullis.

Across L.E.A.P.'s 5-county coverage area, there are well over 100 attorneys who do pro bono work: for some that involves volunteering at one of the clinics, for others it means actual representation of an individual. Kavanaugh-Gahn said there are approximately 40 local attorneys she can call on anytime for pro bono help. It's a list she would like to see grow, she added.

Nearly 250 people sought help through the divorce clinic last year. "Three people attended the first meeting [in early 2003], now there are 25 to 30 people every month," said Bullis, emphasizing that help is for anyone, not just clients. "The need is there and it's stayed pretty steady."

Part of L.E.A.P.'s recognition efforts is the bar association's annual Pro Bono Service Award. Now in its fifth year, the award was presented this spring to Traverse City attorney Fred Bimber, who also serves on the association's pro bono committee and volunteers through the Third Level programs.

In conjunction with the local bar association and LSNM, Third Level has hosted the weekly clinic every Tuesday night since 1976. Bimber said several dozen attorneys staff that clinic on a rotating basis and "give advice on the spot." Over 500 people were served through the clinic in fiscal year 2007 (ended Sept 30). As of the end of June '08, the clinic had assisted 350 people with one quarter remaining, said Mickie Jannazzo, director of crisis services at Third Level.

Many of those same attorneys take cases on a pro bono basis if the legal help warrants, explained Bimber, and the individual passes a screening done by Third Level personnel. Through the third quarter of this year, 31 cases had been assigned to local attorneys, Jannazzo added.

"The clinic is very well attended," she said. "It's an opportunity for anyone to have free legal consultation."

In addition to a lot of need for help with family law, Jannazzo said attorneys are getting more requests for help concerning bankruptcy issues. BN