July 2012

The Practising Law Institute, one of Pro Bono Net’s corporate sponsors, contributes a guest post this week on upcoming programs of interest to pro bono and legal services attorneys.  Read on to learn about the programs and how to get a scholarship.

Coming up in August, The Practising Law Institute is offering two full-day programs of special interest to pro bono and legal services lawyers: Prison Law 2012 on August 3rd, and Defending Immigration Removal Proceedings 2012 on August 13th. For readers of this blog, we are offering a special scholarship deadline extension: you may email or fax your scholarship application to ciadelawrence@pli.edu or 212.824.5871 at least 48 hours before the program. Scholarships to attend these programs in person or on the web are available for judges, judicial law clerks, law professors, law students, attorneys 65 or older, law librarians, attorneys who work for nonprofit organizations, legal services organizations or government agencies, and unemployed attorneys.

Prison Law 2012 is intended not only for those working full time on prisoners’ rights litigation, but also for pro bono volunteers of beginning and intermediate experience levels. Defending Immigration Removal Proceedings 2012 is intended for pro bono volunteers of beginning and intermediate experience levels, as well as more experienced immigration attorneys who are beginning to take on removal defense cases. Visit the program web pages for more information on speakers and topics to be covered.

Practising Law Institute is a non-profit continuing legal education organization chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, founded in 1933. PLI is dedicated to providing the legal community and allied professionals with the most up-to-date, relevant information and techniques which are critical to the development of a professional, competitive edge. PLI’s pro bono activities reflect its deep commitment to the public service work of the legal profession. In 2011, PLI awarded over 20,000 scholarships.

I love the time of year when the National Center for State Courts’ publication Future Trends in State Courts comes out. This annual publication is well read and well respected in the court community.

I love reading the new issue of this publication for a lot of reasons—the main one being that I, not being in the court environment, can read some of the articles and get a glimpse at the nitty-gritty of being in a court setting and how innovation happens in that context, and relate that to my experiences being an agent of change in legal nonprofit settings.

The other reason I love Future Trends is that it generally includes a very diverse set of authors and topics—many of them experts in their own right—and so the whole journal is like a little collection of jewels, each piece highlighting something important, effective, and forward looking.

Two pieces in this edition have proven particularly interesting so far.  The first, at page 34, reviews the work the Delaware Courts are doing related to limited English proficient court users.  It was written by Maria Perez-Chambers and Ashley Tucker.  The other article that I’ve already read with interest focuses on the Turner v. Rogers Supreme Court decision that affected the way courts communicate with self-represented litigants. This article, by Richard Zorza, starts at page 56.

I participate as a volunteer reviewer for Future Trends so I get to comment on articles prior to their publication. In that role, I receive the articles in draft format, and I am invited to offer comments and suggestions and recommend the article for submission (or not). I have not kept a tally of my “rate of success” in terms of the articles I have recommended to be included that have made it into final publication format. Anecdotally, I can tell you that the margin seems narrow. I enjoy reviewing the articles as they come, because the editors have for the past three or four years really have made an effort to cover a more diverse set of topics and include more articles that look at collaboration between courts and other groups and agencies where there is overlap in working on similar issues and populations.

I think that the 2012 edition of Future Trends really highlights this increasing diversity of topic and authors, with its focus on “Courts in the Community.” I can’t wait to read the full installment over the summer. I encourage others who are not necessarily working inside court systems but who have joint programs with courts or have collaborative projects/programs to start reading Future Trends and to consider submitting articles for the next installment.

Pro Bono Net board member Tiela Chalmers is coordinating The Shriver Housing Project, one of seven California pilots created as a result of the state’s 2009 Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, an experiment in providing legal representation to large numbers of low-income litigants in cases involving basic human rights. We spoke with Tiela, the former Executive Director at Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco and now a legal services and pro bono consultant.

Tell us about The Shriver Housing Project.

The Shriver projects were created by statute in California with the idea of exploring what it would look like if we provided legal services on a really large scale. The Legislature, via the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, ultimately funded seven pilot projects in areas of basic human need – essentially housing and family law –around the state. LA’s Housing Project is the largest. It’s a collaboration between the LA Superior Court and four legal aid agencies: Inner City Law Center, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles (NLSLA) and Public Counsel.

The system is based on centralized intake in the downtown courthouse, at the Eviction Assistance Center, run by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles. Once cases are taken and initial papers done, we decide whether the case should be full scope, or limited scope. If it’s appropriate for full scope, we refer the case to Inner City, LAFLA, or Public Counsel.

From a pro bono standpoint what we’ve done is to create a “Shriver Corps” of volunteer attorneys. These are attorneys from some of the largest law firms in Los Angeles, who wanted to be a part of this historic effort. The Founding Partner law firms have made a commitment to take a certain number of cases each year. We send cases appropriate for pro bono attorneys to these firms for placement. It’s a great opportunity for associates, in particular, to get experience handling their own litigation and thinking on their feet, as well as to be a part of an innovative effort.

In addition to being a legal services provision project, this is also an evaluation project. The goal is to try to understand and quantify what difference legal services make in the community, what types of legal services make that difference and how we can make the delivery of legal services and running of the courts more efficient.

 What are the results of the project to date?

The Project launched in February and we’ve handled more than 900 cases so far – 600 full scope, and 300 limited scope. Of those, only eight have gone to trial. As we suspected, lawyers tend to produce settlements. Certainly, more clients are being represented than ever before and it’s pretty clear to us anecdotally that we are getting better settlements for our clients than if they were unrepresented. We look forward to demonstrating that fact statistically, as well.

We have seen that the existence of the project has changed the entire ecosystem of eviction cases. The Court’s bench officers and clerks have adjusted their behavior, and even opposing counsel have shifted, because we’re there every day. There’s an impact even if we’re not representing a particular litigant.

One of the Shriver Project’s purposes is to level the playing field – to offer an attorney when the other side has one. We don’t take a case if the landlord is unrepresented. We will also represent landlords if the tenant is represented. They have to be income-qualified, but there are absolutely low-income landlords in L.A.

 What is your role?

I was hired by the lead agency, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, to coordinate the entire project. I’ve been involved for a year now, building the project out, working with the leads from the different agencies to design the systems and approaches we would use, create the training and pro bono pieces, and coordinate with the Court, the funder, and the other pilot projects across the State.

How is the project using technology?

We’ve created a website on the probono.net platform for the Shriver Corps folks, the pro bono attorneys. It has a resource library, training calendar, roster, and our recorded training. That’s a great tool. The younger associates especially expect to get resources online. They don’t understand why we’d hand around a big heavy binder.

We are also beginning to use online forms built using LawHelp Interactive [Pro Bono Net’s online document assembly service] at the Eviction Assistance Center. This is particularly important for the pro bono attorneys who volunteer at the Courthouse – we need a tool that is easy for them to use. This way they can come in and volunteer to do fairly complex work after a brief training, and get the papers in shape to be quickly reviewed by an experienced attorney. I’m very excited about this; it will really expand our capacity.

What other projects are you working on?

I am coordinating the ABA’s updating of its pro bono standards, a series of guidelines/mandates on how to run an effective pro bono program. The standards were last put out in 1996, so it’s time for an update. I’m working with a national working group advising the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service. This is a multiyear project, scheduled to go to the ABA’s House of Delegates in August 2013. We’ll be holding a series of webinars and conference calls this summer to get input on topics that have come up. Anyone interested can sign up; send an email to abaprobono@americanbar.org with “Standards Webinars” in the subject line to get notifications of the webinars.

I’m also bringing the Poverty Simulation to law firms, law schools, conferences and legal aid organizations. This is a training designed to help people understand the challenges that low-income people face on a daily basis. [See related post.] I’m a big believer in it, I feel like I learn something every time I lead it. It really offers a more visceral way of understanding poverty and the challenges that our clients face than when you just read or hear about it, or even what you learn from representing the clients for years.

 

It’s a short week for most of us, but there is some interesting reading to be done for those interested in pro bono and technology.  The American Lawyer’s annual report on the state of pro bono is out [registration required], and the news is decidedly mixed.  Average pro bono hours hit the lowest level in more than three years, and the percentage of lawyers who did more than 20 hours of pro bono work is at the lowest level since 2007.  However, the article says,  “innovative uses of technology and partnerships with clients could amplify firms’ efforts—a textbook case of doing more with less.”  Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien, quoted in the article’s third paragraph, notes that “the goal today is to maximize the law firms’ impact,” rather than focusing strictly on the number of hours.

The Legal Services Corporation has been focused for some time on how technology can increase and improve delivery of legal services to those in need.  LSC recently convened a Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice, bringing together thought leaders (including Mark O’Brien and many of our partners) to share ideas on “the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing service of some form to all with a legal need.”  You can read more on LSC’s site and on Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog.

Let us know in the comments what you think about the results of The American Lawyer’s pro bono survey and the potential of technology to help bridge the justice gap.  And best wishes to all for a safe and happy 4th of July!