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 firstname.lastname@example.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.