The Purist
Helping the Poor

By Joan Burda

I’ve been the program manager of the Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program for six years. When it comes to pro bono, I’m a purist. To me, it means helping poor people with their legal problems. It means lawyers doing what lawyers are trained to do: represent clients in court and in transactional situations. I don’t equate pro bono with serving on the orchestra’s board or other community groups.

In my current job, I recruit and work with many volunteer lawyers, yet none of them deals in their regular practices with the types of legal issues presented by the clients in the homeless program.

I teach the volunteers the basics about the legal issues they’ll face at intake sessions. I go to the firms and train everyone at the same time. I’ll also work individually with a new volunteer. The first thing I tell new volunteers is that there’s nothing wrong in saying, "I don’t know.’ No one expects them to be conversant in every legal issue presented to them.

If you plan to volunteer with legal aid or any other nonprofit legal services program, ask about the training. What kind of back–up does the program provide? Who pays the court costs? Is there malpractice insurance available? In my program, volunteers are covered by malpractice insurance.

Don’t be afraid to call the program staff and ask for assistance. Good programs will offer without you asking. None of us intends to do a bad job, but sometimes it can get scary handling a case in an unfamiliar area. Call for help and don’t try to go it alone; that’s a recipe for trouble—for you and the client.

In many cases, there may be nothing you can do. The statute of limitations may have run 20 years earlier, but the client just needs someone to listen to what happened. It’s important to treat these people with respect. Most poor clients don’t expect to be treated well — they come prepared to be treated poorly — that’s what they get on a daily basis. Some clients can be difficult; some are suffering from mental illness; and others are just worn down from the weight of poverty. But when you take a case and get a good result for the client, it’s a feeling that can’t be matched. The fee is your own sense of satisfaction and the look on the client’s face. So, go ahead, volunteer. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Joan Burda is program manager of the Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program in Lakewood, OH. Contact her at .

Copyright 2007

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