Volunteer lawyer programs. Volunteer lawyer projects. VLPs. Whatever you called them, just about every bar association nationwide has one, and at some point, just about every lawyer I know has been recruited to serve as a volunteer with one. With our hearts in the right place, we commit to handling a few cases here and there, usually simple matters within our realm of expertise or ability. Nothing special. I bet you probably assume that your local VLP is a simple charitable “matching operation” with which attorneys sign up and wait to be paired with a client in need. Short of the few cases you handle, you probably have never given any real thought to the underlying mechanics of your local VLP or what purpose it truly serves. Don’t feel bad. You aren’t alone. I was the same way until I found myself in between jobs and agreed to spend an entire summer volunteering in-office with the Mobile Bar Association VLP. By the end of the summer I learned that VLPs do more than serve as a charitable outlet for the legal community. They are key components in making sure that everyone, regardless of financial means, has access to quality legal representation.
Nationally recognized and leading the way in Alabama, the Mobile Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Program boasts a whopping 650-plus volunteer attorneys (more than 60 percent of the bar membership), on average assists no less than 6,000 low-income individuals annually, and successfully closes more than 95 percent of the case it opens. With numbers that impressive you would think that the Mobile Bar VLP is operated by a supersized staff with a supersized budget. Truth is, the Mobile VLP, like many VLP operations, is run by a small, dedicated staff, has a relatively small budget, and is highly dependent on its volunteer base, both lawyer and non-lawyer alike. So, of course, my offer to increase my volunteer efforts, assuming more than the usual role of volunteer lawyer panel member, was enthusiastically welcomed.
Unlike most volunteer arrangements doing the usual surface work such as answering phones or making copies, my volunteer work with the Mobile VLP provided a far more robust experience. In-office volunteers are expected to be fully engaged in the process of assisting potential clients and providing guidance to volunteer attorneys. Volunteers are responsible for most initial client interaction, including the initial screening process, which involves making sure that both the clients and their legal matter qualify for the program and sometimes guiding clients through the very detailed intake process. Besides assisting potential clients, VLP in-office volunteers assist staff working with members of the volunteer attorney panel to ensure that all assigned matters are being handled properly. This includes following up with the volunteering attorney (and the assigned client) to maintain a proper record of status reports.
Although pairing clients with attorneys is at the core of its mission, the Mobile VLP also coordinates auxiliary events including the biannual “Wills for Heroes” legal clinic, various fund-raising functions, and most recently community outreach legal clinics. Volunteers provide the additional manpower to make sure that these events are successful.
By now I am sure you are thinking, this is nice but why is she telling me about this experience? In short, I realize that VLPs and the communities that they serve need your help. For many low-income individuals in need of basic civil legal representation, VLPs are their only means of access to the justice system. Traditional programs such as the Legal Services Corporation are facing sizable budget cuts, leaving them understaffed and overburdened. Owing to the overwhelming demand for their services, many legal services and legal aid offices throughout the nation are forced to turn away clients, adding to an ever-widening gap between those who can afford legal representation and those who cannot. Here is where VLPs and other pro bono programs come into play and where you can be of tremendous service.
By committing time not only to offer pro bono legal services but also to lend a hand behind the scenes, you can help bridge the gap in access to justice. Even something as simple as dedicating a few hours to returning client phone calls or helping design a flyer for a fund-raising event helps your local VLP to have a stronger impact within the community.
So if the only contact you have with your local VLP is waiting and agreeing to take a few cases every now and then, I challenge you to step up your volunteer efforts. Don’t wait for your VLP to phone you. Call them! Offer to give a few hours every month to help those who need your help the most by being of service at your local volunteer lawyer program.