The recession also has caused a significant increase in the number of people living below the poverty line. At the same time, we have seen numerous cuts in federal funding to legal aid. This is a crisis facing our profession as more and more people are unrepresented.
With lawyers in need of experience and clients in need of lawyers, the Oakland County (Michigan) Bar Association designed a program to bring these two groups together under the guidance of a seasoned practitioner. In partnership with area legal aid providers, the Pro Bono Mentor Match Program matches an experienced mentor to a new lawyer who takes a case in one of the four areas of law in high demand for low-income clients: landlord/tenant, family, debt collection defense, and criminal expungement.
How the Program Works
Once a matter comes into legal aid that qualifies for the program, the client is matched to the new lawyer/mentor pairing based on the volunteers’ interest and experience. Legal aid provides the pairing with an issue-spotting intake memo. The new lawyer is the attorney of record, utilizing the mentor to guide him through the representation. However, the legal aid office remains available for questions, provides training, enables forms and research, and insures volunteers against malpractice claims.
Mentors: The Key to Our Success
To obtain mentors, the Oakland County Bar Association reached out initially to bar leadership—some of the most respected and connected lawyers in the community. Not only did they enthusiastically agree to serve as mentors, but they also have been more generous with their time than initially anticipated. At the outset, the bar association requested that mentors at least be available by phone or email to answer the new lawyers’ questions or to review pleadings generated in the case. However, mentors have participated in the initial client meetings, attended hearings with the new lawyer, provided feedback and suggestions on “best practices,” allowed the new lawyer to shadow them on other matters, and have remained a resource after the conclusion of the pro bono matter. For the new lawyer who has not found employment or who is in need of client and courtroom experience, this guidance has been invaluable.
Creating Your Own Mentor Match Experience
If you are interested in shaping your professional growth while helping someone in need, there are a number of options available, even if such a program does not currently exist in your community.
Reach out to the executive director or president of your local or specialty bar association to suggest a suitable program be implemented in your area. The Pro Bono Mentor Match materials, including the Mentee Guidelines, are available at www.ocba.org. The program can be modified as necessary to fit the needs and resources of any legal community.
Contact your local legal aid provider, indicating that you would volunteer for a pro bono case under the guidance of one of their experienced pro bono volunteers.
Ask a respected attorney you know or work with if he or she would mentor you if you volunteered to help someone in need of legal services to further your professional development.
Much can be learned through case-specific mentoring: how to deal with difficult clients and opposing counsel, how to communicate effectively and respectfully with the court, and how to develop a strategy to resolve efficiently the matter for the client. The pairing also affords the opportunity to create a lasting professional relationship with the mentor, many of whom have found it refreshing to revisit the basics of practicing law with a new lawyer. And, of course, the program responds to the increased demand for pro bono attorneys and allows new lawyers and mentors to satisfy their pro bono requirements. In Oakland County, this nationally recognized program has been a win-win for new lawyers, mentors, and low-income clients and, in turn, has brought its legal community together to respond to these needs.
Jennifer M. Grieco is a partner at Neuman Anderson PC in Birmingham, Michigan, and the immediate past president of the Oakland County Bar Association. She may be reached at email@example.com.