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November 17, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 2

No need to reinvent the wheel: Bars respond to community needs by collaborating with others

By Robert J. Derocher

When Nebraska College of Law Professor Ryan Sullivan and a handful of volunteers launched the Tenant Assistance Project in Lincoln, Neb., at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the project’s support network to help residential renters facing eviction was thin.

“It was just chaos,” Sullivan says, “waiting for people who came off the elevators looking poor and distraught. I had trials where I didn’t know my client’s name until they said their name as a witness during trial.”

Today, case dossiers prepared by local law school students are provided beforehand to dozens of volunteer attorneys in Lincoln (Lancaster County) and Omaha (Douglas County)—many of whom were recruited by the Nebraska State Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project. Social service organization volunteers, primarily in Lincoln, make calls and take to Facebook to help tenants get to court and to find help from other social service organizations.

Sullivan is proud of the 98 percent success rate in staving off evictions during the pandemic in Lincoln—and he is also proud of the group effort in the legal, education and social service communities that led to the program winning a pro bono service award from the state bar.

“We have a dozen or so partners that all contribute to the concept that is the Tenant Assistance Project,” he says. “This is THE pro bono program in Nebraska right now.”

VLP Director Laurel Heer Dale says both she and Nebraska State Bar Association Executive Director Liz Neeley believe that “this is the type of project that the Volunteer Lawyers Project through the Nebraska State Bar Association should be involved in.”

While COVID-19 has tested—and continues to test—the capacity of many bars and the involvement of their members in volunteer work, the mammoth scope of the pandemic has also provided opportunities for bars to work collaboratively in their communities to address a range of pressing legal and societal issues. Put simply, many have found that if they previously would have been inclined to “reinvent the wheel” and create programs in isolation from other organizations, the multiple crises in many communities—and the strain of COVID-19 on bar resources—makes that less possible now.

For some bars, this has represented a chance to work with new organizations, while other bars have rekindled old relationships. And for many, the experiences are providing a blueprint for how to work jointly to achieve common goals—particularly in times of need.

‘It’s all about relationships’

Evictions and landlord-tenant issues have been front-and-center legal concerns throughout the country during the pandemic, prompting both national and local collaborative responses from the bar community. For example, the National Conference of Bar Presidents joined a coalition of legal, government and community organizations convened by the White House in June as part of an effort to stem evictions.

NCBP President Mike Freed of Jacksonville, Fla., says the organization has been active in tracking, collaborating on and promoting initiatives designed to provide federal funding for eviction diversion strategies, as well as facilitating discussions among law schools, legal aid organizations and bar associations.

“That’s what we do: We solve problems and navigate processes,” Freed says. There’s a unique role that bar associations and lawyers can play in leading lawyers and other volunteers in assisting landlords and tenants.”

At the local level, Freed, a past president of the Jacksonville Bar Association, has also kept tabs on that bar’s eviction and foreclosure prevention program established last year and led by Board of Governors Secretary Christian George. Using the blueprint of a similar effort in Orange County, Fla., the bar approached the city of Jacksonville with a plan to help distribute about $6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to residential and commercial landlords and tenants, as well as some homeowners facing mortgage payment problems. The Jacksonville bar used a portion of the funds to hire temporary staff to process applications, staff a hotline and administer the funds’ distribution, says the bar’s executive director, Craig Shoup.

A former city and local courts employee, Shoup says that background came in handy for the effort, and he hopes those and other connections to local organizations will continue to be part of the bar’s outreach activities.

“Everything in bar associations is [about] building relationships,” he says. “I’m always working on those.”

Long history makes quick action possible

For three long-time partners, the Iowa State Bar Association, the Polk County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project and Iowa Legal Aid, the pandemic represented another opportunity in a history of working together. After successfully developing citizen legal assistance programs following floods and related weather events over the last decade, the organizations worked together on creating a COVID-19 assistance hotline, which earned the ISBA a 2021 Harrison Tweed Award from the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

After a directive from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, the organizations took about a week to develop the COVID-19 Legal Advice Hotline in March 2020. Iowa Legal Aid led call screening, while volunteer attorneys from the ISBA and the Polk County VLP worked with callers on a wide range of legal issues.

Much of the early calls centered on employment issues, says Polk County Bar Association and VLP Executive Director Carol Phillips, but soon, they covered issues such as immigration, evictions, education and family law. Through July 2021, the hotline (which is still active) fielded nearly 6,000 calls with more than 200 volunteer attorneys handling 2,750 referrals, according to ISBA President Anjela Shutts.

“It was a testament to what the Iowa bar can do. People should feel really proud about the people who were helped,” Shutts says. “We can do really great things on very short notice.”

In addition to the hotline, the organizations have also worked together during the pandemic on eviction prevention programs, says Phillips, with plans also being formulated to resurrect pro se clinics in the state as part a broader access to justice initiative. “We do work together well here in Iowa,” she adds.

Collaboration takes effort

While bar/community combinations can often lead to legal successes, achieving consensus and maintaining smooth operations requires regular communication and a bit of diplomacy, especially among organizations with different missions.

As the legal lead for the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, the Bar Association of San Francisco, through its Justice and Diversity Center, works with 15 different organizations to provide free legal and technical assistance on a variety of immigration issues. In a span of about eight years, the collaborative has helped more than 1,400 people in the Bay Area who have faced removal from the United States, with a success rate of more than 90 percent in immigration court, according to Milli Atkinson, the collaborative’s legal director.

In that time, the collaborative has steadily grown from a handful of volunteer attorneys to more than 100, supplemented by paid coordinators and administrators to help manage the increasing number of cases. The group has leveraged the strengths of individual members to grow and succeed, Atkinson says, but it is not without challenge.

“Each organization has its own way of doing things,” she explains. “Any statement we want to put out, any change to our procedures, we need 15 voices from 15 organizations filled with lawyers to agree. So, decision-making can be a little slow. Even small changes really can take months to put those changes in place.”

A key to the collaborative’s success, she adds, has been continued communication that relies on shared goals, while still preserving the core mission of each organization.

“If you can start building those relationships with the community organizations that provide legal services, you will find that it is very easy to find those like areas where bars and the membership can help,” she adds.

Make connections before the next crisis

And quite often, bar leaders say, those conversations can take time to develop. The relationship among the Iowa state bar, Polk County bar and Iowa Legal Aid was 20 years in the making, Shutts says. “Working on developing those relationships early and often is very important,” she advises. “We were able to pull this [current project] together pretty quickly because we had already done something like this and had worked with other organizations, and we knew each other.”

Increasingly, adds Mike Freed, this will be a model for many bars going forward—both in their own organizational development, and in providing leadership within the community on pressing legal issues and in times of crisis.

“It’s incumbent on bar associations and lawyers, even in the quiet times, to be interacting with community stakeholders and claiming their rightful role as a facilitator of resources and problem solving,” he says. “When that challenge hits, whoever is making the calls, needs to call the bar association [in their area]—because they’re going to be able to help us through this challenge.

“If the bar is just cocktail hours and looking inward, they’re not going to be invited to the table. They’re going to lose, and the community is going to lose.”

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