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.