March 15, 2014 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight: Helping 1,600 clients a year through IOLTA funds in Birmingham

By Nancy Yarbrough

Thanks to the financial support of the Alabama Law Foundation, which distributes IOLTA funds in the state, volunteer attorneys in Birmingham, Alabama helped approximately 1,600 low–income clients a year. This assistance is primarily provided through Help Desks for pro se litigants in the District and Domestic Courts.

About the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program

The Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program (BBVLP) implements programs and training to allow volunteer attorneys to provide equal justice to low–income citizens of Jefferson County. These programs offer free legal assistance and representation in civil non–fee generating matters.

Help Desks

In 2011, the BBVLP began a Help Desk initiative in the Jefferson County District Court and in 2012 a similar initiative began in the Jefferson County Circuit Court – Domestic Relations Division. These Help Desks offer self–represented litigants the opportunity to meet with an attorney at the courthouse to receive short term advice and assistance. Pro bono attorneys and BBVLP staff are available three times weekly to provide this service.

In addition, Help Desk volunteers may refer qualified applicant for extended representation. If applicants meet the criteria, they are matched with pro bono lawyers who provide free representation.

The Help Desks are unique to the BBVLP as they are the only clinics in Alabama held inside courthouses. This location allows for easy access by clients and the ability to immediately file legal documents.

The District Court Help Desk assists self–represented litigants who are fighting evictions and other landlord tenant issues. At that Help Desk, clients can also obtain help with garnishments, credit issues, and other civil matters, including small claims. The Domestic Relations Help Desk assists self–represented litigants with family law issues including divorce, custody, support, adoption, and termination of parental rights.

Pro Se litigants become aware of the Help Desks through differing sources. Some are referred by judges, lawyers, and social service agencies. Still others come to learn about the Help Desk through pamphlets produced by the BBVLP and placed throughout the courthouse or posters in high traffic areas such as public libraries.

Weekly, more than 60 pro se clients obtain counsel and advice at three BBVLP Help Desks in District and Domestic Relations courts staffed by as many as 10 volunteer attorneys.

Pro Bono Representation

The BBVLP's Pro Bono Representation Program allows eligible clients to receive free representation for the duration of their case. Currently, 200 volunteer attorneys are working extended representation cases from the BBVLP.

Mentors

Many times new attorneys will accept a BBVLP case but require a helping hand to navigate the issue to a successful conclusion. The BBVLP matches these new attorneys with seasoned veterans who provide quick advice usually over the phone to the attorney responsible for the case.

From the Pro Bono Lawyer's Perspective

Megan Elder
Solo Practitioner
Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program Help Desk Volunteer

Megan consistently volunteers at least twice a month at both the Domestic Relations and District Court Help Desks with the BBVLP. She has documented more than 65 hours of pro bono service, helped more than 75 clients, and accepted five extended representation cases last year and three this year.

How long have you volunteered?

I started volunteering soon after the BBVLP started the Help Desk at Domestic Relations Court eighteen months ago. I thought this would be a good way for me to learn Family Law while helping those in need.

Why do you volunteer?

It's rewarding. Most of the people who come to the Help Desk need only small fixes like filing a form. To an attorney, it really seems simple, but it is a big deal to someone who cannot afford a lawyer but needs help.
When I come into contact with a pro se litigant who needs more help, I often volunteer to take their case for extended representation. At first I did it because as a new attorney, it was a huge learning experience. But now I do it because I believe in Karma. By helping these people, I know that someday if I need it, someone will be there for me.

What is your most memorable volunteering experience?

Because I volunteer a lot, I get clients asking for me. Because they are self–represented they will often come to the Help Desk several Wednesdays in a row until they obtain resolution to their legal issue. However, the best part is seeing the look on their faces when I tell them that I have decided to take on their case. I've only had one person cry, but I love seeing the sincere and surprised look on their face.

What advice can you give attorneys thinking about volunteering with the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program?

For new attorneys, the program lets you learn the ropes of family law while networking and getting to know other attorneys that have been doing this a lot longer. If I have questions, I usually save them until Wednesday because I know that I will be able to track down someone at the Help Desk who knows the answer.

For practicing attorneys, volunteering is simply rewarding. I find that it reminds me of why I wanted to be an attorney in the first place: to make a difference.

Elizabeth Zwiebel
The Zwiebel Law Firm
Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program Help Desk Volunteer

Elizabeth Zwiebel, the managing partner of the Zwiebel Law Firm, has helped more than 130 clients at the Domestic Relations Help Desk since it opened a year–and–a–half ago and has accepted seven cases through the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program extended representation program.

How long have you volunteered?

When the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program announced it was going to do a Help Desk at Domestic Relations Court a year and a half ago, I signed up to help the first day. I've been volunteering twice monthly at the Wednesday Domestic Relations Help Desk ever since. I also take representation cases where I handle everything for a client who can't afford an attorney.

Why do you volunteer?

The biggest way you can positively affect someone's life is by helping them get help with a domestic relations issue. It's a life changing event if you can help someone get child support or get a divorce from a spouse from which they've been estranged for years or help them be able to see their children.

I really believe that without the Domestic Relations Help Desk there would be no way for the people we help to obtain legal relief.

What is your most memorable volunteering experience?

Recently a man came to the Domestic Relations Help Desk with two plastic Wal–Mart bags full of receipts. He told me that his ex–wife had gotten custody of their children but she had abandoned them with him over ten years ago. For that entire time, this man had raised his children and kept all the receipts. He was a welder and had worked until he fell off a ladder, suffered a head injury, and was now on disability. The reason the man came to the Help Desk was because he received notice that DHR (Department of Human Resources) was going to start garnishing his disability check to pay the approximately $60,000 in back child support he supposedly owed to his ex–wife although he was the one who had raised the children.

I told him that I would take his case. We got his receipts in order and went to his court hearing. We negotiated with his ex–wife and she agreed to sign the paperwork so he could receive a credit on the interest he supposedly owed on the back support. Then we negotiated the lump sum down to a $2,000 settlement that they both felt was fair considering he single handedly raised the children. It was very gratifying that this man could continue to be a productive citizen because he got out from under a debt that was really a misunderstanding.

What advice can you give attorneys thinking about volunteering with the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program?

Do it. There are senior attorneys at the Help Desk that can answer any questions you have, there are forms, and the staff (at the Birmingham Bar Volunteers Lawyer Program) will be there to help. It's a great way to learn while making a difference.

Charlie G. Baxley
Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP
Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program Help Desk Volunteer

Charlie Baxley is one of the hundreds of attorneys who volunteer in both civil and criminal proceedings at Bradley Arant Boult and Cummings. Charlie volunteers regularly and consistently with the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program on Mondays and Thursday at the District Court Help Desk.

How long have you volunteered?

I have volunteered since I began practicing in 2011. This past July, I decided to commit myself to help out on a regular basis. Now, I try to help out at the District Court Help desk twice each month.

Why do you volunteer?

I volunteer because I've seen the tremendous need for help among self–represented litigants. These are people who are actively pursuing justice, but need some basic assistance in determining how to proceed.

What is your most memorable volunteering experience?

I've had many memorable experiences while volunteering at the Help Desk. Most, however, involve an expression of appreciation from someone you've helped. These people truly appreciate your help. You can tell that they've all had the helpless feeling of not knowing where to start. Once you've explained the appropriate steps to take, or helped them to fill out the proper form, you can see a change in them. They feel empowered. It indicates how great the need is.

Conclusion

As the demand to provide assistance to pro se litigants increases, the Help Desks in Birmingham prove to be an effective way to help clients quickly and satisfactorily. This needed assistance could not be accomplished without funding from Alabama's IOLTA fund.

Nancy Yarbrough

Nancy Yarbrough is an attorney and Executive Director of the Birmingham Bar Volunteers Lawyers Program.