As I looked toward retiring from the business law firm where I was a partner, I knew that I wanted to do more pro bono work. I had gone to law school planning to use my law license to “change the world” in some way but detoured into a long and satisfying career litigating complex commercial cases. I knew, too, that there were likely many other lawyers who would be winding down their litigation or transactional practices, and still have the energy and desire to do more. Conflicts had prevented lawyers in business law firms in Northeast Ohio from answering the call to help low-income members of the community navigate the fallout of the recession, which hit people in our area particularly hard.
These thoughts led to conversations with the leadership of the bar and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and ultimately to the creation of Legal Aid’s ACT 2 program. The ACT 2 program enlists late career and retired lawyers in meeting the legal needs of the community. The ACT 2 corps numbers over 100 lawyers and is growing as my fellow “baby boomers” retire from the law firm, government, and corporate positions. Lawyers staff brief advice clinics in public libraries or community centers. Some accept matters for clients that require sustained attention and extended representation. Others help Legal Aid increase its capacity by working as in-house volunteers or training Legal Aid staff in needed skills or areas of practice.
ACT 2 lawyers can count on Legal Aid’s malpractice insurance and on Legal Aid’s staff for guidance on unfamiliar issues. Some attorneys focus on areas they know well, like employment, bankruptcy or estate planning; others venture into new areas where client needs arise. Many lawyers find that subject matter expertise is less important to helping their low-income clients than the fundamental skills that all lawyers have—listening well, helping a client understand her situation, generating and weighing options, and creating and carrying out an action plan.
I have been doing something to help people of limited means since law school. I spent a summer at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society after the first year. During my second and third years, I helped defendants facing low-level criminal charges in the district courts of Massachusetts as one of the Harvard Voluntary Defenders. As a young lawyer, I served as a guardian ad litem for abused, neglected or dependent children, and as defense counsel for juveniles accused of delinquency. During the last 15 or 20 years of my law firm practice, I accepted a case now and then from Legal Aid. Now as a sole practitioner, I usually have 2-4 extended representation pro bono clients at any given time. I participate in brief advice clinics often and serve as the Chair of the ACT 2 Advisory Committee to recruit new volunteers and provide insight on project development. I have also shared my knowledge of legal ethics with Legal Aid lawyers and public defenders.
A lawyer’s help can make a big difference. A young woman came to a quick advice clinic complaining about conditions in the apartment where she lived. Security was so bad, she said, that their mail was often stolen, including a check intended as a contribution to her education. She thought it was just another loss in a life of losses. But because the bank had honored a forged signature, I was able to recover the value of the check from the bank for her. A young man inherited a modest house from his grandmother. While he was a minor, his father mortgaged the house, drank the proceeds and disappeared. We settled with the lender and recovered clean title for the young man. Although I don’t get a dramatically favorable result in every case I handle, I make sure that every client feels heard and supported, and experiences someone within the “system” advocating and working for him.
Given the modest scale of my contributions, I was completely surprised to learn that I would receive one of the ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards. Surely there are hundreds of lawyers around the country more deserving of recognition for their work to meet the legal needs of low income people. It is a tremendous honor to be included among the distinguished lawyers and law firms that have received this award. I salute them, as well as my local colleagues at bar who have or who will join the ACT 2 corps. Thanks to Ann Porath and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland for nominating me. Under the leadership of Colleen Cotter, the lawyers and staff of Legal Aid work tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of people who have nowhere else to turn.
For more information, please contact Deborah or go to www.dacolemanlaw.com.