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National Pro Bono Week celebrated in events around the country

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National Pro Bono Week celebrated in events around the country

By John Glynn

A driver’s license, for the most part, is a simple document. But in some instances it can mean the difference between a being a productive citizen and spending a life behind prison bars.

Attorneys in Columbus volunteer at the Central Ohio Homeless Veterans Stand Down Legal Clinic


Glory McLaughlin and her students at the University of Alabama School of Law see almost on a daily basis the impact that such an ordinary document can have on the lives of the formerly incarcerated people they serve through the law school’s Public Interest Program’s Re-entry Assistance Clinics they hold monthly throughout the academic year.

And as part of the ABA’s annual National Pro Bono Week Celebration, which is officially Oct. 23-29, the law school will hold a Re-entry Assistance Clinic on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Tuscaloosa Parole & Probation Office. The clinic is to help formerly incarcerated people identify and overcome barriers to successful re-entry into the community. On average, 20 to 25 clients are served at these events.

“We see a lot of people who need help getting a driver’s license.  Sometimes their license has been suspended or revoked due to their conviction; sometimes they never had one to begin with.  We also see a lot of people who need assistance finding a job,” says Glory McLaughlin, assistant dean for Public Interest at the Alabama School of Law. “Many employers screen for arrest and conviction history, and it can be hard for these folks to even get their foot in the door.  We maintain a list of local employers and employment agencies that have either ’banned the box’ or are willing to wait until after an interview to do background screening. We regularly encounter people who have large amounts of debt from past-due child support or court fines and fees, and also clients who need immediate assistance with food, housing or medical care. “

The clinic is a joint effort of the law school, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama and the Tuscaloosa office of the Alabama Department of Pardons and Paroles.  Probation officers refer their supervisees to the clinic, where law students conduct intake interviews and provide informational handouts or brochures.  Attorneys are present to supervise the students and offer legal advice when appropriate.

McLaughlin recalls seeing a client at a recent clinic who had a part-time job that didn’t pay enough for him to keep up with his obligations and he had fallen behind on what he owed the court and probation office.

“We were able to give him information about a number of local employers that were currently hiring people with his skill set and paying much higher wages than what he was earning,” McLaughlin says. “Another client we saw had never had a driver’s license. He needed to drive in order to get a job. We explained the process for obtaining a license, including the agencies to go through in order to obtain the required identification for a driver’s license. He left the clinic with a clear plan for how to move forward.  Both of these clients could easily have been on a path to having their probation revoked and sent back to jail – if the first client hadn’t been able to make his payments on time, or the second client had been caught driving without a license, they each could have faced consequences. We hope to help people who are trying to be responsible citizens reach the resources they need to keep moving forward, rather than moving back into the criminal justice system.”

National Pro Bono Week actually extends through the month of October and features events all across the country. However, this year, in recognition of ABA President Linda Klein’s Veterans Legal Services Initiative, it will be extended through Veterans Day on November 11.

A sampling of other National Pro Bono Week Celebration events taking place across the country include:

Little Rock, Ark.

The Center for Arkansas Legal Services is hosting Our House Expungement Clinic, during which attorneys and law students will help homeless and near-homeless persons seal criminal records in an effort to give them a sense of closure while increasing the employment and housing opportunities available to them. The event is being held at the Our House Shelter on Friday, Oct. 28, from 12:30-4:30 p.m.

According to Rachel Freeman, coordinator for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, the goal is to assist at least 50 persons. About 30 law students, 10 volunteer lawyers and CALS staff attorneys will be on hand to help those who have misdemeanors and felonies with the paperwork and documents they need to file with the court and the judge.

“This is our second year and from a client perspective, they are very humble and glad to be helped in any way,” Freeman says.

Louisiana

The Louisiana State Bar Association is hosting statewide Lawyers in Libraries sessions on Thursday, Oct. 27, from 9-11 a.m. in all 64 parishes in the state. These events provide the public with free limited legal services from attorneys, who will either conduct Ask-a-Lawyer sessions or some other presentation on wills, divorce or other requested topics.

“The bar hosts these kinds of events throughout the year but we’ll have over 100 lawyers and usually about 75 events across the state on Oct. 27,” says Michael Schachtman, who serves as the LSBA’s Access to Justice’s Self-Represented Litigation Counsel. 

Miami

So what’s it like to live in poverty? For four hours on Wednesday, Oct. 26, judges, lawyers, attorneys general, law students and others from the Miami-area legal community will get to experience some of the day-to-day struggles that many poor people face in trying to maintain their basic needs as part of the Miami Pro Bono Roundtable’s Poverty Simulation. The event is being held at the YWCA on 351 NW 5th Street from 8 a.m. to noon.

The Miami Pro Bono Roundtable held its first Poverty Simulation in March. Because of its success, the decision was made to bring it back on a wider scale for the National Pro Bono Week Celebration, says event coordinator Whitney Untiedt, a partner with Akerman LLP and the firm’s director of pro bono initiatives.

“We’ve invited state, federal and appellate judges along with legal services attorneys, law firm representatives, members of the public defender’s office, members of the state attorney’s office and law students,” Untiedt says. “We are expecting upward to 100 people to attend.”

The Poverty Simulation is an experiential program designed to help lawyers, judges and other court professionals begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive from month to month. During the simulation, each participant will be assigned the role of a community member experiencing poverty or of a service provider. “We want to focus on helping the lawyers who are serving the clients — whether it’s on a pro bono basis, a legal services lawyer or a lawyer working in the criminal courts system — better understand what it’s like from a first-person perspective to live in poverty,” Untiedt says. “People who have lived in poverty can talk about the experience, but while it can be easy to sympathize it’s hard to empathize unless you have experienced poverty or experienced the simulation of what it is like and how difficult poverty can be. This is our way of helping the legal community better understand what life is like for the people we are serving on a daily basis.”

Columbus, Ohio

The Legal Aid Society of Columbus hosted a Central Ohio Homeless Veterans Stand Down Legal Clinic on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. For at least 15 years, the LASC has recruited pro bono attorneys to participate in an advice clinic, which serves between 40 and 70 clients.

Dianna Parker Howie, attorney and pro bono coordinator at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, said the purpose of the legal clinic is to connect homeless and low-income veterans with legal assistance. Veterans will have the opportunity to meet with pro bono and Legal Aid attorneys, who can provide onsite advice and referral as appropriate.

Howie says the veterans often have questions related to legal issues including landlord-tenant, consumer debt, family law, public benefits, health insurance, veterans’ benefits, criminal record-sealing and advance directives.

Volunteers include attorneys from in-house corporate departments, including Nationwide Insurance (which is based in Columbus), large firms including Bricker & Eckler, Baker & Hostetler, Taft Stettinius & Hollister and small firms including Ennis & Baker and Jack & Snyder. Paralegals from Nationwide and law students from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and Capital University Law School also took part.