Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Celebrate Pro Bono!

October is pro bono month, and October 23-29 is ABA’s pro bono week.  Vermont has incredible and rewarding pro bono opportunities.  Learn about the programs and obtain CLE credit by attending the VBA Pro Bono Conference, October 26, 2016 at the State House in Montpelier.  Click HERE for more info on tomorrow’s conference.

There is a common misperception that pro bono means “for free.”  Pro bono actually comes from the Latin pro bono publico meaning “for the public good.”  Lawyers, at their core, are in the profession to help people navigate through difficult situations, often well after the legal retainer has run dry.  Continuing to fight the good fight, undoubtedly for ‘truth, justice and the American way’ may appear to fulfill this aspiration to provide services for the public good, but the rule is a bit more specific.  Just being in a profession that exists to help clients is not enough.

Both the ABA and Rule 6.1 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct state that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.  It suggests that lawyers should render at least 50 hours per year providing pro bono services, the majority of which should be to help persons of limited means or charitable organizations that serve those of limited means.  The majority of the 50 hours need to be without fee or expectation of fee.  The rule then goes on to address other no fee or reduced fee services, beyond the majority of the 50 hours, that could be rendered to protect civil rights or public rights or to improve the legal system or law.

 Being in a service profession, it seems to go without saying that Vermont lawyers will give their time to help those in need, without pro bono hours being mandated.  And they often do, even though the stated 50 hours is merely aspirational.  The most cited reason for not giving time is that it is harder to earn a living in Vermont than elsewhere.  That Vermont practice is replete with ‘involuntary pro bono.’ While this may be true, it also follows that a huge population of Vermonters are low income and are in dire need of legal services.  Nationally, the ABA has found that 40% of low and moderate income households have legal problems but that only 20% of those legal needs are being met.  Legal services are needed, so why not help?

As so aptly put by Anne Frank, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”  Or as often, and perhaps incorrectly, attributed to Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  Countless studies have shown that giving is more rewarding and fulfilling than receiving. 

Consider volunteering at one of the following established programs and see just how gratifying the work can be!

·        Vermont Volunteer Lawyer Project is a statewide program matching volunteer attorneys with low-income clients in need of help in civil legal matters. To sign up or to request more information, contact Angele Court, VVLP Coordinator, at (802) 863-7153.

·        Chittenden County Small Claims Clinic is held on the first Tuesday of each month in the District and Family Court building on Cherry Street in Burlington. Volunteer attorneys meet with clients to review their cases and prepare them for the upcoming hearing. The attorneys do not provide legal advice. To volunteer, or to receive more information, contact Jeffrey Messina Esq., with Bergeron, Paradis & Fitzpatrick, LLP by calling (802) 879-6304.

·        Chittenden County Rent Escrow Clinic is held at least two times a month on Tuesdays from 8:30AM until noon at Chittenden County Courthouse, 175 Main Street in Burlington. Three attorney volunteers enter limited appearances for clients in rent escrow hearings that morning. To volunteer, or to obtain more information, contact Angele Court with Legal Services Law Line of Vermont at 802-863-7153.

·        County Bar Legal Assistance Projects are low-bono projects providing stipends for attorneys representing low income clients in foreclosure, collections and landlord/tenant cases in civil division, in adult involuntary guardianships in probate divisions, and in child support contempt defense in family division. These low bono projects exist in Addison, Bennington, Rutland, Windham, Windsor/Orange Counties, and are coming soon in Franklin/Grand Isle and Washington Counties. For general information contact Mary Ashcroft at mashcroft@vtbar.org or at 802-223-2020.   
To sign up for the program in your preferred country, contacts are below:
Addison County: Sarah Star, Esq. 802-385-1023
Bennington County: John Lamson, Esq., 802-447-8500
Orange County: Judge Bernie Lewis at 802-728-9604
Rutland County: Mary Ashcroft, Esq., 802-775-5189 (OVER 800 CASES TO DATE!)                       Windham County: Ellen Kreitmeier, Esq., 802-490-9265
Windsor/Orange Counties: Marc Nemeth, Esq. 802-763-2227

·        Caledonia County Legal Clinic is offered on Friday afternoon every other month at the Courthouse in St. Johnsbury. Attorney volunteers are needed to visit with clients on a variety of issues for 20 minutes each. For more information or to volunteer, call the court at 748-6600.

·        St. Johnsbury Community Justice Center offers a free evening legal clinic on the first Monday of every month, and needs volunteer attorneys to meet with each client for 30 minutes, working from 6-8PM. For more information or to volunteer, call Neil Favreau at (802) 748- 2977.

·        Washington County Legal Clinic operates two Friday afternoons a month at the Washington Family Court in Barre. Volunteer attorneys see 3-6 clients for 15 minute consultations each. Clients with all types of legal questions are served. To volunteer, please call the Family Court at 479-4205.

The county “low bono” projects listed above are funded by grants from the Vermont Bar Foundation. 

Pro bono opportunities exist in every county in Vermont.  If not through an established program, consider volunteering in your local probate or family division, where the pro bono need is especially great.  Fulfill Rule 6.1 and you, too, will feel fulfilled!

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