With the money-mongering reputation lawyers have, it might be hard for some to believe that more than 600 attorneys in Cincinnati have been doing charity work by bringing low-income clients into the courtroom free of charge.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) has brought together affluent, big-ticket attorneys and clients who are below federal poverty lines to take a stab at providing justice for those who seem to need it most.
VLP provides services to those whom the courts do not provide assistance to, according to Krista Lohr, pro bono coordinator for VLP.
"(Clients) are so desperate and they lose faith in the justice system, but when a volunteer lawyer walks into court with them, willing to stand next to them and help, it's a big deal to these clients," she says.
Low-income clients gain access to the courts, justice and legal rights, says Regina Campbell, managing attorney at VLP.
Money for the project comes through private donations, law firms and support from the Cincinnati Bar Association and the Legal Aid Society.
'I have an obligation'
VLP is the pro bono branch of Legal Aid, focusing on civil cases that often include domestic violence, eviction, Social Security, Medicaid and child custody.
VLP is responsible for providing volunteers with client information as well as back-up lawyers.
"Our role is to cater to the attorney and let them provide the service," Lohr says.
VLP only has a few full-time staff to cater to the needs of more than 600 volunteer lawyers, yet it served 1,200 clients in 2004. That volume, given the organization's limitations, is a triumph, Lohr says.
Lohr used to work for a social services agency but says she feels she can help more people this way.
"It's hard to understand that there are many more people we could have helped, but I just look at the pile of cases we have moved forward and be happy," she says.
Volunteer lawyers are recruited "any way we can get 'em," Lohr says. Many law firms encourage lawyers to participate, and fresh graduates are often interested because VLP provides newcomers with court experience earlier in their careers.
"It's not hard to get someone to take a case," Lohr says.
Attorneys might just need to spend a few minutes to give advice over the phone or have to be more active; whatever is needed to help the client is expected.
"It really is a great service to the community on their part," Lohr says.
The law firm of Benjamin Yocum & Heather has been involved with VLP since 1998, according to Chris Mulvaney, an attorney who donates his time as a volunteer lawyer.
"Our entire practice is based around budgeting what time is necessary for an individual client, so we work VLP clients into the mix as if it were any other case," he says.
Often, all the attention a VLP client needs is quick legal advice or a few phone calls in the right direction, Mulvaney says.
"If it's an urgent enough problem, we can take care of it often quickly before it's too late," he says.
Mulvaney received a letter of gratitude from an elderly gentleman he met through VLP. They couldn't achieve the result that they had hoped for, but the client was very appreciative.
"I've saved the letter as the background on the desktop of my computer," Mulvaney says.
The firm of Hardin Lefton Lazarus & Marks also encourages many of its lawyers to participate in VLP. Once word got out that VLP was looking for volunteers, the whole firm got involved, says attorney Ed Marks.
"It gives lawyers an opportunity to stand back and reevaluate things in their own practices and lives," he says.
Marks says he finds time to volunteer the same way he finds the time to go to a ballgame or to the park.
"It's just part of life," he says. "You make that time. To me, it's something that is part of my practice and that I have an obligation to do. I think most of us look at it that way."
'It's a big deal'
Despite the inevitable turnover in volunteer lawyers, VLP manages to maintain a relationship with some attorneys and law firms for more than 10 years, Lohr says. VLP provides attorneys with continuing legal education credit hours that are required for practicing attorneys.
"Other than that, we don't offer much to volunteers," Lohr says.
But clients often go out of their way to thank VLP and the lawyers.
"People who are barely surviving take a moment to show their gratitude for the work we've done," Lohr says.
Marks says a newcomer into the field of law a few years ago worked with a VLP client and received a 39-cent plant as a gift.
"That plant was the most valuable fee you could receive in your first years of practice," Marks says.
The time and attention that volunteer lawyers give to VLP is a big deal to the clients, Lohr says. A lot of times, it's not just about winning but about getting to court.
"It's a big deal to these clients," she says.
Lohr adds that just because VLP is volunteer doesn't mean that anyone can donate his or her time. Client-satisfaction forms are distributed to ensure constant improvement and high-quality services.
Support from the Cincinnati Bar Association boosts the credibility of VLP, which is among the finest in the country, Campbell says.
"Lawyers have a bad reputation, but for us to have as many attorneys as we do willing to give as much time as they do is a strong statement about the legal community in Cincinnati and the conscience they have," Campbell says.
"It's nice to come to a job where you feel like you're really making a difference," Lohr says. "You can't believe you actually get paid to do something you feel this strongly for."
For more information about the Volunteer Lawyers ProjecT, call 513-241-9400.