Pro Bono Community Profiles: Sharon Goldsmith, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland

This week we had an opportunity to speak with Sharon E. Goldsmith who has been with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) since its inception over twenty years ago. Sharon initially left law firm practice to work in pro bono based upon her desire to encourage attorneys who might be interested in pro bono but had not participated because the opportunity had not presented itself. She stayed in the field not only because of the value and importance of pro bono work but also because, as she puts it, the people she has encountered are so wonderful, compassionate, caring, talented and bright. Below are some of her comments on the uniqueness of the PBRC:

Pro bono in Maryland

How have you seen the pro bono landscape change during your time with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland?

The structure of pro bono in Maryland has changed dramatically, most significantly in that we have many more organized pro bono programs. These programs are a combination of general pro bono referral agencies, specialized programs and pro bono components of legal services providers.  Together they are more sophisticated and offer a greater scope and variety for volunteers. Additionally, I have witnessed new and interesting collaborations and partnerships that have not only engaged pro bono attorneys but non-profits and state agencies as well. This provides more opportunities for the private bar to be involved with a wider range of issues and different populations.

Can you explain how your program is structured and the benefits of a program like the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland?

We are a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit but we are the designated pro bono arm of the Maryland State Bar Association. What that means is that we are able to stay very closely connected with the state bar and help to promote the message of pro bono as an important value in the legal community. On a practical level, we are able to use the Bar’s publications and credibility to support the message the Pro Bono Resource Center is trying to convey.  Functioning as a separate non-profit also allows us to be flexible, creative and responsive to the needs of legal services programs. This will frequently come in the way of training, mentoring and support to pro bono programs and their volunteers in addition to creating new and innovative projects.

Because we are a clearinghouse for volunteers statewide we are not focused exclusively on one particular issue, region or clientele so we are able to cater to the wide variety of needs and support all pro bono efforts.  This is a great advantage when we recruit a volunteer because we are able to find the perfect opportunity to coincide with their expertise and interests. For volunteers who are not sure what kind of volunteer experiences are available or where they may want to put their energies we are able to help them navigate though the legal services network and make the right match.

We also provide support so that volunteers can do their jobs effectively. We strive to do much of the recruitment and training of pro bono volunteers so that the legal services programs can focus on providing the best service possible for their clients. The more training we do and the more support services we provide, the easier it is for legal services programs to quickly engage the volunteers.

Also, because we are separate from the state bar, we are able to seek outside funding. This allows us to create new programs and incubate new pro bono projects. It also enables PBRC to be responsive and flexible as the need arises so we are a little more nimble in terms of changing direction or responding to a need quickly. The best example of this has been the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project which we were able to spearhead in short order at the request of the Maryland Court of Appeals and the state. The highest court requested that PBRC engage an enormous number of volunteers and we were able to make that happen. In fact, the Foreclosure Project has been the single most successful pro bono initiative in Maryland’s history.

What are the advantages to your program in working with a state bar? The judiciary?

The advantages of working so closely with the state bar are primarily the marketing of pro bono opportunities. By working with the bar we are able to keep pro bono in the forefront of the legal community in Maryland. We have political support and a greater reach than we may otherwise have if we were not the pro bono arm of the Maryland State Bar. It is certainly advantageous for our program, for volunteers, and inevitably for the individuals who are helped through our pro bono efforts. 

The judiciary’s influence has been extremely important as well. When the Court of Appeals established local pro bono committees in 2002, mandatory judicial involvement was shied away from because there was a fear of influence by the bench. Judges were not prohibited from participating, however, and when they began to take part on their own it dramatically increased membership. Now judges are mandated participants in the pro bono committees in every county and involvement and membership is stronger than ever. Additionally, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service is a committee of the Maryland Court of Appeals. This has also made a significant difference because it sends a message that pro bono is a top priority in Maryland. The Chief Judge is very involved and supportive of pro bono and is currently co-chairing the ABA’s National Pro Bono Summit that will take place in October of 2011.

Judicial involvement has definitively changed the pro bono culture in our state. Generally, we work hard at encouraging the judiciary to be more involved and to have them understand how they support pro bono in tangible ways. There are numerous new court based pro bono projects such as court-house clinics and pro se assistance projects as a result of their efforts.

 Later this week: Part 2: Ms. Goldsmith’s involvement with pro bono nationally.


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