This week we had an opportunity to speak with Jennifer van Dulman of Community Legal Aid’s Volunteer Legal Services Program in Akron, Ohio. Jennifer shared with us her experience as a pro bono manager within a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funded program and how she has grown the program to what it is today.
What led you to become a pro bono program coordinator?
In 2006 I had been in private practice but was looking for a new opportunity within the legal aid arena. I had always wanted to do legal services work and at the time Community Legal Aid, in Akron, Ohio, had two positions available: either as a staff attorney or as director of Community Legal Aid’s pro bono project, Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP). When I took over the VLSP there was a significant amount of work that needed to be done and because that fit with my skill set I chose the pro bono option. At that time I did not have a clue what a pro bono manager was or what the job entailed. I had done pro bono guardian ad litem work but I did not know that there were pro bono manager positions like this available.
Your pro bono program is within an LSC funded legal services program. How was the pro bono program created and how does the partnership work?
When I started VLSP, Community Legal Aid had only a small box of files. I was told that these files were the only cases that were open and I was expected to open a lot more by the end of the year. Fortunately, my executive director had worked as a pro bono manager before she became the Executive Director so I had the advantage of having support from someone who understood the value of pro bono. She pointed me toward Helenka Marculewicz, Executive Director of the Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project, who runs one of the best pro bono programs in the nation. My executive director also suggested several other programs for me to visit. I visited these programs and observed how they were run and concluded that we could attempt not only to emulate these programs but to improve on their models. I began to contact local attorneys and ask them what type of pro bono opportunities they were interested in and the program grew from there.
Today VLSP has several different programs and reaches attorneys all across our service area. We are still housed within Community Legal Aid but we have our own structure, our own name and we even run several programs outside of the main building at law schools and other locations within the community. Additionally, our clinical program has an advice and counsel division as well as a brief service division. There are not different staff people but because the two divisions function differently we think about this differently.
What do you think makes your program great or sets it apart from your typical pro bono department within a legal services program?
One advantage that we have over many other programs is that I serve as the managing attorney over intake for our whole LSC program as well as run the pro bono program. Because of this I am able to ensure that systems are in place to funnel quality cases to both our legal services program as well as our pro bono program. This way our pro bono volunteers do not receive difficult cases that no on else wants to handle.
Additionally our pro bono program is well staffed. Within VLSP we have one full and one half time legal assistant, two paralegals and an attorney. It helps to have extra people but it also helps us really get to know our volunteers. We also have a help line pro bono project where we schedule client appointments with a volunteer attorney the same way we would a staff attorney. This was originally developed as a “second season” project for retired attorneys who are interested in doing pro bono. Unfortunately we are still working on getting an emeritus rule in Ohio so we have not been able to fully expand the project to its full potential. If we can get an emeritus rule passed here, the idea would be that the retired attorneys would be able to take the calls at their homes and “meet” with the client remotely. Currently we have a licensed attorney who does approximately ten cases a week, all remotely, which adds up to around 500 cases per year. If we were able to expand this model to the many retired attorneys interested in helping it could increase the number of clients reached significantly.
You currently serve as President Elect for the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals. What is one way you would like to see the organization grow in the next several years?
I would like to see us grow in a more substantive way where our members feel that there is more opportunity for them. I would like for our members to be more aware of what is happening on the national pro bono landscape. If we begin to have more in-depth conversations and more of a feeling of belonging within the organization I am confident our membership will feel that we are providing a great service similar to that provided by other membership organizations like the ABA. I am encouraged to see that members are becoming more plugged in to the current issues surrounding pro bono across the country and excited about the possibility of what we can accomplish if we provide input regarding policies that will affect our pro bono work on a daily basis.