This week we had an opportunity to speak with Erick Cordero Giorgana, Director of Volunteer Services & Community Support at Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Erick spoke with us about the unique aspects of providing pro bono services in the remote and rural areas of Alaska.
Tell us a little about what led you to coordinate pro bono in Alaska?
My pro bono path is a little different because I am not a lawyer, but I was interested in nonprofit and charitable work. About 11 years ago, shortly after finishing college, I started out doing information technology work for a public relations firm, but I really wanted to work for a nonprofit, so I got a job at the Alaska Pro Bono Program where I worked as its Operations Manager. Not only was I handling the IT, board support and bookkeeping needs, I was also organizing legal clinics, referring pro bono cases, screening clients, recruiting volunteer attorneys, etc. Sadly, because of decreases in IOLTA funding a year later, the program was no longer able to keep an office open or staff a full-time position. I was fortunate to be able to transfer to our grantee at Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) and serve as their pro bono coordinator under the PAI program. I have been here since 2002 and I still enjoy the challenge it brings.
Describe the pro bono model at Alaska Legal Services Corporation and how it is unique due to the rural nature of your community?
The pro bono program, although a part of ALSC, operates under its own name, the Alaska Pro Bono Program. The clients come in through traditional intake at ALSC and then are referred to my office if it seems like a case that would lend well to pro bono. From there we find a volunteer attorney who is a good match. I only do independent intake for some chapter 7 cases or when I get a referral from the US District Court. In the case of Chapter 7 Bankruptcy cases, only pro bono attorneys handle those cases either through our legal clinics program or through representation in court.
The Alaska Pro Bono Program is a statewide program. The program is housed at our Anchorage office but we serve clients across the state.Alaskais considered one of the most rural states in our country. Geographically it is 663,267 sq miles (1/5 the size of the Continental US), but our population is very spread out. Just over 700,000 people live in Alaska, and over 200,000 are in the Anchorage bowl area. There are some regions you cannot get to without a plane or boat and communities with no private attorneys and only government attorneys, if any. So we have special obstacles when it comes to providing pro bono services or reaching our clients.
What new projects are you using to address the unique challenge of working in such a large rural service area?
Our local ALSC offices divide the work by regions and our pro bono intake continues to come in from those offices. A lot of the cases are handled by in-house staff at ALSC but in the past we have advertised the availability of pro bono services in rural communities to ensure that potential clients know help is available. One of the tools we use to address the issue of reaching remote clients has come from the local judiciary. Local judges allow representation by phone which has provided an opportunity to work with some pro bono attorneys who would otherwise be unable to help.
For a while we were receiving funding for the Flying Pro Bono Program. Attorneys from larger cities were flying to rural areas and providing community education and outreach programs or clinics. Unfortunately we lost the funding for that project so we are looking to start Skype clinics as a way of doing more with less. We are trying to find partners in our communities to make this new endeavor happen. In some communities, we have local private volunteer attorneys but none of them do bankruptcies which is the planned focus for these clinics initially. Most of the attorneys who could handle bankruptcy cases are in the Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks areas and they are pretty maxed out so we are looking for new pools of volunteers. Two of our local Anchorage volunteer attorneys have agreed to help with the project if we could find a way to provide the clinics at a distance and we are hoping that the Skype clinics could be a potential solution.
We are also looking for partners to provide space and web capabilities for the individuals located in the remote areas so that they will have access to Skype and a facility to hold the clinic or community education forum. We are hoping to partner with local companies and businesses or medical facilities to help with providing the videoconferencing to make this endeavor a success. Although the initial focus will be on providing this service for bankruptcy cases, once the project is up and running successfully we are hoping to extend it to other service areas as well.
Come back Monday to read the remainder of our interview with Erick Cordero Giorgana and learn of another interesting approach to reaching clients in rural communities