In part two of this weeks Community Profile we finish our conversation with Sandy Brown, Executive Director of Mid-Shore Pro Bono.
Describe the pro bono model at Mid-Shore Pro Bono and how it is unique due to the nature of your community?
Much of how we operate is influenced by the demographics of our legal community. Although there are over 35,000 attorneys licensed to practice in the state of Maryland, only 317 of them are located in our area. We are fortunate to have many retired attorneys in the area and we rely on them to participate in our program. We also work with many solo practitioners and lawyers from small law firms. The nature of our legal community helps shape the role that we play as well. I have only 85 attorneys on my volunteer panel but we have been very successful at establishing legal clinics which have been essential to our ability to help low-income residence gain access to justice.
A significant majority of our work is in the area of family law. We hold weekly legal services clinics in our office and once a month in all of the other counties. Our staff consists of myself, one full-time assistant, a part-time volunteer and a newly barred attorney working on special projects. I think that we are successful in recruiting and retaining many of our volunteer attorneys because we are willing to provide the support they need to handle the cases we refer. As I mentioned, many of our volunteer attorneys are solo practitioners or work at firms with 5-6 attorneys on staff. They know that they can count on us to provide whatever administrative support is necessary to help them handle a case from filing of pleadings to dropping off mail.
We are also becoming well-known for our clinics but people do not feel as emotionally connected to donating to legal services. Many of them are more interested in donating to kids or animals and have trouble seeing the connection to family law services for the poor. So I work very hard to get the message out to our community that a one-hundred dollar donation can cover my entire paper budget. When I get an opportunity to explain, it makes all the difference.
Many pro bono organizations in less populous locations struggle with how to recruit attorneys. What have you found to be most effective in combating this issue?
Pro bono is not “sexy.” Unless you sit down and explain the value of access to justice, why it helps your community overall, how empowering people through the legal system can help keep crime down, keep courts less cluttered and keeps egregious law suits from being filed, it is hard to get support. Because our community is so small it is a lot easier for me to recruit volunteers and obtain financial support by going directly to lawyers in the community. I hunt people down in the grocery store, on the tennis court, anywhere I can find them. I go on the radio and do press releases, I have an excellent relationship with family law coordinators who refer people, I attend bar association meetings; essentially I do a lot of networking. Now that I have assistance I am able to get out there. I pick up the phone and call people.
We also host social networking events such as wine and cheese events every quarter where lawyers have an opportunity to meet with local judges. And, as I mentioned before, because there are so many solo practitioners here, we try to provide whatever administrative assistance we can. We really want lawyers to feel like we are an asset, like we are their assistants.
What was the greatest lesson you learned about managing a pro bono organization or pro bono work generally?
Dealing with the legal profession I learned that what is fair is not always what is just or legal. Justice is not always reflected by the law and that has been the biggest shock to me and the biggest lesson. If we did not have these clinics many clients would not be as successful in their legal matters as they are. The lawyers who provide advice through our clinics are able to tell someone that, although something is not fair, there might not be anything that can be done legally and this makes a huge difference for our clients. Even if they do not get the remedy they seek, at least they leave with peace of mind.