Engaging Non-Lawyer Volunteers in Pro Bono Projects

In the struggle to provide equal access to the justice system, particularly as it relates to the poor and otherwise disadvantaged, it is important to exhaust every avenue when looking for assistance. In the pro bono community we often reach out to lawyers to encourage them to volunteer their time but it is just as important to properly utilize the help offered by non-lawyer volunteers. Law students, paralegals and administrative staff as well as other non-lawyer volunteers should be an essential aspect of every pro bono program and can be greatly effective if engaged properly.

The problem many programs have is how best to use these volunteers and what types of projects to involve them in. There are the obvious ways to use law students and paralegals: assisting with research and writing and taking the burden off of lawyer staff or volunteers by managing some of the administrative aspects of pro bono representation, for example. But there are many more ways to involve non-lawyer volunteers that offer the volunteer fulfillment in the work they are doing and provide an opportunity to make a true impact in someone’s life. Most of the opportunities to fully engage non-lawyer volunteers involve administrative processes that involve many aspects of a court procedure but do not require a license to practice law. This is especially appealing for law students and paralegals that are knowledgeable about the court system but have not reached the level of expertise of a licensed attorney.

Clemency/Expungement Projects

Many legal aid or pro bono programs run project assisting individuals clear criminal records of old matters ripe for expungement. Removal of these issues removes barriers to employment, housing and family issues essential to survival. Often the process for removal of these barriers is handled outside of the court system and therefore can provide an opportunity for client interviewing, petitioning a board or politician and fully utilizing a grievance process. Lessons learned through these types of experiences can be hugely impactful for the non-lawyer volunteer and help ease the burden of work at legal services and pro bono program offices.

Education Matters

Many states have opportunities to assist children with various issues that do not require court participation at all and at most require involvement in administrative hearings where non-lawyers can permissibly represent children. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has a Law Project that assists homeless youth in Chicago enroll in school. Projects like these can be performed by lawyers and non-lawyers alike and provide a service to children who may otherwise lose access to the education they are entitled.

Social Security and Immigration Cases

Many of these administrative cases are perfect for law student or paralegal volunteers who can participate and gain meaningful experience. There are a wide range of pro bono opportunities available from helping immigrant children avoid deportation to helping domestic violence survivors.

With a little creativity and the right volunteers the possibilities are great. And the experience may lend to lifelong volunteers or future lawyers with a strong commitment to providing pro bono services throughout their practice.

What ways do you utilize non-lawyer volunteers? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

~ Adrienne Packard

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2 Responses to Engaging Non-Lawyer Volunteers in Pro Bono Projects

  1. donnalap says:

    The West Cook Pro Bono Network in Oak Park, IL has bilingual volunteers who are mostly mothers and some students in our community. They provide translation/interpretation for our U Visa and VAWA immigration work. It works out very easily as they translate documents through emails, make phone calls for the attorneys, and attend meetings. They are hoping to assist us at a nearby foreclosure desk and domestic violence clinic as we continue to work to make those projects happen. We can’t find enough work for them.

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