COMMUNITY PROFILE: Helenka Marculewicz, Executive Director, Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project

Our profiles of movers and shakers in the pro bono community continue this week with an interview with Helenka Marculewicz, Executive Director of the Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). VLP is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Ms. Marculewicz has been with the organization since its founding. She shares with us her insights from her years of service.

Describe the Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) and your role within the organization.

VLP was founded in 1988 by a group of private attorneys and members of the local bar association. I was asked to head the organization. Because the project was created by private attorneys, they had – and continue to have – substantial ownership over the work of the project; that’s important when thinking about a pro bono program.

Over the years, VLP has grown to provide a range of civil legal services. We have monthly “batch” clinics for divorce cases. Pro bono attorneys are assigned a group of cases with similar issues. We have a full-time paralegal who helps the attorney with the paperwork and background research. This allows VLP to have four family law clinics a month that reaches roughly 44 people.

The cases we try to schedule for the “batch” clinics are ones that are not contested and can be closed relatively easily. Funny story: for the first clinic we held, almost all the spouses were in jail. We thought the cases would be closed relatively easily, but they all filed pro se answers, so it ended up being more complicated than we had anticipated.

We also handle one-on-one cases, where the issues are more complicated and can’t be handled at a clinic.

We keep a running total of how many cases are closed each year. Since VLP was founded, we estimate approximately $14 million dollars in pro bono services have been donated and we’ve closed about 27,000 cases. We’ve done this with a staff of three (prior to 2012, we had a staff of two).

What is the greatest lesson you learned about managing a pro bono organization or pro bono work generally ? What is the greatest challenge?

Greatest lesson is that in most instances when you ask an attorney to assist you, they will. Most attorneys will tell you that if they haven’t done pro bono work it’s because they haven’t been asked.

The biggest challenge is the variety of cases. We have centralized intake for a 32 county region and have been working to try to figure out how to mainstream the system to try to get the relevant ones straight to VLP. A pro bono program should be a complement to Legal Aid – we take on cases that Legal Aid wouldn’t be able to handle because they don’t have the staff.

A recent ABA report showed that approximately 60% of attorneys under the age of 35 expressed interest in taking on more pro bono work. What advice do you have for pro bono managers and programs to help recruit young attorneys?

You need to ask them. We do cold calls to our entire directory. We also send out e-mail blasts. Right now we have an agreement with Habitat for Humanity because anyone who gets a mortgage through them needs to get a will. We will be holding a session where pro bono attorneys help draft wills. We sent out an e-mail blast requesting assistance – we only needed 6 attorneys but received interest from 20.

In your 25 years at VLP, what changes have you seen to delivery of pro bono services?

These days, we get a lot of young attorneys asking to help assist with cases because so few of them have jobs – these attorneys require mentorship and training.

Final words?

I really enjoy working with the legal community – I have so much respect for attorneys and paralegals who are so committed to helping people gain access to justice.

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