Lawyers are delivering a great deal of pro bono work through “limited engagements,” that is, through narrow, targeted efforts. These come in several flavors: among them local programs established through a local provider and targeted at a particular kind of recurring legal problem or more general “clinics” where a given population (for example, veterans or homeless individuals) receive more wide-ranging advice or referrals.
Both types of pro bono work make very limited demands on the lawyers supplying it and may well involve many more of them as a result.
Verizon and Hewlett-Packard are two corporations that have run pro bono clinics. For example, Hewlett-Packard has run “ID Clinics” designed to get homeless individuals California-approved identification cards from the Department of Motor Vehicles. These cards are a critical gateway to many social services available to this population. After appropriate outreach to the targeted population, its lawyers and non-lawyers will staff an area and its individuals will help the clients with the necessary forms and their submission to obtain the cards. In the process, this group of pro bono volunteers might also provide these clients with brief legal advice for simple problems or will assist them in scheduling appointments with an agency that can help or a legal provider that can offer more complex legal services.
Verizon, in collaboration with DLA Piper and Rutgers Law School established a series of “veterans clinics” at the VA’s Basking Ridge, N.J. facility. Here, they helped veterans with many issues including family law, landlord tenant, criminal expungement, and driver’s license restorations. Some of the problems could be handled on the spot, with a letter to an official or a family member; more complicated problems were referred to one of many legal services organizations in the state.
Efforts that are more narrowly focused on a particular legal problem within a geographic area make similarly-limited demands on lawyers. For example, Atlanta and Los Angeles both have programs to assist individuals in bankruptcy with the decision whether to “reaffirm” a given debt that otherwise would be discharged in bankruptcy. Reaffirmation is a difficult issue in bankruptcy inasmuch as a “reaffirmed” commitment to pay a pre-bankruptcy debt burdens the “fresh start” for which debtors seek bankruptcy protection in the first place. In these pro bono programs, the persons confronting a reaffirmation decision are gathered in one place with groups of pro bono lawyers who will counsel them about the decisions they are faced with. Better decisions, and more effective consumer bankruptcies, are the result.
Philadelphia has a “Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program” that has a very similar structure. Philadelphians who are facing legal foreclosure are “diverted” to offices of the Philadelphia Housing Authority where their obligations and ability to perform them are worked up. Then the homeowners and the lenders who have initiated foreclosure, are gathered into a courtroom. The homeowners are given a pro bono lawyer who will review the information with the housing counselor and then the lawyer and homeowner together will open a negotiation with the lender. If that negotiation does not produce a settlement, the group is sent to a mediator (typically a senior pro bono lawyer) who will attempt to move the parties towards settlement. This program has saved thousands of Philadelphia homes from foreclosure.
Once again, limited lawyer engagement makes the program work and attracts hundreds of pro bono lawyers into the program, many of whom might not have offered their help without the availability of a limited engagement.
Despite the briefness of the pro bono commitment, the work can be immensely satisfying. This can draw more lawyers to pro bono work and can draw participating lawyers into less limited engagements. As a simple example, one of my early clients was committed to an “underwater” mortgage that made no economic sense for their family. Even if their monthly payments could have been reduced, so long as the house remained underwater, they could neither sell their house nor refinance their mortgage – they were stuck. The lender would not budge on a balance reduction that would match the size of the mortgage to the value of the house, so I advised the clients simply to “move on” and let the house go, rather than to accept the lower monthly payment the lender offered without a balance reduction. This they did, and relocated to a suburb outside the city. This turned out to be a life-changing and very positive move for them and their gratitude came to me in recurring reports about their wonderful new life over the course of the following year. This kind of gratitude does not come often from most regular clients.
Programs like these are everywhere and there is always room for more volunteers. Participation will offer you training in something different, will yield you one-on-one client contact (an increasing rarity in practice), and will let you see your legal training actually improve the life of a fellow human being. Being a lawyer doesn’t get much better than that.
William J. Woodward, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University School of Law, a
Professor Emeritus at Temple University, and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.