Volunteer Lawyer Program: 2016 Highlights and Accomplishments

02/16/2017 -
Program Summary

In keeping with its mission, The Rhode Island Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Program (VLP) continued to provide legal assistance to those who cannot obtain legal representation either on their own or through other legal resources. Administered by the Bar Association for thirty years, the Volunteer Lawyer Program continues to offer many interesting opportunities for the private bar practitioner to handle pro bono cases. VLP membership provides a satisfying variety of experiences that cannot be duplicated elsewhere while opening the door to justice for low income citizens. Volunteer Lawyer Program attorneys impact their clients’ lives in a significant and purposeful way.  The contributions of volunteer attorneys are essential to the system of justice. The ethical commitment of the Bar Association to the delivery of pro bono assistance is reflected in the ongoing dedicated public service activities of its VLP members. 

Education – A Member Benefit
Focusing on recruitment of VLP members is essential to respond to the needs of the community for pro bono assistance. The most effective method of member recruitment and retention is through sponsoring and providing free continuing legal education in cooperation with the Bar’s Continuing Legal Education (CLE) department.

In 2016, the Volunteer Lawyer Program/Foreclosure Prevention Project sponsored two, free, three-credit seminars, Rever$e Mortgage: Ri$k or Reward and Judicial Foreclosures: The Next Wave??.   Both seminars were offered free to all volunteer attorneys.  These two outstanding seminars were held in August and October, respectively.  Volunteer attorneys who attended these sessions agreed to accept a pro bono foreclosure-related case or participate in a community outreach program.

 Through the excellent efforts of the Public Service Involvement Committee, a subcommittee, spearheaded by Attorney Barbara Margolis, designed a three-part family law series for 2017.   “Custody Litigation & Related Issues,” is scheduled for March 28, April 7, and April 26, 2017.   The topics include trial preparation, trial tactics/case preparation, and post-trial and special issues.
In addition to the free seminars that are sponsored by the VLP, Volunteer Lawyer Program members who contribute and report thirty plus hours of pro bono service annually are eligible to receive CLE coupons, to be used in the following calendar year, to attend one, free, three-credit seminar or three Food for Thought seminars of their choice.   Instituted in 2009, this policy reflects the Bar’s long standing support of pro bono legal assistance and public service.

Volunteer Recognition/Events

The Pro Bono Awards presentation was held at the Bar Association’s Annual Awards Reception on June 16, 2016.  Bar President Armando Batastini presented Attorneys Karen Davidson and Richard James with the Pro Bono Publico Award for their outstanding pro bono contributions through the Pro Bono Program for the Elderly and the Volunteer Lawyer Program.  Attorneys William Balkun, Jack Pitts and Elizabeth Santilli were awarded the Continuing Service Award for their longstanding dedication and participation in the pro bono programs including the VLP, Foreclosure Prevention Project and Pro Bono Program for the Elderly.  The amazing pro bono contributions of these five award recipients exceeded 800 hours!

In honor of the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Week in October, 2016, three community outreach events were held including a Collections Clinic for low income citizens being constantly pursued by debt collectors.  Two other general legal clinics were presented in the community.  On October 28, a free seminar focusing on judicial foreclosures was offered to attorneys through the Foreclosure Prevention Project to recruit additional volunteers and increase case placement.

On October 27, a reception for volunteer attorneys was held at the Rhode Island Law Center to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Volunteer Lawyer Program, 1986-2016.  Chief Justice Paul Suttell offered his remarks and special recognition to the group for their dedication to the pro bono effort.  All of the distinguished speakers saluted the tireless commitment of those who support and participate in the program.  Robert Barge, Executive Director of Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. presented President Batastini with an award for the 30 year anniversary of the Bar’s administration of the VLP and reflected upon the successful, longstanding relationship between the Bar Association and Rhode Island Legal Services.

Placement Strategies
VLP staff attended numerous 2016 Continuing Legal Education seminars at the Rhode Island Law Center, as well as at off site locations, where they recruited new attorney members and placed cases.  Pro bono case summaries were prepared and distributed to attendees to emphasize the need for pro bono legal assistance and encourage participation.  This was one of several effective methods of case placement, in addition to the traditional direct calls to panel members and blast e-mailing. Direct mail was also used to promote free CLE offerings.

The majority of potential clients contacted the VLP by telephone to request pro bono service.  The public is continually referred to this program by the human service network, Rhode Island Legal Services and other legal assistance agencies, Internet/Rhode Island Bar Association website, law offices, the Courts, and other sources.

In 2016, requests for assistance were accepted for bankruptcy, collections, consumer, education, employment, foreclosures, guardianships, landlord/ tenant, license registry, non-profit, probate, tort defense, and family law issues.

Foreclosure Prevention Project
We continue to receive requests from clients in desperate need of assistance with foreclosure prevention and foreclosure relief matters.  We look forward to expanding and strengthening private bar resources for assistance for our clients, especially in the area of prevention, in 2017.  In 2016, the program received 82 requests legal assistance in the area of foreclosure.  Currently, there is an extreme need for attorneys to accept Chapter 13 as well as Chapter 7 bankruptcies. Recruitment of volunteer attorneys for bankruptcy is a priority.

Partners Overcoming Domestic Violence (PODV)
The PODV’s development was finalized and the project initiated through the cooperative efforts of the Bar Association, Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc., Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Roger Williams University School of Law.  With the dedicated volunteer efforts of new and seasoned attorneys, the project integrates legal, advocacy and social services to “facilitate access to high quality, free legal services to empower survivors of domestic violence and advocate for their safety.”

During February and March of 2016, new attorneys attended a comprehensive family law/domestic violence training program.  Working in pairs with an experienced mentor, they were assigned a Volunteer Lawyer Program case involving domestic violence.   These new attorneys have agreed to remain on the VLP program once their cases are finished.  The following evaluation of the PODV is from Attorney Amy Veri whose initial case is complete. 

“The PODV program is excellent.  I learned a lot of practical information/skills that I use almost daily.  I enjoyed working with my attorney partner as our styles and skills meshed well.  Together we were able to produce a favorable outcome for our client.”

Today Attorney Veri continues to be an active member of the Volunteer Lawyer Program.

Notes of Appreciation
Evaluations of the legal assistance received in 2016, reflect the amazing dedication of the volunteer attorneys and the sincere appreciation of the clients and referral agencies.  These evaluations emphasize the critical need for expanded and continued private bar involvement to protect the rights of our poorest citizens.  The following quote reflects the extent of the value of representation for those in dire need and mirrors so many comments received from our clients throughout the year.

I hope you are doing well.  I wanted to write to express our sincere gratitude to you (and your organization) for the service you provide through the Volunteer Lawyer Program.  It’s been almost a year since I reached out to request help for someone who desperately needed legal counsel and advocacy for her domestic matter.  The attorney’s generosity of his time helped the client close one horrible chapter of her life and move on with new opportunities to support herself and her goals.  Having the resources of your organization and the VLP was instrumental in the successful outcome of this case.  It is truly appreciated and makes a difference to those who need help.  

How Do I Get Involved?

We truly need your help and joining is easy!! For information about the Volunteer Lawyer Program, please contact Susan Fontaine at:  sfontaine@ribar.com or 401-421-7758.  For your convenience, VLP membership applications may be accessed on the Bar’s website at www.ribar.com and completed online.   Once we receive your application, we will contact you.

The Rhode Island Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Program is funded by Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. and the Rhode Island Bar Foundation.