This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2009 - Law school, as it’s often said inside the ivy-covered walls, prepares students to think like lawyers. But it can’t teach them how to tell a client who’s desperate for a favorable legal decision that the facts just aren’t on his side.
Ben Fletcher, 34, learned how to handle that situation through his work as a pro bono lawyer. He’s one of roughly 1,400 volunteer attorneys who help low-income St. Louis residents with their legal problems through a program run by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
Because of the size of Fletcher’s firm, Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, a senior attorney often handles in-person interactions with clients. Through Legal Services’ Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP), he gets plenty of face time with the people he represents. Fletcher said he appreciates the courtroom experience and the chance to develop a rapport with clients.
“If I’m able to help someone defuse a troublesome situation and cut my own teeth in the process, that’s great,” Fletcher said. “Part of the value is developing a way to deliver good and bad news.”
The VLP is filled with young lawyers looking to get experience in an area of law that’s unfamiliar to them. Jordan T. Ault, who typically does business and employment litigation for the firm Husch Blackwell Sanders, has handled mostly landlord-tenant disputes as a volunteer lawyer.
“One of the misconceptions in the pro bono system is that lawyers just do it to get a warm, fuzzy feeling,” said Ault, 26. “That can be great, but as a young associate it’s also about the chance to meet the client and handle the case from start to finish.”
While they’re scoring points with their firms, the young lawyers are providing a service that wouldn’t otherwise be there for people who can’t afford to hire an attorney. These private volunteer attorneys, some of whom represent firms and others of whom are solo practitioners, help Legal Services respond to a burgeoning case load.
The program has been going for nearly three decades and serves more than 500 clients and their families each year. Jim Guest, the program's director, recruits at law schools as well as at firms across St. Louis. (Full disclosure: My fiancée is working at Legal Services this summer, though not with this program.)
The VLP matches clients with attorneys who have agreed to sit on a panel of willing volunteers. Most volunteers have agreed to accept between one and three cases every year, though it’s up to them if and when they take on the pro bono work. They handle non-fee-generating cases for clients whose household incomes are below the federal poverty guidelines. The cases are all civil matters and are most commonly in the areas of Social Security, consumer law, landlord-tenant disputes, family law and public benefits. With the bad economy, many of the recent cases have involved unemployment compensation.
Guest said most of the cases are put on an accelerated track, meaning the volunteers have only a short time to prepare for a court date but can get immediate gratification if things go their way. “It’s not mindless work,” he said. “Most cases have a high level of impact, and we don’t hide the ball if we know a case is going to be involved or complex.”
Added Fletcher: “It’s pretty clear what the stakes are. People are living month to month on a paycheck and my job is to prevent them from getting kicked out of their apartment.”
Tina N. Babel, an attorney with Carmody MacDonald, helps find cases for associates at her firm. With few ways to evaluate the performance of young attorneys, seeing how they handle pro bono work is important, Babel said. And she takes on some cases of her own. In a recent family law dispute, she broke the news to her client that she was entitled to $1,000 a month as part of a settlement. The client had expected nothing, Babel said.
“We’re dealing with people who sometimes have never had anyone on their side,” said Babel, 31. “It’s empowering for them to know we’re there solely for them.”
Volunteers typically spend under 12 hours to see a case through. “It’s sobering from my perspective to know that I can help people to such an extent with a few hours of work,” Ault said.