One of the concerns commonly expressed by attorneys asked to do pro bono work in the areas of law that confront the poor is, “My expertise is in a different area. Where do I start?”
Responding to this concern just got easier in Mississippi, thanks to a far-reaching collaborative effort by 13 local law firms, in partnership with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP), the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and Pro Bono Net. Together, they have produced a comprehensive volunteer attorney practice manual, now available on www.probono.net/MS, Mississippi’s statewide advocate and pro bono support website. The manual is a key element of a larger effort to recruit and support more volunteer lawyers from the private sector in Mississippi.
With only about 30 Legal Services attorneys to cover all 82 counties in the state, pro bono involvement is an integral part of the service delivery system in Mississippi. The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, a joint venture between the Mississippi Bar and the two LSC-funded legal services programs in the state, assists more than 5,000 low income citizens each year. Numerous Mississippi attorneys volunteer their time and expertise with MVLP, yet more are needed to help meet the basic legal needs of the one in five Mississippians who live below the poverty level.
As MVLP Executive Director Shirley Williams explains, “Given the dire need for pro bono legal assistance in Mississippi, we needed a way to reach more lawyers and make it easier for them to feel comfortable accepting cases outside of their general practice.”
That's where the Mississippi Pro Bono Attorney Manual and probono.net/MS come in. In the spring of 2006, representatives from several major firms, MVLP and MCJ decided to take a closer look at what obstacles prevent private attorneys from being willing or able to take pro bono cases.
“A group of partners or managing partners from 12-13 firms agreed to have a discussion about why our firms were not more engaged in pro bono work,” said Ginnie Munford, an attorney at Watkins & Eager PLLC and at the time chair of the Mississippi Bar’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee. “That meeting confirmed our notion that private attorneys would like to do more, but a significant obstacle was unfamiliarity with poverty law issues.”
The group decided that the large firms could make a major contribution to jump-starting pro bono involvement. They recognized that their efforts could also benefit small town lawyers who encounter the same challenges when taking on cases that involve issues outside of their daily practice.
MVLP worked with the firms to identify the areas of law most frequently confronted in cases needing pro bono placement. Each firm agreed to take on a topic and develop a substantive outline and practice tools that experienced lawyers can use even if the case is outside their area of expertise. Poverty law experts at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Center for Legal Services reviewed the drafts and provided substantive input. The result of this extensive collaboration was a collection of more than 200 new practice resources, including a detailed overview of each area of law, client questionnaires, sample forms and petitions, reference to cases and statutes, and additional practice material.
As the statewide advocate support web site, probono.net/MS was the ideal vehicle for making the collection readily accessible to attorneys willing to take cases. Project partners liked the fact that the resources could be posted in a password-protected library, enabling pro bono attorneys to have 24/7 access while restricting sensitive content from the general public. In addition, the resources would be made available side-by-side with other information to assist pro bono attorneys, including specific case opportunities, trainings and news items.
As Munford said, “We couldn’t have done it without probono.net/MS and Pro Bono Net because of the technical hurdles.”
Pro Bono Net is continuing to work with project partners to facilitate access to the manual and explore ways probono.net/MS can further support pro bono involvement and legal aid advocates. Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the project is the long-term commitment to pro bono on the part of the 13 collaborating firms. In addition to writing a chapter of the manual and related practice resources, each firm has agreed to accept those particular types of cases from MVLP. Each firm will thus develop institutional expertise in that area over time. While the project partners are still developing the new referral model, the hope is that in the future, when MVLP receives a case from legal services, a call to the representative for the corresponding firm will in effect be reaching 75 or 100 lawyers who are more likely to say “yes,” given their access to resources such as the new manual, probono.net/MS, and greater in-house expertise in that area of law.
As Williams said, “The firms leading by example in this way is phenomenal. This project has given us the tools we need to market what we do, help us reach more attorneys and ultimately more clients. And that’s what it’s all about.”
For a full list of the firms and organizations involved in developing the Mississippi Pro Bono Attorney Manual, please visit http://www.probono.net/ms/manual.cfm
For more information, please contact Liz Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org.