Filling the gap in areas where there are few or no lawyers…
The State Bar of Georgia Pro Bono Project is a joint project of the Bar and Georgia Legal Services Program. While the Pro Bono Project provides support and technical assistance to any lawyer-supervised pro bono program and to local bar associations, the project has a special mission to highlight the civil legal needs of low-income Georgians outside the 5-county metro Atlanta area.
Supporting and encouraging attorneys to engage in pro bono services in 154 mostly rural counties is challenging. Active local bar associations provide a forum for our pro bono recruitment and recognition efforts. The Pro Bono Project works to maintain ties with active local bar associations where those exist. As local bar leadership changes from year to year, so do local bar activities and plans- and that presents challenges to us in ensuring that pro bono issues remain on the agenda of local bar associations. Many areas of the state have local bar associations that are not active or that do not have the critical mass necessary to support programs or events. In most areas of the state outside the large cities where you do have active bar associations, pro bono activity consists of resource-intensive individual recruitment. Many areas of the state where lawyers are scarce and bar associations are inactive are areas of systemic poverty—Georgia is home to 39% of the entire south’s “persistently poor” counties according to a 2003 study conducted by the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government “It’s a Matter of Wealth: Dismantling Persistent Poverty in the Southeastern United States “, found online at http://www.poverty.uga.edu/docs/SE_Report.pdf.
Over the past several years, the Pro Bono Project has invested time and resources in technology that can help reduce the great geographic and social distance between us and potential volunteer lawyers. Our statewide volunteer lawyer support website, www.GeorgiaAdvocates.org, is designed to broadcast our message about the civil legal needs of low-income Georgians and to provide support resources for lawyers who engage in pro bono work. The website has a library full of forms, manuals and outlines, as well as training videos, a calendar of events and trainings, ”live chat”, listservs, and a listing of volunteer opportunities.
Pro bono coordinators are also part of the equation. The fundamental work of matching volunteer lawyers and people with critical legal needs is done by Georgia Legal Services Program’s pro bono coordinators. Each office of GLSP has a pro bono coordinator who is supported by the State Bar of Georgia Pro Bono Project. The pro bono coordinator’s role is to prepare cases for placement with volunteers, to recruit local volunteer lawyers, match lawyers and clients, and provide support to the volunteer lawyer for the duration of the case.
In some areas of the state, the Pro Bono Project and Georgia Legal Services Program stage advice or legal information clinics. As the pool of lawyers in many areas of the state is so small, it becomes challenging to place numerous full-service cases with the same small pool of lawyers. Simply put, there are too many cases for too few lawyers. While we prefer to match one lawyer and one client – who receives full service in her case—we often resort to recruiting a small group of lawyers to meet with a large audience to provide information or advice in groups followed by short, confidential one-on-one meetings.
In addition to clinics, the Pro Bono Project is working with the Supreme Court of Georgia Civil Justice Committee to support local courts in the creation of court-based help centers and web-based services.
The most common legal needs are in the areas of family law, landlord/tenant or other housing problems, and consumer and debt problems. We do see a significant need for education-related legal problems, wills and estates, health care access, and public benefits.
Georgia Legal Services Program has about 1,200 lawyers around the state who have signed up to help when they are available to accept a case- and when the case matches their area of interest or expertise. The State Bar of Georgia Veterans and Servicemembers Pro Bono Committee now has about 700 lawyers who are interested in providing pro bono and paid services for veterans and servicemembers.
In some of its offices, GLSP uses retired lawyers who come into the office on a near-daily basis to provide free legal help to clients.
We provide professional liability insurance to all of our volunteer lawyers on cases we place with them. We also provide free or reduced-cost continuing legal education programs, volunteer recognition events and an annual volunteer honor roll. Often, we will cover mileage costs for volunteers who travel to neighboring counties to handle cases on a pro bono basis.
In most years, GLSP opens nearly as many pro bono cases as its Atlanta counterpart, and in some years exceeds its Atlanta counterpart in pro bono case placements.
You can help us meet the challenge to recruit volunteer lawyers in rural area to handle critical legal needs. Help us identify local partners. Talk with your lawyer about volunteering. Introduce us to agencies that can fund structured pro bono programs.