Give Thanks Through
Later this month is the time we traditionally give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy. It is also a time when we are reminded of those who are less fortunate. And many of us are moved to give of our time or money to help those in need. This year I encourage you to volunteer your skills as a lawyer to help solve a legal problem for someone in need.
You have probably seen the bar association’s advertisement in this magazine urging lawyers to “Rediscover the true meaning of law” by volunteering to provide pro bono civil legal services. “It’s about justice and an opportunity for everyone … without you, someone needing a lawyer to get justice will go without.” You may have also heard about the MSBA Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged (LAD) Committee’s attorney recruitment effort this year to “Up Your Pro Bono.” If not, you can read more about it on page 41 of this issue of Bench & Bar
I cannot say it any better than the advertisement, and I cannot recruit any better than our LAD Committee. But let me put the need in context.
The pro bono efforts of the bar have never been more important. We have a strong tradition of supporting legal aid and pro bono programs here in Minnesota and of our lawyers volunteering their services. But still the unmet needs are huge.
We have six legal assistance programs in Minnesota that receive a portion of their funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Over the past year, LSC gathered data from Minnesota and all other states to complete its study of legal needs of low-income persons. The study concluded in August 2005, before the hurricanes hit our country’s gulf coast. LSC’s report “Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans”1 verified that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor are not being addressed. The study reports that, of the actual legal needs that are identified, fewer than one in five is addressed either by a lawyer privately (paid or pro bono) or in a legal aid office.
The study also found that there is a 50 percent refusal-of-service rate for those who do seek assistance. That means for every one person who qualifies for assistance and seeks it from an LSC-funded program, there is one person who is turned away because of the program’s lack of resources. LSC found that roughly
1 million cases are turned down each year because of inadequate resources to handle the cases. This “justice gap” is even greater when you consider that countless people with legal needs never ask for assistance, and when you consider that these numbers were tabulated before this season’s hurricanes added thousands of victims to the rolls of those of needing legal assistance.
You might be asking, “Who is in need of my services?” The LSC reports that the largest area of unmet need is family problems — including domestic violence and abuse, custody issues, and issues involving social services. The second largest need is for assistance with housing problems. Juvenile, employment, income and consumer issues also ranked high. There is plenty of work for volunteer attorneys in transactional work as well as litigation.
Opportunities are available statewide and you can volunteer by calling the lad Program at (612) 278-6348 or toll free (800) 882-6722. An MSBA staff member will return your call. If you prefer to explore opportunities on your own, see the directory of opportunities online at http://www.projusticemn.org/oppsguide.cfm or consult the listings of volunteer attorney programs on pages 50-53 of your 2005 Bench & Bar directory.
The civil legal needs of low-income people involve basic and essential human needs — protection from abusive relationships, safe and habitable housing, access to necessary health care, disability payments to help lead independent lives, healthy child custody arrangements with adequate child support, and relief from financial exploitation.
This Thanksgiving, use your talents giving what you are uniquely qualified to give. Let others serve turkey to the needy while you provide pro bono legal assistance to someone whose life may depend on it. c
SUSAN M. HOLDEN is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A partner and member of the board of directors of the Minneapolis personal injury firm of Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., she is certified as a civil trial specialist by the MSBA.
Update on Katrina Relief
As was reported in this column last month, MSBA is mounting a major fundraising effort to provide disaster relief assistance to victims of this summer’s hurricanes. All members are encouraged to contribute to the funds, administered by the Minnesota State Bar Foundation, which include:
Katrina Legal Relief Fund. Donations to this fund will be used in rebuilding the legal infrastructure of Gulf states affected by the storms. In cooperation with the charitable foundations of bar associations in the affected areas, the Fund will help to restore damaged offices and records of legal services and pro bono programs so they can resume service to their clients.
Katrina Humanitarian Relief Fund. This fund is for general humanitarian relief and donations will be sent to organizations that provide such relief. Donors can designate their donation to the organization of their choice.
Contributions are tax-deductible.
For more information or to donate, call (612) 333-1183.