|Pro Bono, Pendleton Style|
“Your mission, if you choose to accept it,” intones the voice on the cassette player, “is to provide free, meaningful, high quality legal representation to some 17,000 people — many of whom speak no English — over an 18,000 square mile area with high winds and icy high-desert roads. You will be issued two assistants for this mission. If the mission fails, the right of thousands of Americans to equal justice will be jeopardized. This tape will now self-destruct.”
Take away the little puff of smoke and the theme music,
because this isn’t “Nick at Night.” For
Arron Guevara, this veritable “Mission: Impossible” was
real — the first challenge in his new job as regional
director of Pendleton, Oregon’s legal aid office.
That was four years ago. The fate of the mission? Thanks to some ingenuity and the generous cooperation of three dozen volunteer private lawyers in three counties, Arron’s task is a shared one. And it has gone from impossible to practicable.
For every rural legal aid program, one of the obstacles is the difficulty of making contact with potential clients — people without private transportation in country without public transportation, people without phones, people without addresses. How program lawyers have dealt with that obstacle varies, of course. Often, programs rely on periodic circuit-riding, an expensive and time-consuming way for lawyers to be accessible to some of the people some of the time. Some programs depend on toll-free ‘hotlines’ to distant communities, places where the lawyers don’t know the bench, the bar, or the key people in local agencies that are often crucial links in the solution of a client’s legal problem.
Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO)’s Pendleton office came up with a better idea for the expanse of northeastern Oregon. As is often the case, necessity was the mother of invention. “In 1999, we had to freeze an attorney position in the office. Eventually it became clear that a new attorney was not in the foreseeable future.” Outreach in the form of circuit-riding was out of the question. “We were so inundated with requests for services, people were either turned away or had to wait a very long time to see me.”
As a general rule in that kind of situation, says Guevara, “if a low-income person does not get help from legal aid, chances are they won’t get any legal assistance at all.” And so Guevara began a different kind of circuit-riding — seeking pro bono help from lawyers throughout northeastern Oregon. As Guevara explains it, “I knew we needed two basic kinds of pro bono assistance: brief advice to the majority of clients, and actual representation in some of the most compelling cases.” Guevara envisioned a two-tier service system, in which a broad number of attorneys throughout the area would act as intake attorneys, setting aside time for a certain number of advice-only appointments, and a few attorneys — among them specialists in elder, family, consumer, landlord-tenant, and Social Security law — would take on clients pro bono individually or as co-counsel to Guevara.
“ I was fairly sure the private bar would provide me with good ideas,” says Guevara, “and I wasn’t disappointed. The private bar was more than willing to meet with me and give me ideas about how to make the program work.”
Guevara has been extremely committed to the success of the pro bono plan, says Pendleton lawyer Larry Rew. “He gets out and meets with attorneys at bar meetings and in their offices to recruit their help.” Wallowa County District Attorney Daniel Ousley agrees: “Arron came to Wallowa County with a plan, did a great job of presenting it, and nearly all of us signed up.”
The lawyers who participate on the advice panel may spend from two to four hours a month seeing legal aid-eligible clients. LASO first screens the clients for financial eligibility, then contacts the attorney’s office to verify there will be no case conflict before the client is seen. The LASO screener also gives the interviewing attorney some basic information about the case. “These attorneys refer back to me the compelling cases that I either take myself or refer to someone in the second panel of attorneys for full representation,” Guevara says. The Pendleton office forgoes the referral process in emergency situations, he adds.
How well does the process work? According to Guevara, the difference has been dramatic. “Almost everyone who contacts LASO now gets to talk with an attorney.” Guevara is pleased: “The involvement of the private bar panels has meant that I have more time to devote to actual representation of clients myself instead of just giving brief advice. More people are getting advice and more are getting representation.”
La Grande attorney David Baum’s experience with the panel is typical. A veteran general practitioner, Baum joined the panel in 2001. He sees from two to eight pro bono panel clients each month about a broad range of issues. He estimates that he contributes about five hours a month to the program; his staff also pitches in. Baum sees his role as informing people about their rights and how to exercise them — for example, making them aware of family court mediation services, and how to get help from the district attorney’s office in obtaining child support. “I try to help them obtain what is due them under the law.”
For private bar members who want to contribute their skills, the panel system has advantages as well. Because LASO screens for financial eligibility before making referrals, the lawyers do not have to wonder whether a client’s income is low enough to make pro bono help the appropriate response. In addition, legal aid programs throughout Oregon have done extensive surveys on client needs. LASO doesn’t want to waste valuable attorney time on insignificant issues, adds Guevara: “We try to target our referrals to cases which present legal issues that are particularly important to low-income people, including housing law, domestic violence, consumer law, elder law, public benefits and family law.”
The lawyers involved in both panels are doing a great job, Guevara relates. The intake panel is alert to the kinds of cases that affect poor populations most, “and they’re on the lookout for impact cases.” As for the representation panel, “the lawyers we have now are also doing a great job, but we haven’t yet maximized our potential. The referral process can be time-consuming, and having more lawyers available would help a great deal.” Still, the results have been gratifying. “One attorney has already saved a client from eviction from her home, and obtained unemployment benefits for a client who quit work ‘without cause’ — after being assaulted by the employer’s son.”
Are the three dozen lawyers who have stepped forward in northeastern Oregon any different from other bar members? Dan Ousley doesn’t think so: “Arron provided us with a good opportunity.” The rural environment may make a small difference, in that no one gets lost in the crowd. “We’re a small community here; it’s hard to say no when your neighbor needs help.” Rural environment or no, David Baum believes that providing indigent people with representation gives them a sense of trust and satisfaction in our legal and governmental systems that is essential to solving problems without leaving people feeling disenfranchised and compelled to resort to violence.
La Grande attorneys who participate on the panels include Baum, Anne Morrison, Steven Joseph, Beverly Penz, Janie Burert, Cory Larvik and Mark Tipperman. In Enterprise, the lawyers are Ousley, Mona Williams, Jacqueline Haggerty, William Kirby and Roland Johnson. Andy Millar and Sam Tucker participate in Milton-Freewater. Stephen Trukositz represents Umatilla.
Hermiston participants are Bill Kuhn, Vince Gullette,
Annette Spicer and David Hinton. Pendleton participants
include Rew, Harold Shepherd, Derek Caplinger, Kittee
Custer; Steven Hill, William Jones, Timothy O’Hanlon,
Michele Grable, Lynn Hampton, Steve Bloom, Doug Fischer;
Eva Temple, J.D. Williams and Steve Thomas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author, an OSB member who lives in Grants Pass, is a member of the OSB Pro Bono Committee.
© 2003 Janay Haas