Mary Chaffin couldnít help but feel a bit daunted when she took over as legal counsel for Mercy Corps International in June 2003. The organization, which provides aid to more than 6 million people in 39 countries around the world, is involved in legal initiatives that range from establishing financial institutions in developing nations to helping immigrants obtain U.S. citizenship and become economically self-sufficient.
"It really calls for specialized legal talent in an array of situations that helps us maximize our dollars so we can spend those resources on programs in country instead of administrative costs," Chaffin says.
Firms such as Portlandís Perkins Coie, Preston Gates & Ellis and Davis Wright Tremaine have stepped up to provide that talent on a pro bono basis for Mercy Corps. Davis Wright Tremaine regularly handles immigration and employment law issues for the organization and provided corporate governance when it merged with another nonprofit, the Conflict Management Group, this year. Attorneys from Perkins Coie worked with Mercy Corps to create a banking model that supports microfinance in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Mercy Corps no longer staffs an office there, but the banking model is still going strong, Chaffin says.
"These firms have been unbelievably wonderful about providing services that allow us to really stretch our dollars so we can support all of our programs," she says. "I donít know what we would do without them."
Such examples of pro bono service are the lifeblood of a pair of programs the Oregon State Bar established to highlight the legal sectorís commitment to community service. The New Lawyers Divisionís Pro Bono Subcommittee established the Pro Bono Challenge eight years ago to recognize the number of hours many firms dedicate to providing legal representation for the poor and other forms of voluntary service. The Challenge encourages law firms and law schools to report their pro bono hours by filling out a form and sending it back to the bar. Firms and individuals with the most hours are recognized during a ceremony held each spring.
"We wanted to show the public that lawyers indeed were doing pro bono and large amounts of it. It wasnít just a hit or miss thing," says Margaret Robinson, manager of member services.
Last year, the bar initiated the Pro Bono Roll Call to formalize its process for tracking volunteer hours dedicated to providing legal services for the poor, legal public service and non-legal public service. Roll Call began allowing attorneys to voluntarily report their hours through membership dues. Starting this January, members can submit their hours by filling out a tear-away form in the Roll Call brochure or online.
The objective is to make it more convenient for busy lawyers to tally their hours and include a broader spectrum of pro bono work performed throughout the state, says Judith Baker, director of the barís legal services program.
"Most lawyers perform some kind of pro bono work. Weíre attempting to capture the numbers, but weíre just scratching the surface," she says. Hours submitted for the 2004 Pro Bono Challenge totaled 65,763, with 20,308 of those dedicated to providing legal services to the poor. Baker surmises thatís just a fraction of the real volunteer work being done by Oregonís legal community.
"I think thereís a ton that goes on out there that we donít know about," she says.
Bakerís estimation is correct if national trends are any indication. According to the Law Firm Pro Bono Project at Georgetown University Law Center, a growing number of firms have implemented formal pro bono programs in their strategic plans to recruit young attorneys from top law schools, attract new clients who look favorably on volunteer work and generate positive publicity in the media.
Don Marmaduke, a partner at Portlandís Tonkin Torp LLP, which was recognized for its volunteer hours during the Pro Bono Challenge last March, says the firm adopted its pro bono policy in the late í80s and modeled it after the ABAís Rule 6.1. While its emphasis is on providing legal services to the poor, Tonkin Torp this year began tracking voluntary work performed in other areas of community service, such as serving on a board of directors for a nonprofit organization. The value of the firmís pro bono program is apparent on many levels, Marmaduke says.
"We find that more kids coming out of law school ask us, ĎWhatís your pro bono policy?í Itís almost become a recruiting tool," he says.
While pro bono legal services in some areas of the state, the opposite is true in other parts, Baker says. For example, there are about 4,000 attorneys in the Portland area, comprising about one third of the barís membership. "A lot of them are young attorneys who are very interested in pro bono work."
The bar hopes to address the issue by encouraging lawyers who work in Portland to offer their services in other areas. Oftentimes, itís as simple as writing a letter or making a phone call, Baker adds.
Other times, however, pro bono cases are more involved, and volunteerism can take its toll on a smaller firm with little manpower. An effort to help low-income residents in North and Northeast Portland has escalated into a full-time endeavor for Hartfield and Crutchley LLC, also honored during the Pro Bono Challenge.
"People begin to take advantage of pro bono service to some extent," says Ray Crutchley. "People come forward with some compelling faces and stories and issues, and itís hard to say no. You have to find a balance."
Hartfield says the firm no longer accepts pro bono cases referred by other law firms. Instead, potential clients must qualify financially through Legal Aid Services of Oregon before they can return to the firm for pro bono service. Hartfield says his pro bono service primarily involves landlord-tenant and banking issues, and his clientele generally is made up of students and the elderly.
"Theyíre prevalent because they do get preyed upon more," he says. "The problem is that once I file a lawsuit for someone I become the attorney of record, and thatís a commitment that is hard to undo. You want to help out, but itís really easy to become emotionally and financially burned out."
Despite the difficulties, Hartfield and Crutchley Ė and a growing number of attorneys throughout Oregon Ė recognize that the value of and the demand for pro bono service exceeds the grueling hours it sometimes takes to provide it.
"Everyone needs help. I wouldnít be where I am today without somebodyís help," Crutchley says. "It canít always be about money. At some level, people have to give back."
Programs such as the Roll Call and Pro Bono Challenge are part of a growing movement to build upon that sentiment and foster a culture of pro bono service throughout the state, Robinson says.
"Pro bono has really become a priority for our Board of Governors," she says. "Itís become more of an issue as legal service funding has declined and as the courts have lost funding. Itís being emphasized as part of an effort to keep the poor from being disenfranchised from the legal system."
Along with making it easier for attorneys to track their pro bono hours, the Oregon State Bar is initiating other programs to encourage voluntary legal service, Baker says.
"Weíre working on a model pro bono policy that weíre hoping to provide for the firms so they can use it to train new associates and let their clients know about it," she says.
In addition, the bar will host a Pro Bono Fair on March 10, 2005, which will allow participants to earn two continuing legal education credits while learning about the many opportunities that exist to provide invaluable legal services to a multitude of agencies that canít afford them.
"The fair is a really neat idea because it gives the agencies a chance to let attorneys know what kinds of services are really needed in the community," Baker says.
Mercy Corpsí Chaffin says pro bono opportunities often arise in places one might least expect. Bob Newell, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine and board chair for the aid organization, traveled to Serbia in August 2003 for a month-long tour of Mercy Corpsí programs there. He discovered that a road intended to link a main thoroughfare to an outlying village fell about 100 yards short of its mark because the Serbian partner organization ran out of money to finish the project.
"The staff of the Serbian group met with Bob and our staff, and Bob started negotiating with them," Chaffin says. "The Serbian partner organization had planned to serve roast pig and roast sheep at a gala for us, so Bob basically negotiated the roast pig and the roast sheep in exchange for funding the last 100 meters of the road."
Though she laughs as she tells of Newellís unique style of pro bono wheeling and dealing, Chaffin says it is an example of the extraordinary lengths to which attorneys often go to help others.
"Their time is so significant and so valued by us. We couldnít do it without them," she says.
Following are some of the legal professionals and firms from throughout Oregon who were recognized during this yearís Pro Bono Challenge for going above and beyond in their volunteer efforts:
WILLIAM J. HOWE III
Gevurtz, Menashe, Larson & Howe
As a family law attorney at one of Portlandís largest firms, Bill Howe says his dedication to pro bono work lies with organizations that strive to reform the family law system and provide representation to the poor.
His volunteer service includes the Statewide Family Law Advisory Committee, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the Oregon Family Institute and the Oregon Academy of Family Law Practitioners. Through those groups, Howe works with multidisciplinary professionals in the family law sector to protect children from being stuck in the middle during divorce proceedings and teach families to better handle the transitions that go along with divorce. His work also involves building a model family court system that is less adversarial and more "child friendly, family focused, efficient and available to people who donít have lawyers," Howe says.
"The issue is not just people who cannot afford a lawyer, but those who choose to represent themselves," he says. "Weíre seeing more and more sophisticated, high-income people attempting to do legal work without hiring lawyers, often with unhappy consequences. The mistakes often cost more to fix than if they had hired a lawyer in the first place."
Howe credits his firmís generosity in allowing him to pursue opportunities that last year amounted to about 100 hours a month in pro bono work.
"Itís a credit to this firm and others like Tonkin Torp and Miller Nash that are willing to make accommodations for lawyers who are doing things only lawyers can do," he says. "I think our greatest satisfaction is in doing something for others because you always get back more than you give. When I think back on my life, itís not going to make me feel good that I had 184 billable hours but that I made a difference in the life of a client."
Davis Wright Tremaine
Tim Volpertís pro bono work extends from the old to the young through his volunteer service for the Senior Law Project, the Classroom Law Project and, most recently, as coach of Portlandís Grant High School Constitution Team.
Volpert says he discovered how much he enjoyed working with teenagers after representing a group of student athletes and their parents in a lawsuit against the Vernonia School District. Volpert won the case by arguing that mandatory drug tests required to participate in school sports violated the studentsí privacy.
"I talked about the case during Law Day and then I started talking at different high schools about how the law and the Constitution apply to their lives," he says. "I found it extremely fun and enjoyable talking with kids about the Constitution and their rights."
In September 2000, Grant High School formed a Constitution Team to take on the reigning champions from Portlandís Lincoln High School. With a passel of attorneys and parents as coaches, the Grant team beat Lincoln in the state championships in 2002 and 2003 and placed third at nationals last year.
"The Bill of Rights is a fascinating document and itís neat to see the students become interested in learning more about it. The biggest part of it is getting students to recognize that they have these basic rights, especially as there are more security issues and kids grow up expecting to have their things searched," Volpert says. "Itís also really rewarding when we hear from kids who are now in college and they tell us how much being on the Constitution Team has helped them."
Hartfield and Crutchley LLC
Whether itís an individual seeking a refund on a defective used car or a community seeking to reform the grand jury process, Sean Hartfield and Ray Crutchley have made time to help further the cause.
In the two years since they established their practice, their pro bono hours have grown rapidly through their work with groups such as Miracles Club, a drug and alcohol recovery program, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopleís Portland chapter. The NAACP is addressing several concerns related to law enforcement within the community, and called upon Crutchley to provide local counsel on various legal issues. Hartfieldís pro bono service reaches out to individuals who cannot afford an attorney.
The two acknowledge they could have gone to work for larger firms and made more money than they bring in as a small practice with a hefty pro bono load. Such a decision would have gone against their commitment to repaying the help they received when they needed it.
"We felt an obligation to do this and we recognize the value of doing what we do," Crutchley says.
Marion-Polk Legal Aid Services
When Merrily McCabe retired in 1999 after serving as counsel for SAIF Corp. for 20 years, legal services were the last thing she planned on providing as a volunteer.
"I was really kind of tired of doing law, because all Iíd done was workersí comp for 20 years so I wasnít going to have anything do with law, or so I thought," she says.
McCabe helped out at a school for a brief period before joining the Marion-Polk Legal Aid Servicesí ELVIS Program. The group consists of retired attorneys who provide legal advice during clinics at senior centers. They meet once a month to discuss their pro bono cases and offer feedback to one another.
"When you have a single area of focus like I did you wonder how you can help, but youíd be surprised at how much you can help out," she says. "If I donít know the answer I can find another attorney who does. And many of the seniors need actual legal services, such as preparing a simple will or power of attorney, rather than just practical advice."
McCabe, who volunteers from three to 20 hours a month, finds her clientele particularly rewarding.
"I find seniors just basically a very courteous, grateful group of people to work with. Being able to help them with problems that seem so huge to them and are so simple for me to solve is very gratifying for me," she says. "The comfort it gives my clients to see those loose ends tied up is very rewarding."
WALTER F. BROWN
Consumer Justice Alliance
Walter Brown admits he hasnít been as focused on pro bono work lately as he normally is, what with running against Rep. Earl Blumenauer on the Oregon ballot and John Kerry and George Bush on ballots in several other states. Public service is always high on his mind, however, whether itís through his political ventures or his pro bono work.
Brownís legal career began in 1952 and encompassed a stint as legal counsel in the U.S. Navy, serving as a criminal prosecutor and defense attorney, and teaching real property law and products liability courses at Lewis & Clark Collegeís law school. He was elected to the state senate in 1974 and worked for many years as Malheur County counsel and deputy district attorney.
"Iíve always wanted to help people solve problems that concern them and find solutions to make their lives easier," says Brown.
When he retired in 1991, he began providing pro bono legal services through the Consumer Justice Alliance. His cases primarily involve Social Security and landlord-tenant issues.
"As a free lawyer, the cases come in pretty quickly," he says. "The people are pretty desperate and oftentimes theyíve been turned down by other attorneys. Attorneys donít like to take loser cases, but I donít mind them because I donít have anything to lose."
Brown says the greatest value he sees to pro bono work is the sense of emotional relief it brings to his clients.
"People who have what they think are intractable legal problems are not healthy or happy, and anything we can do to help alleviate that is valuable."
Multnomah County Attorney
Agnes Sowle grew up watching courtroom heroes such as Perry Mason and Raymond Burr on television, and she got to know several attorneys in a bar she managed in Idaho. That was pretty much the extent of her legal background until she decided to go to law school when her son started kindergarten. Little did she know she would one day make headlines with a precedent-setting decision regarding same-sex marriage as Multnomah County Attorney.
Amid the demands of serving as legal counsel for the Multnomah County Commission, Sowle dedicates much of her time to public service work. She has served as an officer and board member for several groups, including Oregon Women Lawyers, the Oregon State Bar, the Federal Bar Association, the Oregon Association of Defense Counsel, Oregon Law Institute and the Multnomah County Bar Association. Sowle presents CLE courses and serves as moderator of a cable access TV program called "Legal Links" that addresses topics such as jury duty, neighbor law and other issues of concern to the public.
"I think itís a wonderful program because it educates people and generates interest," she says. "We always refer people to the barís website for more information if they have questions or need referrals."
Like many attorneys, itís easy for Sowle to rack up a 55-to-70-hour work week, particularly if issues such as same-sex marriage or ballot title challenges arise. The key to making pro bono work fit within a hectic schedule is to focus on the time that is available rather than the time that isnít, she says.
"Iíve been asked, ĎHow do you fit all this in?í and I ask, ĎHow much time do you have? Is it a half hour a week or an hour?í The trick is to find the time that youíve got and make it count," she says. "Itís real important to me that the legal profession is highly regarded, and that will only happen if the public knows about it and knows what weíre about. We all have a duty to make the profession better."
Tonkin Torp LLP
Partners at Tonkin Torp are required to dedicate a certain number of hours to providing legal services to the poor, creating a corporate culture that encourages younger members of the firm to volunteer as well.
Tonkin Torpís pro bono portfolio includes staffing the South East Legal Clinic one night each week and working with Legal Aidís Domestic Violence Project. The firm is exploring ways it can expand its participation in Legal Aid programs.
The firm implemented its pro bono program in the late í80s, but its members constantly seek to improve the effort. This year, a Pro Bono Committee was formed to define ways to encourage attorneys to become more involved and recognize those who do exhibit a commitment to volunteerism.
"Itís unquestionably true that the firm, since its beginning, has always placed a high value on pro bono and community service work," says Partner Don Marmaduke. "Lawyers, we think, are privileged to have exclusive access to courthouses, and that privilege carries a responsibility to provide that access to others."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She is also media relations specialist for Loaves & Fishes Centers in Portland.