Feature

The Faces of Pro Bono

Glimpses of serving Oregon's poor

By Jack L. Landau


Two years ago, the Oregon State Bar commissioned an examination of the civil legal needs of low- and moderate-income Oregonians. With the support of Gov. John Kitzhaber's office and the Oregon Judicial Department, an advisory committee issued a report in March of 2000 detailing that the legal needs of low-income people are met only about 17.8 percent of the time, leaving approximately 250,000 cases unmet a year. The unmet need is most severe in rural areas where legal aid services can be hours away. Despite the bar's aspirational standard for lawyers to provide 80 hours of pro bono service a year, private attorneys providing pro bono legal assistance meet only about 4.3 percent of the need, the study found.

Perhaps this shortfall is due to the lack of knowledge about opportunities to provide pro bono legal assistance. Perhaps we believe we are too busy, or perhaps we have simply forgotten the satisfaction that comes from helping someone in need.

Whatever the 'perhapses' are, they should not prevent us from donating some of our time to needed legal services. The Pro Bono Committee of the OSB Young Lawyers Association has published the Handbook of Pro Bono Opportunities, and the legal needs study provides a listing of some available pro bono programs. (Both of these are available through the OSB; a list of certified pro bono programs is also found at www.osbar.org in the Memberlinks section.) Many pro bono opportunities take little time but provide big benefits to the client, such as negotiating a landlord tenant claim.

As the vignettes below demonstrate, furnishing pro bono legal services provides an opportunity to gain another area of expertise, survey different areas of law and practice different legal skills. They also remind us that it can simply be fun and highly rewarding to contribute -- as professionals and citizens - to the well-being of our communities.


The Road to Asylum
By Ellen Hawes

For refugees who come to this country, obtaining asylum from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is the first step in establishing a life in the United States, but it can also represent a final exit from intimidation, persecution and torture. The road to obtaining asylum can be long as a result of the refugee's personal history, the history of and conflict in the refugee's home country, and as a result of INS required procedures.

Stoel Rives operates a pro bono immigration clinic to help refugees apply for and obtain asylum from the INS. Most of the applicants that the clinic serves are referred by Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees ('SOAR'), a refugee resettlement program run by the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. (See OSB Bulletin, November 2000.) Stoel Rives lawyer David Van't Hof is the clinic's director. Through the clinic Stoel Rives lawyers have helped more than a dozen refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Haiti, Guatemala, Russia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Recently, Van't Hof helped to obtain asylum for 'Khin Samang,' a Muslim of Indian descent, who grew up in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) in a devout family. Muslims in Burma historically have been discriminated against by the majority Buddhist population and the military regime that nominally supports Buddhism. This is particularly true in western regions of the country where there are large indigenous Muslim areas, but also in the capitol of Rangoon. Burma has been ruled by a military regime for many years that has been authoritarian and hostile to calls for democracy.

Samang became active in the Muslim Youth Organization of Burma which sought to protect the practice of Islam in Burma and to push for democratic reforms in the country. As a result of his participation in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, he was arrested in 1989 and detained for one year. During that time, he was never charged, tried or sentenced. He was frequently interrogated and tortured. His uncle finally managed to pay a bribe for his release.

Samang remained active in the pro-democracy and pro-Muslim movements. In 1991 he again was arrested for participating in unarmed resistance to the destruction of several mosques in Rangoon by government authorities. During the resistance, he was struck in the head with a weapon and retains the swollen scar on his head to this day. This time he was sentenced to six months in prison and again suffered repeated beatings.

In 1997, he was arrested yet again for attending a pro-democracy meeting and detained for three weeks. Finally, in 1998, authorities came to his house (while he was not there), and he decided to go into hiding. He left Burma two months later and traveled first to Thailand before paying to be smuggled into the U.S. He traveled here on a merchant ship, locked in a small room, leaving behind a wife and four children in Burma. Samang has been warned not to come back, for the authorities continue to seek his whereabouts. He hopes to bring his family to the United States.

As a general matter, Stoel Rives attorneys, through an interpreter, help the refugee fill out an application for asylum, develop a legal memorandum supporting the application and attend the asylum interview hearing. Those cases not granted asylum based on the interview are referred to Immigration Court for an evidentiary hearing. An administrative review of that ruling by the Bureau of Immigration Affairs can follow, and further appeal can be sought at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Van't Hof became involved in Samang's case when his application was referred to Immigration Court. The asserted basis for referring the case was that there were discrepancies between Samang's application and interview responses. Van't Hof represented Samang at his January 2001 hearing, and the immigration judge granted him asylum, after hearing his testimony and that of a friend that knew him in Burma.

It has been documented that asylum is granted more frequently when the applicant is represented by an attorney. Most asylum applications are resolved at the interview level; however, as was true in Samang's case, attorneys have become involved in appeals up to the 9th Circuit.

In another case, the clinic successfully obtained a settlement with the INS after suing the agency for delayed action on a green card application filed by an Ethiopian child. The application sought a green card based on the client's status of being an orphan and a ward of the court. If delayed long enough, the client probably would have not been able to obtain a green card because she would have no longer been a juvenile. As part of the settlement, INS agreed to pay attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Stoel Rives donated those fees to SOAR in Portland and Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in Seattle.

For more information regarding SOAR contact Joel Leiberman at (503) 284-3002.

Ellen Hawes is an attorney with Stoel Rives in Portland.


Senior Moments
By Shelly Lee

Dady Blake has volunteered with the Senior Law Project since she joined the OSB in October 1993. When she arrived in Portland, she looked for a way to get involved in elder law issues. Blake has found many rewards from volunteering with the SLP. She has been exposed to a new area of law and logged many hours of client contact. Because the SLP attracts seniors from all types of backgrounds, she has learned how to get to the heart of a client's issues. In addition, she has learned much about how to handle cases by working closely with Penny Davis of Oregon Legal Services. Volunteering with the SLP has even generated business for her own elder law practice. Clients ineligible for continued free services often hire her to continue working with them and refer their family and friends to her.

Blake's most memorable case was a financial exploitation case for a man named Fred who was in his eighties. He was deaf, in a wheelchair and had mild dementia, but in general he was a happy-go-lucky person. He had lived in his home with his wife until her death. Fred's daughter then convinced Fred to put his house in her name, and then she promptly evicted him and put him into a nursing home. He wanted to live in his house. The daughter then put the house on the market to sell. Blake was able to stop the house sale and appeal the eviction. The case was a lot more complicated than anyone had expected because of the many parties involved. As a sole practitioner and a new attorney, Blake felt overwhelmed by the case. Legal Aid provided much-needed support for the case, including the 'loan' of a Legal Aid paralegal to help with the litigation. With the excellent support provided by the program, Blake was able to stop the sale, get Fred back into his house and, eventually, get the home back in Fred's name. Blake received the 1994 Volunteer of the Year Award from Multnomah County Legal Aid, primarily for the hard work she did on this case. Blake admits that she was able to successfully handle the case due to the assistance she got from Multnomah County Legal Aid.

According to Blake, the SLP is a great program to volunteer with because volunteers are not out on their own; they have support and informal mentoring. If a client's problems are beyond a volunteer's knowledge capabilities, the Senior Law Project coordinator, Anne Stacey, will pair them with a more experienced attorney or re-assign the case to another attorney altogether. Stacey tries to make the experience as rewarding and positive as she can.

Sheila Maloney Blackford is another Senior Law Project volunteers attorney. Blackford is a new attorney as of October 2000, who has been interested in elder law issues since law school. Her law school did have an elder law course, but Blackford found it to be too theoretical. Blackford moved to Portland wanting to pursue estate planning and elder law. Looking for ways to help seniors, she quickly discovered (and called) the Senior Law Project.

Blackford felt well prepared for her first SLP clients, because the project provided her with a lot of materials, including Legal Aid's pamphlets on common issues and a book about legal issues for older adults. In addition, there was a class to help her learn about bankruptcy law. She was admittedly nervous on her first day, but her preparation and the structure of the program made it go smoothly.

Like Dady Blake, Blackford has been very pleased with her experiences at the SLP. She has handled a wide variety of cases: landlord-tenant, family law, wills/power of attorney, consumer issues, bankruptcy, small claims court issues, HUD questions, issues with drivers' licenses and evictions. Like Blake, Blackford has felt well-supported, noting that Anne Stacey provides resources if and when volunteers need them. Volunteers have regular contact with more experienced attorneys who willingly help with questions. For new attorneys, Blackford feels the program is wonderful because it provides a lot of client contact, a wide variety of issues, practice in 'taming inner nervousness' and the wonderful feeling of helping those who need it and cannot get help elsewhere. The whole process is 'very smooth and easy,' because the SLP prescreens the cases so volunteers know what to expect. There is a significant counseling aspect to the SLP; volunteer attorneys often put seniors in contact with community resources, both legal and non-legal. Even if a case has an issue requiring further research, Blackford feels that this volunteer work can be a great confidence-builder for new attorneys. For more experienced attorneys, the process of helping someone who desperately needs it and truly appreciates it helps attorneys keep a good attitude about the practice of law.

As these two attorneys' experiences indicate, the Senior Law Project is a program that offers great opportunities for both new and experienced attorneys. The Senior Law Project is jointly sponsored by the Multnomah Office of Legal Services of Oregon and the Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services. The project provides free legal assistance to seniors living in, or having problems in, Multnomah County.

One major goal of the SLP is to encourage seniors to get legal advice and/or assistance with their legal issues before they are out of control. To accomplish this goal, the SLP focuses on providing legal assistance in nine of the county's local senior centers. The senior centers provide space and staff support for the attorney volunteers. The attorneys provide several half-hour consultations for anyone who meets the age, legal usage and residence guidelines. Typically, an attorney volunteers a three-hour block, seeing as many as six clients. No income guidelines are used for these initial consultations, which encourages all seniors to make appointments to discuss their legal issues.

In addition, some volunteers agree to accept cases where the attorney meets the client in their home, nursing home or other care setting. For clients who meet legal services income eligibility guidelines, volunteer attorneys are asked to provide free follow-up work. For those who do not qualify for the free follow-up, the clients can choose to hire their volunteer attorney or they can seek another attorney elsewhere.

Administratively, the SLP makes volunteering very simple. The senior center staff screens the clients and schedules the volunteers' appointments. The Professional Liability Fund provides free coverage for attorneys are exempt from PLF coverage. (While this coverage is limited to work done on behalf of eligible clients and the initial consultations, it allows attorneys who do not have coverage but wish to volunteer a means to do so.) To learn more more about the Senior Law Project, call Anne Stacey at (503) 224-4094. Outside Multnomah County, there are comparable programs in many counties. Contact Legal Services in the desired county to determine what opportunities exist.

Shelly Lee is an attorney at Portland State University Student Legal and Mediation Services.


Helping Society Through Law
By Colin Yost

Most third-year law students, as we know, don't have the slightest idea what it's like to practice law. Students often graduate without taking a single class designed to develop client management, negotiation or trial lawyer skills. To them, the prospect of 'hanging out a shingle' must seem like an antiquated, romantic delusion. Fortunately, there is a simple way for new lawyers to gain experience and increase their likelihood of success in private practice: volunteer for a pro bono law organization.

One noteworthy example volunteer is Bruce McLaughlin, a 1997 graduate of the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College. When Bruce passed the bar, he soon realized that clients rarely appear by magic at the office door, and his collection of 60 designer suits was in danger of gathering dust unless he broadened his areas of expertise and increased his visibility in the community. Bruce also felt that it was his social responsibility to be as active as possible. He explained, 'There's no sense sitting around idle when people are in need. I'm a lawyer, and I should act like one by helping society through the law.' So Bruce focused the energy of his self-described 'addictive personality' on pro bono work, volunteering for five different agencies: St. Andrew Legal Clinic, St. Matthew Legal Clinic, the Oregon Law Center, Outside In and Legal Aid Service of Oregon in Multnomah County.

As a volunteer, Bruce handles a wide variety of civil matters, including domestic relations and landlord/tenant cases, and he often finds himself in the courtroom - always in a different suit, of course. 'St. Andrew is particularly accessible to new lawyers,' McLaughlin noted. 'It's easy to participate, because experienced lawyers like Charles Simes are there to guide you through the process. The only reason I'm able to practice law today to any degree of competence is because of Charles' invaluable mentoring.'

One of his most profound, and heartbreaking, cases involved a young mother who needed help regaining custody of her three children. She already had the legal right to custody, but the father refused to recognize her status, and she hadn't seen her children in five months. The mother had few financial resources, but she was a dynamic, intelligent woman who came in with a stack of well-prepared pleadings. McLaughlin quickly arranged a hearing which compelled the father to return the children. The greatest reward was witnessing the family's reunion as the children ran to their mother saying, 'I got my mommy back!' Just three days later, however, the story took a bizarre and tragic turn when the mother died from a massive stroke. 'I couldn't believe it,' McLaughlin said. 'She was so full of life. This job forces you to confront the real world in ways you'll never forget. But it also illuminates those small corners of our community we don't otherwise see and reveals real people with real families who are in desperate need of our help.'

Each year, McLaughlin spends around one month of his time doing pro bono work, and his efforts have not gone unrecognized. In 1998, the Pro Bono Committee of the OSB New Lawyers Division awarded him with the Pro Bono Challenge Award for Sole Practitioners, and in 1999 and 2000, he received the St. Andrew Legal Clinic Volunteer of the Year Award. Although McLaughlin cautions against viewing the volunteer experience as a 'referral opportunity,' his former pro bono clients do occasionally become paying clients. All things considered, Bruce feels the work 'pays for itself three-fold' and urges all lawyers to do as much pro bono work as they can. Say McLaughlin: 'We're very privileged to be attorneys. Most of us got a lot of breaks to get where we are, and now is the time to show leadership and give back to the community that nurtured us.' +

Colin Yost is an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice in Salem.


Good Impressions
By Willard Chi

Antonio Espinosa went to the Southeast Legal Clinic on 330 S.E.11th Avenue in Portland to find a lawyer. A line cook from California who recently moved his family of four to Hillsboro, Espinosa was driving to San Francisco in late May to visit family when his van broke down. It was a used vehicle he had bought with an extended warranty just two weeks earlier from a Hillsboro dealership.

The warranty company would not pay the repair bills, and by mid-October, nearly five months after the van broke down, it was still in the San Francisco repair shop, and Espinosa was understandably frustrated that his phone calls and letters to the warranty company went unanswered. Unable to afford an attorney on his own, he signed up for a pro bono attorney at the Southeast Legal Clinic, a branch of the Oregon Law Center's Neighborhood Legal Clinic Project. (His plight was documented in the Oct. 16, 2001 issue of The Oregonian, which found few legal resources for low-income people in the Portland metro area.)

Victoria Blachly, an associate at the Portland law firm of Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, volunteered to be a pro bono attorney at the clinic that night. She remembers reading the article about Espinosa on Monday, only to meet him two days later at the clinic. 'He struck me as a hard worker, who by misfortune found himself in circumstances that he could not help himself out of.' They talked briefly about his case at the clinic, where Blachly also met Espinosa's wife and one of his children, before Blachly took his case (and three others) back to the office to work on. 'I thought I could help him, and he was thrilled just to have someone listen to his frustrations that he was not being treated fairly.'

Chip Hudson, a partner at Lane Powell who encouraged Blachly to volunteer at the legal clinic, believes that all attorneys, regardless of specialty, can volunteer their time. 'People should keep in mind there are resources available if you're outside of your comfort zone. There are a lot of attorneys who are willing to help if you're not an expert in landlord-tenant law.'

But all indicators seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. 'Every year there are less and less attorneys,' says Elba Longawa, legal clinic coordinator at the Hispanic Program in Gresham, a Spanish-speaking branch of the Neighborhood Legal Clinic Project. 'For December we had no pro bono attorneys because of the holidays. We offer the legal clinic every week, but we have to wait until January' before the clinics may resume.

Espinosa's story does have a happy ending: Within three weeks of meeting Blachly at the clinic, Espinosa and the warranty company entered into a mutually agreeable settlement agreement. Espinosa now has his van back in working order, and his first encounter with an attorney left him with good impressions. When asked how he felt about his attorney and the handling of his case, he was voluble. 'Victoria is a beautiful, wonderful person. A wonderful lawyer.'

Blachly was equally admiring of her client. 'He was eager to assist whenever possible. He was so thankful and appreciate of my efforts, that I enjoyed the work and would not hesitate to assist the legal clinic again.'

Willard Chi is an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice in Salem.


ABOUT THESE ARTICLES

The Bulletin gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the OSB New Lawyers Division Pro Bono Committee, chaired by Ellen Hawes, which compiled these articles.


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