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Firms partner to publish volunteer attorney practice manual

It recently became easier for attorneys in Mississippi to do pro bono work with the publication of a comprehensive volunteer attorney practice manual.

The Mississippi Pro Bono Attorney Manual is a result of collaboration among 13 state law firms — including most of the largest firms in the state — and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP), the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and Pro Bono Net.

Ginnie Munford, an attorney at Watkins & Eager, PLLC, and former chair of the Mississippi Bar’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee, said the project began more than two years ago when representatives from several major firms, MVLP and MCJ decided to take a closer look at what obstacles prevent private attorneys from being willing or able to take pro bono cases.

One of the biggest reasons was that the firm or attorney’s area of expertise was not in the same area. A significant obstacle was unfamiliarity with poverty law issues. The group decided that the large firms could make a major contribution to jump-starting pro bono involvement. They recognized that their efforts could also benefit small-town lawyers who encounter the same challenges when taking on cases that involve issues outside of their daily practice.

Munford said the materials, which are currently being updated by the law firms, are an excellent resource. They include forms and questionnaires for the client and a synopsis of the law in areas of the law frequently used in pro bono cases.

“We do think it is helping,” Munford said. “We think it has been successful. We still need to raise the profile of these materials to encourage more private lawyers to use them in accepting pro bono cases. There is still a long way to go to get more widespread participation by private lawyers. But we felt one of the big obstacles to participation was a hesitation to take cases outside their normal area of expertise. We developed this manual to help diminish that hurdle to participation.”

The manual also allows attorney to be more efficient and spend less time getting good results for clients who can’t afford a private attorney.

In order to access to the materials, one has to be a volunteer lawyer. The MVLP controls access to the materials.

The manual is still being refined.

“We still have some issues with what kind of cases can be referred to private lawyers effectively,” Munford said. “We are constantly working to improve that system of referral. I can’t say the job is done. It is ongoing.”

Munford said many lawyers have found it very fulfilling to participate in pro bono work. Some of it is frustrating, but so is law practice.

“I’ve had a lot of feedback from lawyers who assisted people who otherwise couldn’t afford to have a lawyer telling me how rewarding and interesting the work was,” Munford said. “I do think there is an increasing awareness for the need for pro bono lawyers, and I think the members of private bar in Mississippi are willing. We are just trying to get them over any hesitation they have about handling these kinds of cases.”

MVLP worked with the firms to identify the areas of law most frequently needed in pro bono placement. Each firm involved agreed to take on a topic and develop a substantive outline and practice tools that experienced lawyers can use even if the case is outside their area of expertise.

The drafts were reviewed and substantive input was provided by poverty law experts at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Center for Legal Services. The result of this extensive collaboration was a collection of more than 200 new practice resources, including a detailed overview of each area of law, client questionnaires, sample forms and petitions, reference to cases and statutes and additional practice material.

The effort also includes a statewide advocate support website, probono.net/MS, for making the collection readily accessible to attorneys willing to take cases. The resources posted in a password-protected library enable pro bono attorneys to have 24/7 access while restricting sensitive content from the general public. In addition, the resources are available side-by-side with other information to assist pro bono attorneys, including specific case opportunities, training and news items.

“We couldn’t have done it without probono.net/MS and Pro Bono Net because of the technical hurdles,” Munford said.

Pro Bono Net is continuing to work with project partners to facilitate access to the manual and explore ways probono.net/MS can further support pro bono involvement and legal aid advocates.

Munford said perhaps the most exciting outcome of the project is the long-term commitment to pro bono on the part of the 13 collaborating firms. In addition to writing a chapter of the manual and related practice resources, each firm has agreed to accept those particular types of cases from MVLP. Each firm will thus develop institutional expertise in that area over time.

While the project partners are still developing the new referral model, the hope is that in the future, when MVLP receives a case from legal services, a call to the representative for the corresponding firm will in effect be reaching 75 or 100 lawyers who are more likely to say “yes,” given their access to resources such as the new manual, probono.net/MS, and greater in-house expertise in that area of law.

Shirley Williams, executive director, MVLP, said the project has given them the tools they need to market what we do, hence helping them reach more attorneys and ultimately more clients.

“And that’s what it’s all about,” Williams said. “Doing pro bono work has never been easier. Our 2009 slogan ‘For The Ease Of It’ is strengthened by the creation of this manual, which opens an easier avenue by which all lawyers can participate in civil legal aid to the less fortunate.”

Williams said in recent years the MVLP has attracted more volunteer lawyers because the organization has been on the forefront of promoting the need for access to justice by low-income individuals. In 2007 through MVLP, volunteer attorneys donated an average of 11,880 hours in pro bono time on MVLP cases, which equates more than $2 million in donated services.

MVLP has also found great advocates for pro bono in the members of the Mississippi Supreme Court who have supported the creation of the Access to Justice Commission and who have also made it possible, through pro hac vice, for more than 600 out-of-state attorneys to practice in the state on disaster-related issues, especially after Hurricane Katrina.

“The Supreme Court has made several key decisions in recent years to reinforce the legal services community and has solidified Mississippi’s role as a leader nationwide,” Williams said. “Chief Justice James Smith has a great concern for helping those in need, and he appointed Justice Jess Dickinson as the court’s liaison to legal services. This endorsement of the highest court and the outstanding vision and frontline work of Justice Dickinson have changed the face of pro bono work in our state and on the national scene. Because of our state’s judicial leadership and our lawyers, we are able to complete the stories of the voiceless in more positive ways. “

There are benefits to lawyers and law firms from making pro bono a reality for low-income Mississippians. Williams said from her point of view, when lawyers provide pro bono work they not only aid in providing access to justice to those who could not otherwise obtain it, but they benefit as individuals within a firm and as a firm.

“Among the many benefits for lawyers are: liability insurance coverage while handling MVLP cases; invaluable training and skills development for litigators and transactional lawyers; the opportunity to broaden their practice by doing legal work that allows exploration into entirely different areas of law; for some, furthering their expertise in the matters that they routinely handle; honing client-attorney communication skills; networking with in-house counsel and business and community leaders; special opportunities to write, to speak and to become community leaders; handling pre-screened legal cases; access to a pro bono handbook, materials, pleading samples, mentoring assistance and administrative help; individual and firm name recognition; opportunity to receive a statewide pro bono award; and, free and reduced-fee CLE credit.

Williams said the following firms deserve recognition for participating in development of the manual : Adams and Reese LLP; Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C.; Bradley Arant Rose & White, LLP; Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, PLLC; Butler Snow O’Mara Stevens & Canada; Copeland, Cook, Taylor & Bush, P.A.; Daniel Coker Horton & Bell, P.A.; Forman Perry Watkins Krutz & Tardy LLP; Phelps Dunbar LLP, Robinson, Biggs, Ingram, Solop & Farris, PLLC; Watkins & Eager PLLC; and, Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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