Spotlight on Pro Bono: LSC Pro Bono Innovation Grant
By Clarissa Gaff, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Executive Director
The nation’s largest legal nonprofit funder, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), wants attorneys outside of legal aid organizations to have opportunities to provide free legal services to low income community members. To ensure that attorneys have a variety of options for pro bono service, LSC awards Pro Bono Innovation Grants to civil legal aid providers around the country to create new and diverse programs for other attorneys, like ISBA members, to provide legal services to those individuals with civil legal needs who cannot afford an attorney.
Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) is one of those civil legal aid providers who received an LSC Pro Bono Innovation Grant in 2019. PSLS is an organization that offers free legal services for low income persons and those ages 60 and over who have civil legal problems. It serves 36 counties in northern Illinois through its 12 office locations. With the funds awarded, PSLS hired managing attorney Kim Thielbar as its director of pro bono services in October 2019 to implement the transformation grant. PSLS hope to increase the pro bono referrals it makes to volunteer attorneys over the next year by 15% and increase the number of different attorneys accepting pro bono cases by 20%.
PSLS has already used the grant to examine the work of other successful pro bono projects at legal aid programs around the country. Thielbar visited Legal Assistance of Western New York, which runs a robust program incorporating practicing and retired attorneys, in addition to law students, into a variety of roles—from working in their legal clinics to drafting documents for name and gender changes. Thielbar has also interviewed several other legal aid pro bono coordinators and managing attorneys to determine what are the best practices of engaging with pro bono attorneys, as well as the range of opportunities they provide to engage the private bar in serving low income individuals. As a result of this research, Thielbar hopes to improve and expand PSLS’s existing pro bono program.
Specifically, PSLS would like to increase its pro bono referrals in several collar counties, including DuPage, Lake, Will, Kane, and McHenry. With more than 90% of Illinois attorneys practicing in Chicago, Thielbar also hopes to use Chicago firms and corporations to provide services remotely in PSLS territory. PSLS already utilizes remote volunteer attorneys to provide telephone advice to clients and pre-Expungement Summit work reviewing criminal records and providing charts of eligible cases.
Thielbar understands that her new role is not without challenges. She said, “We want to provide opportunities that are meaningful for our volunteers and our clients, that are ready to go and can be done remotely. We need to develop a menu of projects for our volunteers and a structure that makes participation in those projects easy to access.”
She added, “Each legal community is different—whether its suburban, urban, or rural—and engaging each requires different approaches. We have to adjust our projects for the needs of each community. It’s an exciting opportunity to serve more clients and work with lots of attorneys Prairie State has never worked with before.”
Another recipient of a 2019 LSC Pro Bono Innovation Grant is Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM), based in St. Louis. ISBA member and former Land of Lincoln Legal Aid attorney, Latasha Barnes, crossed the Mississippi River to become the pro bono coordinator for its grant-awarded Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative (NVI).
St. Louis has nearly 25,000 vacant and abandoned properties that are not only eyesores but are also dangerous and diminish nearby property values. NVI’s goals are three-fold: 1) assist neighborhoods with legal formations so that they can use available state laws to address vacant nuisance properties; 2) file lawsuits using those laws to compel absentee owners to act; and 3) provide vacancy-prevention legal assistance to low-income homeowners to preserve family wealth, improve access to home repair services, and prevent displacement.
As pro bono coordinator for NVI, Barnes is working with four large regional law firms: Husch Blackwell, Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, and Thompson Coburn LLP. Each firm is assigned a specific high-vacancy St. Louis neighborhood. Each firm’s attorneys provide pro bono assistance to that community in a number of different ways.
Barnes worked with the pro bono coordinator at each firm, who identified staff members to participate in the pro bono project. Barnes then provided training and CLEs to those members. She attends community meetings with firm attorneys to ascertain the needs of each neighborhood. She works with the firms to provide Know Your Rights Seminars and Legal Clinics in each neighborhood. She continues to provide ongoing technical assistance to each firm’s attorneys. She co-counsels on all cases that are litigated by the firm.
LSEM maintains a website for the project that includes recorded trainings, a pleadings bank, and sample letters and contracts for pro bono attorneys to use. LSEM also maintains a calendar for each firm that includes docketing information as well as dates of all community events in their assignment community like board meetings, neighborhood association meetings, block parties, community clean ups and any other special events.
The NVI pro bono program has assisted community organizations in neighborhoods with legal incorporation – specifically entity formation, drafting bylaws, or tax exemption. Pro bono attorneys with whom Barnes co-counsels on behalf of these neighborhood organizations have brought affirmative cases to deal with vacant and dilapidated properties in their neighborhood held by absentee property owners, some of whom live in places as far away as England and Israel. A regular result of that litigation has been the transfer of abandoned property to new owners who are paying delinquent tax bills and undertaking often significant renovations.
NVI pro bono attorneys have served low-income families and homeowners to provide transfer-on-death deeds to ensure efficient transfer of title, preventing future vacancies. They also assist families with land title problems – which can often limit access to the financial resources needed to repair and maintain their homes. These services can keep residents in place and stabilize neighborhoods.
Barnes said the goal of the program is, “Each firm becomes so enmeshed and so engaged in their neighborhood that the relationship continues well beyond LSEM’s involvement.” Barnes sees the NVI project as one that complements the civil legal services LSEM provides to individuals. “Community lawyers need to effectively address all concerns of our clients, because you aren’t a good community partner if you can’t address all the issues that affect them, like run down vacant buildings next door to where they live. NVI doesn’t detract from civil legal issues that we address. It enhances our work and our value in the community.”