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Law Office Management

May 2, 2015

Pro Bono Efforts Bring Justice Where It Is Needed

An article by OneJustice

Veronica felt that she had nowhere to turn. She was desperate to secure medical and other services for her 28-year-old daughter, Anna, who has muscular dystrophy, Attention Deficit Disorder, and additional disabilities that make it difficult for her to control her body movements or eat on her own. Veronica has been her daughter's sole caretaker since they came to the United States when Anna was just 6 years old. Veronica brought Anna to this country to join her husband, who had come to the U.S. for work after the family experienced severe financial difficulties in Mexico. (Client names changed for confidentiality purposes.)

After her husband lost his job, he became increasingly violent, abusing both Veronica and Anna. Finally, he returned to Mexico, leaving Veronica and Anna behind, completely alone, without legal immigration status, and living in a small town of about 11,000 people on the rural coast of San Mateo County. As it grew more difficult to care for Anna by herself, Veronica tried to find help to meet Anna's needs, but their legal status and geographic isolation created seemingly insurmountable barriers. Veronica had no idea whom she could ask for help.

Californians suffer needlessly from solvable legal problems

Many individuals, like Veronica and Anna, face legal barriers to basic life necessities like medical care, safe housing, and safety from violence. Many are also unable to access the legal services needed to solve their problems. California has the largest poverty population in the country, with between 8 to 12 million low-income residents eligible for free civil legal aid. California does have a network of almost 100 civil legal aid nonprofits, which provide free legal services in many areas of law to hundreds of thousands of Californians each year, including survivors of domestic violence, seniors, families, and veterans. However, multiple years of funding reductions have limited the services these nonprofits can provide, such that only about 20% of Californians in need of legal services receive any assistance at all. As a result, too many people suffer, needlessly, from solvable legal problems.

The situation is even more severe for Californians living in rural and isolated communities. According to a 2011 California Commission on Access to Justice report, at least one third of low-income people living in rural areas need legal services for basic human needs. The small group of civil legal aid nonprofits that exist to serve rural areas do so with limited funding. Their staff attorneys are stretched thin as they try to cover large, multi-county regions that also experience the highest poverty density rates in the state. In addition, many Californians in rural communities live hundreds of miles away from the closest legal aid office. Just like Veronica and Anna, they simply cannot access the help the nonprofits could provide.

Thousands volunteer for pro bono opportunities each year

Legal aid organizations in urban areas are able to supplement existing staff attorney numbers by partnering creatively with the private sector to expand the supply of services to the communities they serve. With over 180,000 active, licensed attorneys, California has by far the largest attorney population in the country. As a result, it is no wonder that pro bono has become a backbone of the state's legal aid delivery system, expanding the supply to reach many more underserved communities. Over the last 10 years California's nonprofits have greatly expanded the number of creative pro bono projects that now provide assistance to a wide array of clients in a variety of substantive areas of law. Thousands of attorneys and law students volunteer each year with a range of opportunities from one-day limited scope legal clinics to on-going representation in more complex cases.

A severe lack of pro bono resources in rural areas

However, the vast majority of California's attorneys are located in the urban San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. There are many square miles in rural parts of the state where there are simply no lawyers. As a result, legal aid nonprofits based in rural counties often do not have any attorneys who can volunteer. These organizations have the know-how and expertise to help their client constituencies, but lack access to the pro bono resources-like law firms, corporate in-house legal departments, and law schools-that could help make their services available to their entire client base. For every lawyer in Kings, Madera, and Merced counties-all rural-there are around three hundred residents at or below the poverty threshold, whereas in Los Angeles, there are thirty residents at or below the poverty threshold per attorney, and in San Francisco, only six. Pro bono, now such a robust component of the urban delivery system, has simply not been a viable resource for rural communities.

Since 2007, two innovative collaborations-the Justice Bus Project and the Bay Area Rural Justice Collaborative-have been working to close this urban/rural divide by bringing urban pro bono resources to reach rural Californians. These programs are housed at OneJustice, a statewide nonprofit that brings life-changing legal help to Californians in need by strengthening the civil legal aid system. One of OneJustice's areas of focus is bringing the nonprofit, private, and academic sectors together to build creative pro bono partnerships.

Bringing pro bono to reach rural and isolated communities

The Justice Bus Project makes legal help more accessible to those living in isolated communities in California by expanding the capacity of rural legal aid nonprofits in those communities through pro bono partnerships with urban lawyers and law students. Recognized by the California Association of Nonprofits Insurance Services for Nonprofit Excellence in 2012, the Justice Bus Project brings teams of volunteers from the Bay Area and Los Angeles to staff free legal clinics in rural areas, setting up mobile pro bono clinics in nonprofits, churches, food banks, and community centers throughout rural California.

The project is premised on OneJustice's belief that for each underserved, isolated community in California, there is a coalition of partners-including law firms, law schools, and legal services organizations-that have both the ability and desire to help. OneJustice builds these coalitions from the ground up. It finds pro bono partners, develops a mode of assistance that best leverages the pro bono partners' time, and trains the pro bono partners to bring tangible assistance to these isolated communities. The results are Justice Bus trips that both provide tangible, timely assistance to Californians in need and foster long-lasting bonds between urban pro bono lawyers, law students, and the rural Californian communities they serve.

Drawing from the successful Justice Bus experience, in May 2013 OneJustice and Cooley LLP, in collaboration with other Bay Area law firms and legal service providers, launched a new project, the Bay Area Rural Justice Collaborative, to expand access to legal services in rural and isolated communities throughout the Bay Area. It was developed as part of a national effort spearheaded by the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) to create a network of IMPACT ("Involving More Pro Bono Attorneys in Our Communities Together") Projects in eight urban centers, from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York and beyond.

The IMPACT Project is a direct response to a meeting held in Washington, DC in 2012 among Vice President Joe Biden, APBCo board members, and senior management of the board members' firms. The meeting focused on issues of access to justice and the role of pro bono attorneys in the delivery of legal services to the poor, including innovative collaborations between law firms and legal services organizations. As a result of this conversation, APBCo initiated the IMPACT Project to develop new collaborations across the country to expand pro bono resources and inspire new pro bono projects. Since its inception, the Rural Justice Collaborative has successfully delivered a regular schedule of mobile pro bono clinics in several isolated communities in the Bay Area-including the coast of San Mateo County, where Veronica and Anna live.

Since it's creation in 2007, the Justice Bus has successfully reached over 4,000 rural Californians. With the addition of the Rural Justice clinics in May 2013, together the projects have served over 2,000 individuals, including 292 veterans, 359 seniors and 523 children and youth over the last two years. The key ingredients to this growing statewide network of mobile legal clinics-and the great hope for closing the justice gap in rural and isolated communities-are pro bono attorneys and law students who are willing to volunteer. From the beginning of the Justice Bus Project in 2007, OneJustice has relied on strong partnerships with California law schools, law firms, and corporate legal departments to plan and staff pro bono clinics now reaching the most remote corners of the state.

Pro bono legal assistance made all the difference

Last spring, a team of volunteer attorneys traveled to the small coastal town where Veronica and Anna live to staff a Rural Justice mobile legal clinic. Working with expert attorneys from the local legal aid nonprofit and OneJustice, they set up their supplies and workstations at a church near Veronica's home.

The Rural Justice clinic quickly paired Veronica and Anna with one of the volunteers for a consultation about disability-related services to meet Anna's medical and other needs. The pro bono attorney provided vital legal advice about Anna's eligibility for an array of services and about Veronica's ability to apply for those services on Anna's behalf. At the clinic, Veronica was also connected to a representative from a local support group for parents of children with disabilities. In addition, the attorneys at the clinic also determined that Anna was likely to meet the legal requirements for a federal immigration relief program called "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (DACA), a program that would open the door to many other services and support.

Fortunately, the Rural Justice Collaborative was holding a free immigration clinic at the same location just one month later, staffed by another group of volunteer attorneys. Veronica immediately scheduled an appointment at that clinic, where another pro bono attorney met with Veronica and Anna to provide immigration screening and advice. After determining that Anna did indeed qualify for the DACA program, the pro bono volunteer spent over three hours with them preparing the legal forms and evidentiary materials required to apply. Veronica left the clinic with a completed application, instructions on how to submit it, and a clear understanding of their legal situation.

A few months later, OneJustice staff followed up with Veronica and Anna as part of a regular evaluation process to ensure that Rural Justice Clinics are truly meeting clients' needs. Veronica was thrilled to report that the DACA application had been approved and that as a result, Anna had obtained a work permit, her social security card, and a California identification card. In addition, Veronica and Anna had continued to work with the attorneys at the local legal organization that supervised the disability benefits clinic. Due to that on-going support, Anna was now receiving medical care, including having someone come into the home to help Veronica meet her needs. And as an unexpected benefit, Anna was just about to start a job training program for people with disabilities. Veronica expressed how grateful she was for the assistance she and Anna received at the clinics, and how much she appreciated the fact that volunteer attorneys were willing to give their time and skills to make the clinics possible.

Much work remains to be done

Despite the successes of the Justice Bus and Rural Justice Collaborative, there is still tremendous unmet need, and much work remains to be done. There are still millions of rural Californians facing pressing legal problems without access to the legal help to resolve them. Legal aid nonprofits serving rural areas are eager to engage even larger numbers of pro bono volunteers from throughout the state to continue to demonstrate that pro bono can truly bring justice, exactly where it is needed.

For more information about OneJustice and for information about how your law school, law firm, or corporate legal department can volunteer to make a difference for those in need, please visit

Donna Domino

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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