Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

Coming Full-Circle to Women's Rights

In the early 1970s, the peace movement was moving past its prime, and Sonny & Cher's TV shtick based on "husband-bashing" was a big hit. Yet women had difficulty getting loans without a man to cosign and it was still acceptable during a job interview to ask a woman how she was going to work and take care of the children, too. Newspapers of the day routinely advertised jobs which encouraged women not to apply. There was no "equal wages for equal work." In many instances, career women were seen as taking a job away from a more deserving male, regardless of who was the family wage-earner.

There were few women attorneys at the time, but some of those in the Baltimore area recognized the strength to be had in numbers and mutual support. A coalition of these lawyers banded together to form the Women's Law Center in an effort to address the inequities encountered through gender discrimination. Thus, the fledgling organization declared its mission: the promotion and protection of the legal rights of women.

When the center started out, one of its major concerns was the area of employment, dealing with the male/female disparities of the day. The Center worked in conjunction with the Women's Bar Association to help promote women in the legal profession. Later, throughout the '80s and into the '90s, the greater legal needs of women moved to family law. Women required legal help with divorces, child custody and visitation, as well as pregnancy discrimination. In response to the demand, the Center and the Legal Aid Bureau joined forces to establish the Family Law Hotline.

The Family Law Hotline operates around the central concept of volunteer ease of service. Typically, the biggest barrier that volunteers face is the time-constraints of their individual practices; this obstacle is overcome by enabling volunteers to staff the hotline from their home or office. Jo Benson Fogel, Esquire, has helped staff the Hotline since its inception.

"The Center has mastered the art of volunteer ease of service," Fogel says. "The process is easy. A sign-up sheet is sent around, and all you have to do is sign up for the times and dates that work for you. The experience is rewarding but it can also be a great learning tool for a lawyer's office."

To illustrate this point, Fogel often has one of her associates sit in on the sessions with her. "This is an excellent opportunity to have associates experience the gambit of family law issues in a fast-paced, on-the-ground style that is often difficult to come by during the regular course of a family law practice," she adds.

The Center requires Hotline attorneys to be well-versed in family law. Even so, the attorneys field numerous and varied questions during their shift. Fogel says her shift average is usually 15 to 20 calls. "Even though it is work, at the end of a shift you have a real sense of accomplishment," she admits.

In response to the Center's continuing mission "to promote and protect the legal rights of women," the Center's strategic planning process investigated the topics of law that impact women but currently have no directed work being done, either by the Center or other local legal service agencies. The investigation revealed no single prevalent issue that was not being addressed to some extent. Issues such as gender discrimination, sexual harassment and family medical leave problems still exist, but there is work being done by various organizations.

Employment law issues, however, as they relate to women, were identified as the most-neglected area. Ironically, "(s)ome of the very first cases our founders took on were employment cases," says Executive Director Tracy Brown, Esquire. As part of the investigation, Brown adds, the Center felt it was important to "learn what else was being done in the community to address these [employment law] needs…to maximize collaboration and minimize duplication."

Specifically, the investigation revealed the absence of a singular source of information concerning the basics of women's employment rights under the law. According to Brown, although "(t)here are a number of organizations…that are addressing employment issues and…practices in the immigrant and day labor communities," there are "none that address employment issues for women based specifically on gender."

A group of employment law practitioners and legal services providers was given the charge of investigating the employment issues being faced by women today and to determine if there was a way the Center could have an impact. It was decided that the best service delivery method would be to offer a broad range of brief, preliminary "consult-style" legal services concerning employment. Since the hotline service delivery model was one with which the Center was intimately familiar, the decision was made to launch an Employment Law Hotline based on that model.

The Employment Law Hotline will be operated in the same manner as the Family Law Hotline. Experienced employment attorneys will dispense brief legal advice. "The purpose of the Hotline will be primarily to address female-related employment issues," notes Brown. "However, if someone calls about a male-related issue we will certainly answer those questions as well – but I expect we will not be getting many calls of that nature, at least initially."

The Employment Hotline makes its début this month. If you would like to volunteer for the project, please contact Project Director Jill Wrigley, Esquire. If you are an attorney who would like to become a part of the Family Law Hotline or any other of the Center's programs, contact the Women's Law Center at (410) 321-8761.

If you would like more information about the Women's Law Center or any other legal service program in the State of Maryland, contact Jon Moseley at the Pro Bono Resource Center at (800) 396-1274 or (410) 837-9379 or pbrc@probonomd.org.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2006

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