Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2006

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MVLS Celebrates 25 Years

~Volunteers have helped 40,000+ poor Marylanders; anniversary gala to pay tribute to attorney volunteers~

In the last 25 years, more than 3,800 volunteer attorneys have helped 40,000+ low-income Marylanders with their civil legal needs through the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). MVLS was created as a pro bono assistance program in 1981, and today it has evolved into a comprehensive pro bono entity offering an array of services and programs to support the poor. MVLS has come far in the last 25 years and, as it proudly celebrates its milestones, it is looking ahead to the challenges that await in the next 25 years.

Through MVLS, volunteer attorneys have helped the state's indigent population with everything from custody disputes, denial of benefits, wills, deed and name changes, landlord/tenant conflicts, tax issues and child and adult guardianship to consumer rights and senior citizen matters. Many of its initiatives target special groups of people with similar needs. Volunteers advocate for children and the disabled, aid citizens confronting bankruptcy, help victims of domestic violence and get people off of welfare and into jobs. Over the years, MVLS has made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Marylanders.

Since 1981, MVLS's volunteer lawyers have donated well over a quarter of a million hours of pro bono service to support the state's indigent population. This is worth roughly $25 million in legal services. In addition to volunteer lawyers, there are also a large number of donors who support MVLS through their generous contributions. MVLS's handful of donors in 1981 has today grown into a force of over 500 attorneys and law firms who support this non-profit organization with contributions every year.

"For 25 years, MVLS has provided the network of volunteer attorneys and funding for assistance programs benefiting low-income residents throughout Maryland, who otherwise would not have access to legal representation," declares MVLS President Jerald B. Lurie. MVLS's volunteers and donors, along with its succession of outstanding leaders, are the backbone of this pro bono organization.

The exceptional efforts of MVLS volunteers have resulted in three Herbert S. Garten Special Project Awards for MVLS, presented by the Pro Bono Resource Center: MVLS Income Tax Clinic; MVLS's Somerset County Welfare-to-Work Project; and Project Heal. MVLS was also awarded the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations' Standards of Excellence certificate.

"MVLS's impact and reach have spread to every corner of the state," states Winifred C. Borden, MVLS Executive Director. "We have grown from serving several hundred people a year to over 4,300. We have created programs that allow thousands of Maryland's lawyers to translate their commitment to pro bono service into representation on behalf of the working poor in our communities. However, while we have expanded our programmatic focus, our core mission has stayed the same – providing legal services to people of limited means."

On April 6, 2006, MVLS will celebrate its 25th anniversary and its accomplishments with a gala event at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. This special event will "honor all of the MVLS volunteers and donors who have made it possible to serve more than 40,000 low-income clients," declares Borden. Presented by the law firm of Miles & Stockbridge P.C., the event begins at 7:00 p.m. with dinner; the audience will then be treated to a private viewing of the Aquarium's new Animal Planet Australia exhibit. Proceeds from this event, which costs $125 per person, will go to support MVLS initiatives and its new Children's Law Project.

As MVLS celebrates 25 years, Borden celebrates 15 years as MVLS's Executive Director. She finds this the perfect time to reflect on what she believes to be MVLS' most significant accomplishments. "The sheer number of clients MVLS has helped, over 40,000, is astounding," she exclaims. "Our collaborative programs – domestic violence, Project HEAL and Welfare to Work Project – have broadened our impact by offering integrated services.

In the midst of federal and state budget cuts for legal services to low-income people in 1981, MVLS was established as a pro bono legal assistance organization to provide free legal representation in civil cases to people unable to afford it. The Maryland State Bar Association, the American Bar Association, the Bar Association of Baltimore City and the Maryland Bar Foundation contributed the start-up funding.

MVLS's mission has always been "helping low-income citizens throughout Maryland get protection under the law." Over the years, MVLS has adhered to this mission, connecting individual volunteer pro bono attorneys with needy clients. At the same time, it has developed an array of legal assistance programs and reached out into the community, collaborating with community-based social services providers and other agencies to meet the indigent's civil legal needs. MVLS initiated this outreach effort with the Homeless Persons Representation Project in 1987, when volunteers began assisting the disadvantaged.

In 1995, MVLS launched its successful Income Tax Clinic so attorneys could prepare tax returns for low-income Marylanders. The Family Law Assistance Project followed in 1997. MVLS's first pro se project, this program trained people wanting to represent themselves in divorce cases. Two Domestic Violence victim assistance programs were added in 1999 and the Community Development Project, where volunteers provide free legal services to nonprofit groups to strengthen and revitalize communities, opened in 2001. Project Heal commenced in 2004 to provide legal advocacy to families and train healthcare workers to advocate for their patients.

As MVLS looks to the future, it faces a number of challenges. Borden believes one of MVLS's major ones is the development of "stronger relationships with the local bar associations in order to assist more people who live outside of Central Maryland." At the same time, she asserts, "MVLS must continue to develop programs that meet lawyers' interest and time commitments and serve the growing number of clients in need of representation for divorce and custody matters." Borden anticipates MVLS "redefining the types of service it provides these clients" in the future.

For ticket information about the April 6 MVLS Anniversary Gala, contact Asylynne Wright at (410) 539-6800.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March 2006

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