Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2006

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

Changing with the Times

What is known today as Community Legal Services of Prince George's County first got its start as the Law Foundation of Prince George's County, which began offering services in 1989. The organization began simply, hiring a paralegal to do intake, but then quickly realizing that they needed someone to supervise the paralegal. Current Executive Director Neal Conway "came on as a paralegal, with a little bit of experience doing research work in domestic violence for a group in West Virginia, (then) started here…with a managing attorney, and Connie Belfiore (as) the executive director." Conway moved up through the ranks, becoming Executive Director in 2001. "It tells people what we do," Conway explains of the organization's change of name. "That's important."

In the beginning the staff would merely screen the clients over the phone and then find the attorneys to take the case. This changed in 1996. According to Conway:

What has changed about Legal Services is that, when I came, we did telephone intact only; we didn't give any advice, we just screened clients and then we found attorneys to volunteer to take the cases. Then in 1995 or 1996, Judge Steven Platt of the Prince George's County Circuit Court was on our board of directors and he said, ‘(W)e have all these people in the court house wandering around looking for legal advice.' Legal Services opened an office in the courthouse where the lawyers could come and volunteer to meet with clients. The idea was…to have someone in the courthouse to tell people…what they needed to know, how to get a lawyer, things like that. But when we advertised the job, a lawyer applied for the position. Given the opportunity to hire a lawyer at the same salary as a paralegal, it seemed like a good decision, and it was. What changed was that, once we had hired a lawyer who could then give legal advice, we could never go back."

As is usually the case, the need was bigger than originally thought. "It started off with a few days a week…and was just overwhelming," notes Conway. "Gradually it went to five mornings a week, then to full-time, then we had to hire a legal assistant who was bi-lingual, and it has just continued to grow."

Because of their close proximity to the courthouse, Community Legal Services has been able to unitize almost any level of attorney volunteerism, up to and including a random spare hour created by a hearing cancellation. "Our attorneys are free to come and go as a volunteer; whatever help we can get is welcome" explains Conway. "This is a wonderful arrangement for us because it takes the overflow and (thus) takes the pressure off the staff."

Whether and
organization is
large or small,
to be effective
it mush be
responsive.

Anu Kemet, Esq., of Kemet & Hunt, PLLC, of College Park, is one such volunteer. "Mr. Kemet shows up two or three times a week to volunteer his time" says Earlette Toomer, the agency's pro bono coordinator. Mr. Kemet was a recipient this year of a statewide Pro Bono Service Award.

As the organization began to grow it became obvious that the need was outside the normal central office scenario. The organization began working in Langley Park with the Latino population, in conjunction with CASA de Maryland. In the beginning, Community Legal Services went there twice a week to screen clients and then refer the cases out through their home office. A grant from the Administrative Office of the Courts expanded that outreach to full-time. Now there is an attorney in Langley Park three days a week, and two days at the main office, along with a legal assistant, to serve the Latino community. In addition, there is a pilot educational program on workers' rights and responsibilities in Langley Park, currently funded through the Meyer Foundation, to educate the public in that neighborhood.

According to Conway, the need for free legal services is greatest in the southern part of the county. Problems in service delivery in that area include lack of public transportation and language barriers. One of the ways Community Legal Services is working to increase its presence there is the planned expansion of their Elder Law Outreach.

"The Alliance of Southern Prince George's Counties, Inc. has made office space available to us, free of charge, in Oxon Hill that will be much more accessible to clients due to the bus lines that run nearby," says Conway. "The office will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays and clients will be able to call and make appointments with the volunteer attorneys."

Community Legal Services also runs a family law clinic for the self-represented. Every other Wednesday, volunteer attorneys do a presentation in the evening for people who are seeking non-contested divorces, explaining the process and taking questions. Very soon, Community Legal Services will be adding a presentation on Wednesday mornings in the home office for the self-represented who have child support concerns. An officer from Child Support Enforcement will explain how the process works, including how child support is determined, the rights each party retains, and what paperwork needs to be brought into court. A volunteer attorney will be available after the presentation to give advice and assist in filing.

Whether an organization is large or small, to be effective it must be responsive. The Community Legal Services of Prince George's County has shown, and continues to demonstrate, their remarkable ability to change with the times and continue to give their clients the quality legal services they need.

Support the legal service agencies in your community. Add your resources to the fight. For more information on the Legal Aid Bureau or the other legal service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact Jon Moseley at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274.

Jon Moseley is Volunteer Services Coordinator for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2006

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