For many, being part of a community means taking responsibility for other members of the same community. This has clearly been the case in the Jewish community in Baltimore as some of the social and human service programs date back to the 1800s.
The services made available to those in need have ranged from general family services to prisoner outreach to vocational services. Others help those with addictions or mental health issues. The key has always been to respond to the most critical community needs.
About 14 years ago it became apparent that there was one glaring omission in the comprehensive list of programs – legal services. Clients coming into each of the programs often had legal needs that the social workers and others could not meet. Three concerned lawyers conceived of a program that would reach out to the community and provide free legal counsel and advice. Two of those founders, Sharon E. Goldsmith and Joel Simon, are still working with the Jewish Legal Services Clinic (JLS) today.
With the help of other interested attorneys, the founders established a monthly legal clinic. The mission of JLS is to “improve the quality of life for persons with limited financial means through pro bono legal advice and referral.” It is guided by the principal of Tikun Olam, which translates as “building a better world.” Although The Children of Harvey and Lyn Meyerhoff Philanthropic Fund made a small initial grant to provide insurance and supplies, there were no funds available for staff, so the program began life as most grassroots efforts do – small, focused and through the generous efforts of volunteers. To a large extent, that structure still exists today, although in 2005 JLS officially became a program of Jewish Community Services of Baltimore under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
The JLS Clinic opened its doors in 1997 and has steadily seen clients ever since. It is estimated that over 1,200 clients have received free legal assistance through advice or direct representation. Legal help is given to needy community members who are referred from the other Jewish community service programs, local synagogues, senior centers or word of mouth. The evening walk-in clinic operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with paralegals, law students or other volunteers doing an initial brief intake. Volunteer lawyers who staff the clinic meet one-on-one with community members for about a half-hour on a full range of legal issues. The legal advice is frequently enough to satisfy the client’s questions and immediate needs. For those who need further legal representation, however, the clinic coordinator, Deborah Hamburger, also a volunteer, attempts to find a panel attorney after the clinic concludes.
Many of the long-term volunteers stay with the JLS not only because of the personal satisfaction they derive in giving back to the community but because they find it a welcoming place to discuss strategy and work with their fellow lawyers. They never know what issues the clients will bring and need to respond quickly and creatively. For instance, one client needed help with a claim for reparations from the Holocaust while another had a running battle with the Social Security Administration over disability benefits. In both instances, the volunteer lawyers achieved successful outcomes. Divorce, loss of employment, health care issues, foreclosure, eviction and tax consequences are not uncommon. The problems encountered also give the lawyers who volunteer an appreciation of what they have and often take for granted. As one volunteer stated, “Part of the obligation of being licensed [as a lawyer] is to give something back to the community...it’s part and parcel of being Jewish as well.”
Volunteers and clients of all backgrounds are welcome to the clinic. Support pro bono work in your community. Add your resources to the fight. For more information on the legal service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact Jon Moseley at PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services and Community Outreach for the ProBonoResourceCenter of Maryland.