Models for Organizing or Expanding Pro Bono Programs

Models for Organizing or Expanding Pro Bono Programs

This section presents multiple models for creating or expanding pro bono programs from inside Missouri and across the nation.

Except for Legal Services Corporation agencies, very likely you do not have a pro bono provider agency in your county or circuit. In Missouri there are very few organized pro bono programs. While the four regional Legal Services programs provide services statewide and the Samaritan Center Legal Care program, Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, Mid-Missouri Access to Justice program and similar programs operate regionally, all existing programs are only able to serve about 25 percent of low-income persons needing legal assistance.

Expanding existing or organizing additional pro bono provider agencies in your community has several advantages. It provides a defined place for clerks and judges to refer pro se litigants and others in need of help, and also it provides a systematic means for recruiting and training volunteer attorneys, for prescreening applicants for help, for funding pro bono expenses, for providing malpractice coverage through the state program, and in general, increasing access to justice.

There are a variety of models for organizing pro bono programs:

Some common principles apply to all models. Keep the following in mind:

  • The critical importance of screening. Successful pro bono programs screen their cases with care before referring them to private counsel. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in the number of pro bono programs across the country. The ABA Center for Pro Bono studies programs that have succeeded and those that have failed. It has learned that a critical ingredient in pro bono program operation is screening. Volunteers take cases because they want to help clients. Their time, however, is precious, and they do not want to spend it on a case that has no merit or where the client is not responsive. Successful programs screen their cases with care before referring them to private counsel. In addition, the program carefully interviews clients in order to reveal essential facts and to make an informed judgment about whether there is a good faith basis for asserting claims or defenses. If the program asks a volunteer attorney to take a no-merit case, the likelihood is exceedingly high that he or she never will volunteer again and share the bad experience with his or her firm and other volunteers. See A Rule to Show Cause On The Courts: How The Judiciary Can Help Pro Bono - Part 1 by Carl "Tobey" Oxholm (ABA Dialogue, Winter 1999).

  • Give clients responsibilities. What does the client have invested in the matter? Pro bono clients usually do not pay a fee, so they do not have money invested. However, they can invest time and responsible action. For example, have the client contact the attorney to schedule the first appointment, not vice versa. Make the client responsible for his or her own documents. These kinds of steps ensure at least a minimum level of commitment to the outcome.Convey the message, "The first one to help you when you are in need it you to the extent you are able."

  • Attorneys are more likely to volunteer if the applicant is financially needy. A matching or pre-screening process screens applicants as to their financial need as well as the nature of their legal problem.

  • Assess the community needs for pro bono services. See Maryland model: Local Pro Bono Committee Resource Manual, Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, Inc. (2003).

  • Be inclusive in developing your program. Invite participation from the local bar, court staff, local social service/community service organization, law schools (if available), etc.

  • Both clients and attorneys should know what is expected of them. Clear written information should be provided to both.

The focus of this Took Kit is on the needs of civil litigants but the needs in the criminal area also should not be overlooked. For information about the Missouri State Public Defenders System, click here. For information about the Midwest Innocence Project, click here.

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