Help a Heart, Feed Your Soul
by Larry Leff
It's the fourth Tuesday of the month and I know where I need to be without looking at my calendar. It's probably the only recurring event that I rarely need to check, even though my conscience, Tony Damon, calls me the night before to remind me of my next day obligation.
It's the Family Law Court Program (FLC) in Denver. The program, in cooperation with the Denver Domestic Relations Judges and Magistrates, is set up to finalize divorces for people with limited financial resources. Months before the appointed day, the staff of the Metro Volunteer Lawyers do the intake, assist the clients in preparing the paper work, obtain service on the spouse and set the case for court on the fourth Tuesday, 90 days down the road.
The clients who are in need of FLC services do not have sophisticated legal or financial problems. Most of them are there because their most difficult financial situation is trying to make ends meet. The respondents do not always show up, and if they do, the parties must reach an agreement. If an agreement cannot be reached between the spouses, then the matter has to be continued to a contested docket. The magistrates who hear these fourth-Tuesday cases are prepared to expedite the cases, but because of volume and local rules do not hear contested matters. The number of cases run through is always dependent on the number of attorneys who volunteer.
My bulletin says to report at 8 a.m. to Room 325, the grand jury meeting room, in the City and County Building. Clients of the program, one of whom will be mine, wait outside the doors or in the small waiting room of this mini secret cavern, hoping, I imagine, that this day will bring them the freedom from a bad relationship, or more importantly, a court order that will provide the missing financial support that a simple but unkept oral agreement never could. For those lucky enough to be able to participate in the program, there is a feeling of gratitude for the assistance they receive from the staff and program; a sense of relief that closure has come to her/his life and an element of power that may be useful in securing future financial stability. For this lawyer, who is not always available or sensitive to the needs of others less fortunate, there is a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
I do not remember how long I have been doing Family Law Court, but I know why I participate in the program. It is the well being that I gain from taking four hours out of my work month to provide a service that is both necessary to maintain access to our legal system and to achieve a modicum of praise from the client and Barbara Chamberlain, the Director of MVL. Also, it is not everyday that I can take what little expertise I have and put it to use, and be truly thanked by the client. For one morning a month, I fulfill a commitment to myself and the legal community.
The other reason is, in this too fast-changing world, overwhelmed with computers, e-mails, faxes, cell phones, on-line research and mandatory settlement conferences done by telephone, we attorneys no longer see or have time for our colleagues. The cavernous halls of the City and County Building, which were once populated by sinners, saints and attorneys with their entourages, are now empty except for the denizens who reside there: judges, court staff, sheriff deputies and their charges, and those searching out the mayor. I rarely ever meet opposing counsel in person. I no longer have time to see a past adversary and share coffee in the basement. I never have to go there! But when I attend those Tuesday services of the mind and soul, I once again connect with those who hold true to the principles of our profession.
I get to kibitz with them; spend time trying to figure out how the divorce can be completed when glitches arise as we await the completion of the child support worksheet. I am at home among a group of professionals who feel strongly about their commitment to their profession and to the community. They are professionals who do not need to do this, but know that as lawyers we are obligated to make the system work for those who cannot afford even our most "reasonable fees."
And no matter how loudly the leaders of the two major parties are trumpeting the banner of material selfishness, there is a sense among us that we, as individuals, have a common bond with all people and a responsibility to assist, to even sacrifice time, to make our local world better for all. And everything we do, which we set out to do as a benefit for others no matter how insignificant it may seem to us, is a step toward creating that place. The FLC program allows us to personally and professionally meet that obligation. And on a more personal level, it fulfills a part of the pro bono requirements we should set for ourselves.
For more information about the Family Law Court Program or taking on a pro bono case, contact Barb Chamberlain at