President's Column: Outside My Area of Expertise
by John Baker
In my column last month, I asked Denver Bar Association members to do better, for each of us to step up and take pro bono cases for the DBA’s Metro Volunteer Lawyers.
This month, I want to shed light on how to make it happen. I’ll personally introduce you to the hard-working staff of MVL, and share my pro bono experience. I also want to address some of the hesitations out there that prevent poor and indigent clients from accessing justice they deserve.
Friendly MVL Names to Know
Armed with a "can do" staff of four and volunteer attorneys, MVL serves the poor and indigent citizens of the seven metro Denver counties. MVL staff screens each case to make sure the prospective clients qualify for pro bono assistance.
Dianne A. Van Voorhees, a Colorado lawyer, is MVL’s executive director. Before accepting the directorship position at MVL in 2007, Dianne focused her legal practice on family, consumer bankruptcy, immigration, juvenile and federal Indian law, and was licensed at both the Hopi Tribal Court and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska’s Tribal Court. In addition practicing law, she has served on the board for the Colorado Indian Education Association and is a committee member on the Colorado Coalition for Minority Youth Equality. She also serves as the Chair of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council.
Patricia Trujillo has been with MVL for 20+ years and serves as the Legal Services Coordinator. Many of us have received her friendly letters and phone calls.
Veronica Mabry-James, also a licensed attorney, recently joined the MVL staff as the Family Law Court Program Coordinator after serving as a volunteer for the program since early 2009.
Brandy Tulley, a budding paralegal, has been MVL
Program Assistant for two years.
MVL’s governing board is made up of 18 volunteer lawyers from local Front Range bar associations. DBA member Rich Harris serves as chair.
My MVL experiences
Throughout my career, I’ve been on the panel (the group of people willing to accept cases) first for Thursday Night Bar and now for MVL. I have always had a goal of accepting at least one case per year.
But, I confess, I haven’t come close to achieving that goal.
This failure is partly because of timing issues – cases were referred at a time that I thought I thought that I was "too busy." Other times I refused to accept a case, offering the flimsy excuse that it was, "outside my area of expertise."
Fifteen years ago Patricia Trujillo called my bluff and sent me a case, "in my area expertise." I accepted the defense of a single mother of five children, who was included as a party-defendant in an uninsured motorist action. After extensive pretrial discovery, including depositions of parties and of the plaintiff’s treating doctors, the plaintiff dismissed the case against my client. My fee was a lunch with my client and her five children at Casa Bonita, one of the most fulfilling fees I ever received.
Other times when I have accepted MVL cases "outside my area of expertise," I have been surprised. With a little brushing up on the law, and the wonderful support of other MVL lawyers, I felt comfortable in the competence of my representation of the clients.
In other cases, I’ve learned the necessary tenant-landlord or creditor-debtor law to help clients through a tough legal problem.
Perhaps my favorite case was a "dreaded family law" case. I represented a man with a mental disability. He was seeking custody of his two elementary-school daughters in the divorce from his estranged, motorcycle-gang-member wife. With the help of a very understanding trial judge, Hon. Sandra Rothenberg, and super MVL volunteer Doris Truhlar, I even felt competent despite being "way outside my area of expertise." The two daughters and the father were united by the court.
We All Can Do Better
I tell you my stories about these MVL cases to show all that I am one of the 8,000 DBA members who does not do enough to help the less fortunate with legal problems in our community.
Folks, we are privileged professionals who have a "monopoly" on being able to appear in court, representing people. Pharmacists can’t appear court, nor can plumbers or electricians. We need to put aside our excuses of lack of competence and lack of time. Many of us now have more free time to do pro bono work during this economic downturn.
A Modest Proposal – Combining Mentoring and Pro bono
In 2010, I vow to take on one of those MVL cases outside my area of expertise again – gulp – maybe another family law case! However, this time, I plan to co-counsel the case with my oldest daughter, Jessica, a second-year lawyer and young mother of my first grandchild. We will work the case together and learn from one another, while helping a client.
All DBA members, novice or seasoned, can co-counsel an MVL case the same way. The 2010 DBA Mentoring Program will start again in June. Applications for mentors and mentees will be available soon; watch the D-Brief weekly e-newsletter. Mentors and mentees will be encouraged by Nancy Cohen and the DBA Mentoring Committee to take on an MVL case and work on it together. Please sign up. You will get to experience a wonderful mentoring relationship and help a needy citizen of the Denver community through a legal problem.