The Colorado Lawyer
Vol. 26, No. 3 [Page 43]
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Legal Services News
Two Winners in Providing Pro Bono Legal Services: Delta and Weld Counties
by Michael Schottelkotte, Liz Meyer
Michael Schottelkotte is a partner of the law firm of Brown, Schottelkotte & Tweedell, (970) 874-4451, and is presently serving as coordinator for the Delta County Bar Association’s pro bono program. Liz Meyer has been the Administrator of Weld County Legal Services since 1993.
Attorney participation in pro bono programs providing legal services to the poor varies widely throughout the state. Two programs with excellent attorney participation are those of Delta County and Weld County. Each program has provided a short description of its services and has attempted to select those elements that have made its program especially successful.
Delta County’s Pro Bono Program
by Michael Schottelkotte
The Delta Country Bar Association ("DCBA") is regarded by outside observers as having achieved relative success with its pro bono legal services program. The purpose of this article is to identify the mechanisms by which DCBA gained its success and, in that process, to help and inspire other lawyer groups with their own pro bono efforts.
As a threshold consideration, everyone recognizes that pro bono services should be an organizational, rather than merely an individual effort. Experience shows that, just as diet and exercise goals seem better achieved at a health club, the achievement of a lawyer’s unquantified ethical mandate to perform pro bono services seems to increase overall within the supportive framework of a local bar association or other group. In DCBA’s view, organization size and the quality of leadership are the key ingredients of any successful pro bono campaign.
Based on the last official count, twenty-one attorneys are now actively engaged in private law practice in Delta County. Nearly 90 percent of them accept pro bono referrals on a rotating basis, averaging approximately two and one-half significant cases per year.
Applicants for pro bono services are first screened for financial and other eligibility criteria by the Montrose office of Colorado Rural Legal Services ("CRLS"). CRLS directly provides the greatest portion of legal service to indigents in Delta County, but client overflow and conflicts of interest leave a substantial caseload that must be referred to outside counsel.
All Delta county residents who qualify financially for CRLS service, but who are turned away for other reasons become eligible for pro bono services by DCBA. Although there are some shortfalls, especially in the ever-increasing domestic relations area, DCBA seems to be meeting the needs of local indigents.
Until about ten years ago, DCBA was part of the much larger Seventh Judicial District Bar Association. Our then very capable president, John Wendt, convinced DCBA’s membership that the parent organization was too large and encompassed too much territory (six counties, including Delta County) to be effective with certain important tasks, including routine distribution of pro bono cases. With his encouragement, DCBA formally separated from the Seventh Judicial District Bar Association and gained independent status for the primary purpose of qualifying for COLTAF funds. Downsizing to a smaller geographical area resulted in more frequent business meetings that were easier for our members to attend. Now, pro bono service is a primary activity and purpose of our local bar association.
Although credit for giving our pro bono program its initial impetus goes to John Wendt, the key sustaining figure for the program has been our dedicated past coordinator, Aaron Clay. A popular and well-respected lawyer, Aaron possessed, for his nearly nine-year term as volunteer coordinator, a consistent knack for recruiting high levels of participation in DCBA’s pro bono program. His style was never to beg, threaten, or promise. He merely offered opportunities for individual service; and if an attorney declined, he relentlessly presented subsequent opportunities until that attorney’s conscience would inevitably cause acquiescence to the subtle, and always congenial pressure.
DCBA has experienced its share of difficulties in handling a growing domestic relations caseload. Our policy is to give priority to cases involving child custody and domestic abuse. Wherever the only issues are property and debt division, we seldom enter general case appearances. Instead, the referred party is usually counseled from behind the scenes with regard to the presentation of evidence on the issues.
CRLS has recently instituted a monthly clinic designed to give similar assistance to domestic relations case litigants where only property and debt disputes are at issue. The obvious goals are to conserve attorney energies and to avoid burnout over cases that appear in great numbers, have relatively small impact, and lend themselves to pro se presentation with minimal support and counseling. The DCBA sets similar limits with regard to the very few eligible Delta County residents whose cases are docketed in courts far away from this Judicial District. If these cases cannot be referred to other organizations, the DCBA agains provide assistance without entering a general appearance in the case.
There is no magical aspect to this program; only small organizational size, fine leadership, and the support of a consistently devoted majority of our membership. We offer no awards, special recognitions or other incentives to get the job done. It seems sufficient that most of our members are actively assuming their fair share of the pro bono caseload. We welcome individual inquiries about our program and any suggestions for improvement.
Weld County’s Pro Bono Program
by Liz Meyer
Weld County Legal Services ("WCLS") is a non-profit corporation established by the Weld County Bar Association in 1983 to administer its pro bono program. WCLS has no staff attorneys nor paralegals. Initially, pro bono services were coordinated by a volunteer attorney, but for several years WCLS has had a part-time administrator. The office is open three days a week. Major funding for WCLS is through COLTAF, the Weld County Bar Association, and CRLS’ Private Attorney Involvement ("PAI") program. Of the 167 attorneys practicing in Weld County in 1995, 111 were eligible to accept pro bono cases. (Judges and government attorneys are generally excluded from our list of eligible attorneys.) Ninety-five attorneys participated in the WCLS program in some way, and 84 (76 percent) of those eligible to take cases actually accepted a total of 138 cases.
Attorneys perform a number of other volunteer activities for the legal services program, including teaching pro se divorce clinics, staffing Call-a-Lawyer, screening and placing conflict cases, being available to handle appeals, serving on boards of directors of WCLS and CRLS, writing grants, mentoring, and assisting in the development of other pro se material, clinics, and videos.
The WCLS administrator screens applications and matches qualified applicants with volunteer attorneys. Much of the administrator’s work is to screen and refer applicants to other appropriate programs such as pro se clinics, many sponsored by WCLS.
Both WCLS and CRLS have offices in Greeley and enjoy a cooperative relationship. Both programs follow similar income guidelines; however, CRLS handles the more immediate and emergency cases, particularly in the area of domestic abuse. WCLS accepts clients whose needs are less urgent.
Under CRLS’s PAI program, CRLS spends 12 percent of its income on private attorney placements. CRLS has placed approximately seventy-five cases over the last three years with WCLS. WCLS assigns these cases to private attorneys, who then bill CRLS for their work at CRLS rates. CRLS then pays WCLS, to support its program. Additionally, in 1996, WCLS began to participate in the CBA’s Lend-a-Lawyer program, sharing a lend-a-lawyer on an approximate two-fifths basis with CRLS. This will enable WCLS to provide quicker service to some clients.
The success of WCLS is partly due to the program’s location (the Weld County Courthouse), the size of the community, and the frequent and personal nature of the requests for help. WCLS has the strong support and cooperation of the judiciary and very professional courthouse staff, which refer both prospective clients and new attorneys to WCLS.
The courthouse location makes WCLS a visible reminder to passing attorneys of their pro bono obligation and facilitates chance meetings with the WCLS administrator for pro bono assignments. In addition, the legal community is small enough that people know each other. Attorneys are personally and frequently called. Follow-up requests are made with a view to involving as many attorneys as possible in the program, in as many ways as possible. If it is true that attorneys do not volunteer if they are not asked, then frequent asking is one of the reasons for WCLS’s success.
We publicly acknowledge participating attorneys in The Greeley Tribune, The Colorado Lawyer, and the BarCall, the Weld County Bar Association’s newsletter. We present pro bono awards, "100-Hour" awards, attorney or law office of the year awards, and monthly thank you notes are sent by WCLS board members.
A successful pro bono program servicing the poor is measured in large part by the regular and recurring commitment of attorneys to take pro bono cases. Why one legal community is able to generate a high rate of attorney participation and another is not is a puzzle. Delta County and Weld County give us two clues: first is the unqualified commitment of the local bar association to its pro bono program; and second is a persistent, personal, and personable appeal for help by the pro bono administrator or coordinator to all local attorneys.
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