Vol. 30, No. 9
Access to Justice
Pro Bono and Paralegals: Helping to Make a Difference
by Janet M. Price
Beginning with the September 2001 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, the "Legal Services News" and "Pro Bono Success Stories" are being consolidated into a single column under the title "Access To Justice" and will be printed six times per calendar year. People interested in contributing an article should contact Jo Ann Viola Salazar, (303) 824-5310 or (800) 332-6736; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Very few burdens are heavy if everyone lifts.
Sy Wise, Bits & Pieces Magazine, December 1999
It is a fact that justice is not equally accessible by all members of society. Although there are many pro bono programs throughout Colorado, a significant segment of the population is still faced with unmet legal needs. Fortunately, a growing number of paralegals are actively participating in meeting the needs of individuals for whom legal resources are not immediately available.
Paralegals and the Legal Profession
Paralegals are specially trained professionals who are generally identified throughout the legal field as being integral members of the legal workforce. In acknowledging the benefits that paralegals provide to the legal profession, the American Bar Association House of Delegates adopted the following definition of a paralegal at its August 1997 annual meeting: "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."1
Increasingly, lawyers and clients are experiencing first-hand the benefits of paralegal services. While these benefits may be familiar in a traditional law office or corporate legal setting, they are not always apparent in the pro bono arena. In recent years, the presence of paralegals in the pro bono sector of the legal profession has shattered the traditional image of pro bono services being projects for attorneys alone. Paralegals themselves are gaining confidence in their skills and education such that, combined with the efforts of volunteer attorneys, a wider range of pro bono services is becoming available to larger groups of individuals in need of legal services.
Paralegals Assisting in Pro Bono Services
Across America, paralegals are moving into the pro bono arena and assisting attorneys with pro bono work. These services are being provided on community and professional levels.
In Colorado, paralegals are assuming a pro-active role in providing legal services on a community level. Usually, pro bono services are provided through state and local bar associations and legal clinics. Sometimes, a paralegal recognizes an unmet need in a community and determines a viable way to meet the need.
Colorado’s "Wills on Wheels," a program sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association, is the answer to one such unmet need. Wills on Wheels was established in 1986 by a committee of paralegals and consulting attorneys determined to provide, at no cost, qualifying low-income adults with simple wills and living wills. Wills on Wheels projects generally are concentrated in places such as nursing homes, subsidized housing projects, and hospices. Paralegals work with housing administrators or resident councils to identify qualifying participants. The paralegals then meet with the participants and collect the information necessary for the preparation of a will or living will. The paralegal drafts the will and submits it to an attorney for review and approval. Once the document is approved, the attorney meets with the participant to answer any questions and provide legal advice. The will or living will is then executed, with paralegals available to act as witnesses and notaries.
Another example of paralegals supporting pro bono services is the assistance they provide to the Faculty of Federal Advocates ("Faculty"). The Faculty is a group of attorneys seeking to improve the quality of justice in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The Faculty’s mentoring program pairs attorneys who have federal court experience with less experienced attorneys. Together, the pair provides pro bono services to qualifying pro se litigants. Volunteer paralegals lend their skills to the team by summarizing the pro se cases before they are assigned to a team of attorneys.
The legal support services provided by paralegals are constructive and vital on community and professional levels. Paralegals can assist with pro bono projects and help to identify and work toward resolving unmet legal needs.
By law, paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice. However, that does not mean that their legal knowledge cannot be used in pro bono legal services. Just as they do in a traditional law firm setting, paralegals can assist attorneys who take on pro bono cases. Also, valuable support is available in the form of courtroom assistance for attorneys who have not been in a courtroom for several years. Paralegals can lessen the time attorneys need to spend on pro bono cases by doing research and drafting pleadings. They can communicate with pro bono clients on a personal level, thus freeing time for attorneys to focus on technical, legal concerns. Paralegals are an invaluable resource when it comes to delivering pro bono services.
1. Found at ABA website: www.abanet.org/legalassts/def98.html.
Janet M. Price, co-chair of the CBA Paralegal Committee and the Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association Pro Bono Section, is a paralegal with the Denver law firm of Markusson, Green & Jarvis, (303) 572-4281; e-mail: price@mgjlaw. com.
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