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Pro Bono Spotlight February 2004

Three years ago, representatives from Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA), the Allegheny County Bar Foundation and the law departments of four of the largest corporations in Allegheny County (USS Corporation, Alcoa, Inc, H.J. Heinz Company and PPG Industries, Inc.) joined forces to form an organization with the goal of increasing pro bono work in the Pittsburgh area. That organization, the Pro Bono Partnership (Partnership), so far has recruited over 25 member law firms and law departments.

At its third annual meeting in May 2003, the Partnership kicked off a new initiative, re-emphasizing the need for lawyers to consider their pro bono commitments in terms of the legal problems of the poor and disadvantaged members of the community. At the same time, the Partnership challenged its members to team with other firms or law departments to find creative new ways to meet those needs.

Three members who rose to this challenge are Klett, Rooney, Lieber and Schorling P.C.; the law department of Alcoa Corporation; and Council and Ford. Sixteen attorneys from Klett, Rooney and four attorneys from Alcoa are staffing a twice-monthly legal clinic in McKees Rocks. Sheila Ford agreed to participate in this project by taking one or two referrals a month from the clinic on a pro bono basis.

The idea for the community clinic first was raised by Ronald W. Crouch, a member of the Partnership board and chair of the Allegheny County Bar Association Public Service Committee. In researching the need for such a project, the Partnership became aware that Focus on Renewal (F.O.R.), a nonprofit organization serving community needs in the McKees Rocks area for over 30 years, had just lost the volunteer services of a private attorney. Rev. Regis Ryan, director of F.O.R., welcomed this Partnership initiative and provided critical input in the development of the clinic.

After four months of planning, the clinic opened for its first session on Sept. 16, 2003. Since then, two lawyers have met with and assisted six to 10 clients at F.O.R. every other Tuesday evening. Peter J. Ennis of Klett, Rooney said that the clinic has given the lawyers who are participating “an opportunity to address interesting and challenging issues on behalf of clients who have a strong need for legal representation, but would not be able to afford it were it not for our services.”

Ennis, who helped organize the McKees Rocks clinic, said when asked why he got involved with the project, “It was a particular need identified by the Partnership, and I thought it was a good opportunity for many people in the firm to work together for the community.”

He said he is personally committed to pro bono work because he “think[s] all lawyers share a responsibility to help those in need who cannot afford a lawyer. It also gives me personal satisfaction to give back to my community.”

For those looking for advice on getting involved with pro bono work, Ennis says, “Don’t be afraid. The time commitment is not great. You may think you are not an ‘expert’ in the field, but you would be surprised how easy it is to pick things up, or get help from other people.”

It was not surprising to the staff at NLSA that lawyers from Klett, Rooney and Alcoa stepped forward to meet this challenge. NLSA has long benefited from the pro bono efforts of individual lawyers at both of these organizations. Lawyers from Klett, Rooney have volunteered at the NLSA Debt Advice Clinic and have taken referrals in bankruptcy, landlord-tenant and defense litigation cases. ALCOA, one of the founding members of the Partnership, has established a PFA team to handle protection from abuse cases for NLSA. Lawyers from both organizations have made financial contributions and Alcoa has contributed to NLSA through the Alcoa Foundation.

What is now happening through the efforts of the Pro Bono Partnership is the expansion of the legal community’s ability to aid low-income families and individuals through community-wide and issue-oriented projects as well as through traditional individual volunteer work. The combination of these two approaches is needed if the poor truly are to have equal access to justice. The members of the Partnership are proving that this goal can be achieved.

The Partnership Board just emerged from a strategic planning session, at which plans for additional projects were laid out. These include discussions about the opening of another community clinic, establishing a conflicts panel for NLSA and exploring the possibility of setting up an advisory panel to assist qualifying small and minority businesses with legal advice.

If you want to learn more about the Pro Bono Partnership or how you can get involved in pro bono work individually, contact Gary Pollock, director of the Allegheny County Bar Foundation, at 412-402-6640 or gpollock@acba.org or Barbara Kern at 412-255-6700, Ext. 449, or kernb@nlsa.us.