Marie Rose was just two years old when her mother passed away. The adorable little girl had been brought to San Diego by her mother from Haiti without proper documentation. Now living in the foster care system, the federal government wanted to return Marie Rose to Haiti. A social worker contacted San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program and requested help. Marie Rose’s extremely young age, lack of any known family members in Haiti, and the poor country conditions – particularly after the devastating earthquake – would have made it virtually impossible for her to survive in Haiti.
SDVLP quickly took action by successfully applying for temporary protective status on behalf of Marie Rose and obtaining a green card based on her special immigrant juvenile status. With this status, Marie Rose’s deportation case will be closed, and she will be able to remain permanently and safely in the United with a caring family.
Marie Rose’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. She is just one of the 5,000 individuals that SDVLP helps each year through difficult, often tragic, situations that require the special skills and care only an attorney can provide. SDVLP is often the only place these special clients can turn. Without the volunteer efforts of more than 300 private practice attorneys each year, Marie Rose and the many others like her would go without help.
Some in the legal industry believe that it is a lawyer’s ethical responsibility to provide pro bono assistance. Others do it as a way to give back to the community. Still others do it for pure enjoyment and the special feeling of knowing they are making a difference.
“My first pro bono case was one regarding financial elder abuse/identity theft in which I assumed representation of an 82-year old victim who was facing potential eviction,” states Andrew Kessler, an associate with Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch and SDVLP’s 2011 Attorney of the Year. “Although the case took some time and required learning a new area of the law, it was simple to do. More importantly, my reward, in the form of the client’s heartfelt appreciation, is something I will never forget. “
Founded in 1983, SDVLP is the largest provider of pro bono legal services in San Diego. Unlike other local free legal service providers whose good works are done primarily by staff attorneys, SDVLP is based upon a volunteer model. According to Amy Fitzpatrick, SDVLP’s executive director, “Volunteers are the heart of our organization. We simply could not exist without the local attorneys who come forward and give of their time.”
Each year, SDVLP provides legal services valued at $5.5 million, all at no charge to clients. Amazingly, this is done with a budget of just $1.5 million that covers a staff of 21 at SDVLP’s four locations throughout the county. Volunteers provide the $4 million difference.
One such volunteer attorney made a significant, life-long difference in the life of 12-year old Katie. After coming to SDVLP’s walk-in Guardianship Clinic, Katie’s brother, Brian, and his wife, were introduced to volunteer lawyer Rebecca Levine, who was assigned to help. The couple was seeking custody of Katie, who had been living with them since her mother attempted to set fire to their house while under the influence of alcohol. Katie’s father was unwilling to care for her, and, due to her mother’s alcoholism, it was not safe for Katie to remain in her mother’s care. San Diego County’s Child Welfare Services indicated that if Katie was returned to the mother, CWS would have to put Katie into foster care. After months of contested court proceedings, Brian and his wife were awarded custody and Katie is now in a stable home where she is happy and safe. On her last report card, she received straight A’s.
SDVLP has two Guardianship Clinics, one located in downtown San Diego and the other in Vista. Each year, the clinics assist hundreds of relatives and non-relative caretakers in obtaining legal guardianship of children in their care. Both clinics have walk-in hours each week during which a SDVLP staff member greets them and learns more about their situation. From there, the case is assigned to a volunteer, assuming the client meets SDVLP’s financial eligibility requirements. Because there is no charge for any of SDVLP’s services, potential clients are carefully screened.
SDVLP sponsors a variety of other clinics and provides a broad range of services in addition to guardianship law, including domestic violence prevention, family law, AIDS law, immigration law, children & youth law, class action and impact cases, elder law, services to the homeless and support to non-profit organizations.
“SDVLP gives attorneys the opportunity to provide services in an area of interest to them, even if they have no experience in that particular area,” states Fitzpatrick. “We have IP attorneys doing impact litigation and real estate lawyers assisting domestic violence victims. All that is required is the desire to help.”
The organization provides training for lawyers and staff support, as needed. Volunteers can donate as little as three hours a month. Many provide hundreds of hours per year. In 2011, SDVLP awarded 65 Distinguished Service Awards to volunteers who gave 150 hours or more and 147 Wiley Manuel Awards to those who donated 50 hours or more.
Lawyers aren’t the only ones who support SDVLP through volunteerism. Many of the award honorees were law students who find the experience of working with SDVLP not only rewarding but a tremendous opportunity to develop legal skills and experience. Students from the local law schools of USD, California Western and Thomas Jefferson regularly participate in clinics and work with clients.
“We understand that not all attorneys can give of their time…some practices are busier than others,” says Fitzpatrick. “We always welcome and appreciate financial support from individuals and law firms. Without the generosity of the local bar, we’d be hard pressed to make our budget each year.”
SDVLP is also recognized for holding one of the most creative and unique fundraisers in San Diego: LAF-Off (Lawyers are Funny). A comedy competition held each year in the spring, LAF-Off features young and seasoned lawyers pontificating on the amusing side of practicing law and life as a lawyer. A panel of distinguished judges and former LAF-Off participants crown the winner. “We’re told by judges and lawyers alike that it is a yearly event not to be missed,” says Fitzpatrick. All proceeds from LAF-Off go toward supporting the nonprofit.
For more information about San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, please visit www.sdvlp.org.
About the Author: Teresa Warren, President of TW2 Marketing, Inc.