In most people’s lives there will come a time when the services of a lawyer are needed. Whether it’s a divorce, a dispute with a landlord, the drafting of a will, or some other legal matter, many in our community could benefit from a lawyer’s counsel and assistance.
Throughout Central Virginia, there are many exceptional lawyers who are able and willing to handle a wide array of legal matters, from the very complicated to the relatively routine. However, access to legal services is often limited to those who can afford it.
While the fees charged by lawyers vary—often depending on the nature of the particular legal matter and the experience and expertise of the lawyer—legal services can be, and often are, expensive. Many of our friends, neighbors, co-workers and employees are simply unable to afford today’s cost of competent and effective legal representation. The stress and uncertainty that comes with legal problems, along with the financial inability to adequately address them, affects family finances, relationships, work productivity and overall quality of life. In extreme cases, legal problems sometimes result in homelessness, domestic violence or other societal ills.
Fortunately, here in Central Virginia, the Virginia Legal Aid Society (VLAS), a non-profit organization that is one of nine regional Legal Aid programs operating in Virginia, exists to assist low-income individuals with many of their legal problems. The VLAS, which also provides services in the Southside and Western Tidewater regions, employs some extremely talented and dedicated attorneys and staff whose mission is providing high-quality legal services, while also promoting economic and family stability, working to reduce poverty through effective legal assistance and championing equal justice.
While the attorneys and staff of the VLAS are talented and dedicated, they operate on a limited budget, and the legal needs of our community far exceed their resources. To help address this disparity between budget and need, the VLAS often turns to local attorneys who volunteer their services on a pro bono basis. These attorneys range from recent law school graduates to seasoned attorneys with many years of experience, from solo practitioners to members of large firms, from trial lawyers who spend almost every day in court to business lawyers who almost never go to court. In other words, they include a large percentage of the local bar. The common thread among these volunteer attorneys is their desire to help their neighbors and their belief that access to justice should not be limited to those with means.
Central Virginia is fortunate that the legal community has a long-established culture of providing pro bono legal services to those who cannot otherwise afford them. One attorney who works for a local mid-size firm, and who frequently accepts referrals from the VLAS, commented that pro bono service was encouraged by his firm from the moment he was hired. Many of the local volunteer attorneys have provided pro bono services for decades.
The fact that the Central Virginia legal community has such a culture of pro bono service is no accident. Rather, it developed over many years with the encouragement of past and present local bar leaders, the example set by many of the area’s preeminent lawyers (some of whom are no longer with us) and the cultivation by the leaders and staff of the VLAS, including its current director, David Neumeyer.
The benefits of these pro bono services are many. The primary benefit is the services themselves; people who would not otherwise be capable of hiring a lawyer are able to do so at no cost. But the volunteer attorneys also benefit. Many are able to experience areas of the law that are not a normal part of their practice. Recent law school graduates sometimes discover talents or interests in areas of the law to which they might not otherwise have been exposed. And almost all of the volunteer attorneys experience the satisfactions of assisting people who are often in stressful and uncertain situations. In fact, for one local attorney who has practiced law for almost 20 years, his most rewarding case was one referred to him by the VLAS and for which he was paid nothing.
The legal matters handled by Legal Aid Societies and the pro bono attorney network also benefit the local and state economy. A 2011 economic impact report prepared for the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia by Kenneth A. Smith, Ph.D., and Andrea J. Brewer, M.A., of The Resource for Great Programs, Inc. found that Legal Aid’s work returns to our communities at least $5.27 for every dollar of support. And according to the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, this amount “does not capture hard-to-quantify benefits such as savings to banks and investors from foreclosures averted, improved efficiencies in the courts, and payment of health-care providers who otherwise would have had to write off Legal Aid clients as indigents.”
Despite the work of the VLAS and its network of pro bono attorneys—which is valuable and important work—there is still a long way to go to ensure that high-quality legal services are available to everyone in Central Virginia who need them. If you are an attorney, please consider volunteering to be a part of the pro bono network of attorneys that accept referrals from the VLAS.
Pro bono work, however, cannot be a substitute for an appropriately funded legal aid system; it can only complement it. Thus, if you are not an attorney (and even if you are), you can assist by providing much-needed financial support to the VLAS. Together, we can all help the VLAS fully realize its mission of providing high-quality legal services, while also promoting economic and family stability, working to reduce poverty through effective legal assistance and championing equal justice. In the end, we all benefit. To learn more about VLAS, donate your time, or invest in legal aid in Lynchburg, visit vlas.org.
By Fred Watson