Legal Aid struggles to place cases with lawyers in rural areas
Monday, September 27, 2010
- Organization: NC Lawyers Weekly
Officials from Legal Aid of North Carolina are quick to praise the state’s attorneys for providing pro bono representation to their clients.
But the staffers who spend each day recruiting private attorneys to lower LANC’s ballooning case load say the need for relief remains great - and unmet - especially in the state’s rural areas.
More than 20 percent of North Carolina’s population qualifies for civil legal aid, according to statistics from the Equal Justice Alliance.
However, LANC can provide only one staff attorney to serve approximately 19,000 eligible clients.
“There’s always an overload here. We’ve got nine attorneys and a potential client base of at least 50,000 right now in Wake County,” said Celia Mansaray, the private attorney involvement coordinator in LANC’s Raleigh office.
Mansaray, along with 24 PAI coordinators in LANC offices across the state, is responsible for enlisting private attorneys to accept some of the agency’s pro bono cases.
It’s a requirement set forth by Legal Services Corporation, the nonprofit organization that provided $10.46 million in funding to LANC this year.
LSC requires LANC to spend 12.5 percent of that money on activities to enhance the involvement of private attorneys in their work.
That’s where PAI coordinators step in. They maintain a roster of lawyers willing to donate time to LANC clients pro bono.
When a case comes in, the coordinator refers to the roster to find attorneys who have indicated an interest or expertise in a certain area, such as domestic violence or expungements.
In urban areas like Wake County, finding volunteers is less of a problem than in other locations in the state. Mansaray has about 300 attorneys she can call upon when a case arrives on her desk.
But PAI coordinator Becki Lowder, who covers a mixed urban-rural area encompassing Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties, said she often gets stuck because there aren’t enough local lawyers to meet the need.
“You run into conflicts. The opposing party will have already had a consultation with an attorney in your pool,” Lowder said.
That means that some cases get turned away simply because the coordinators can’t find a lawyer to help them.
Active recruiting is also difficult in LANC offices where one PAI coordinator is assigned to cover multiple counties.
Renee Gabriel-Alford is the PAI coordinator for Guilford County. It’s the third-largest county in North Carolina, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
But she also has to cover five other areas, including Rockingham, Randolph, Rowan, Montgomery and Davidson counties.
Recruitment in those outlying areas is particularly difficult, Gabriel-Alford said.
“You just don’t get the kind of personal relationships with those attorneys that you need. You can’t really get out there and recruit them as much,” she said.
Yet developing those relationships with the local lawyers is crucial, the coordinators told Lawyers Weekly.
“It’s much harder to say no if there’s a face they can associate with you,” Lowder explained.
Historically, attorneys nationwide don’t have the best records when it comes to pro bono service.
Explanations for the lack of involvement are varied.
Some attorneys just don’t report the pro bono hours they do in their private firms.
And neither the N.C. State Bar nor the N.C. Bar Association keeps track of how many pro bono hours lawyers may be providing annually.
That’s not unusual. According to the American Bar Association, only seven states require mandatory pro bono reporting.
Other times, lawyers are willing to do pro bono work, but they don’t take the first step in offering their services.
A 2009 ABA study found that 77 percent of lawyers who provided pro bono representation did not seek it out themselves. Legal aid organizations had to approach them first.
The LANC coordinators have had the same experience.
Typically, the attorneys that take the initiative to contact LANC are younger or new the area, Mansaray said.
But when it comes to PAI requests, sometimes lawyers’ rejections are reasonable. They may have too much work to do when the coordinator calls.
For example, Montgomery County only has seven attorneys, Gabriel-Alford said.
“It’s not necessarily that they’re not being charitable. It’s just that they’re dividing all the work for that county among themselves, so the question is do they have time for anything additional?” she said.
The economic downturn complicated matters because law firms struggling with layoffs or who hired fewer associates were pressed to keep those attorneys generating billable income.
“When you’re asking someone to donate their wage-earning time, sometimes they’ve got to say no,” Mansaray said. “We’ve all got to put groceries on the table.”
However, PAI coordinators also come up against some philosophical walls that are harder to break down, noted Cynthia Alleman, who was named the NCBA’s 2010 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in June.
“There’s an emphasis in the legal field that success is largely defined by what you make,” Alleman told Lawyers Weekly. “I think that explains a lot in terms of attorneys who don’t give back because of the pressure that they either put themselves under - or the firms put them under - to be successful, and they define success by money,” she explained.
Sometimes PAI coordinators convince skeptical lawyers to take a case by explaining that LANC puts all of its clients through an intensive screening process before making referrals.
“It’s not necessarily a guarantee, but I think people sort of know that if they get a call from a PAI at a legal aid office, then that person’s been screened and the case is a good one,” said Mansaray. “It’s not the same as someone calling you blind and saying, ‘Can you help me for nothing?’”
Want to volunteer to provide pro bono service?
Go to Legal Aid of North Carolina's "Pro Bono Service" webpage for information on how to provide pro bono service. OR, contact the "Private Attorney Involvement (PAI) Coordinator" at your local LANC office.