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Oklahoma Lawyers Making Equal Justice for all a Reality

Partner Profile: Margaret Shinn, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma

Monday, December 15, 2008

  • By: Pam Weisz
  • Organization: ProBono.Net

When a Tulsa, Oklahoma clinic offering legal help to the elderly shut down about a year ago, it hardly seemed like a positive development. Yet it proved to be the catalyst for an award-winning collaboration between Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma (LASO), The Williams Companies, Inc. and Tulsa law firm Hall Estill.

Lawyers from Williams, a Tulsa-based energy company, had contacted LASO about getting involved in pro bono work. When the clinic closed, LASO saw an opportunity to provide Williams' attorneys with a manageable and rewarding project. Williams reached out to Hall Estill to bring additional attorneys on board, and the partnership took off. Last month, the project received the 2008 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award from the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Pro Bono Institute.

LASO used technology as a key element to help the project get off the ground, according to Margaret Shinn, Community Education and Pro Se Coordinator, who manages the Probono.net/OK site. Simply put, "the website provides a way to make resources available," Margaret said. Volunteers can access videotaped trainings as well as other materials such as practice manuals, research and case law references. The project also makes use of Pro Bono Net's National Document Assembly project, which gives volunteers access to interactive online forms for preparing wills, powers of attorney and advance medical directives.

The partnership with Williams and Hall Estill also includes an initiative to provide guardians ad litem, something that non-lawyers such as paralegals can participate in, and recently expanded to encompass garnishment exemption claims.

The corporate attorneys, while nervous at first, find the work incredibly rewarding, said Craig Rainey, Assistant General Counsel at Williams. "I think virtually every case we have taken has resulted in the lawyer or paralegal getting a hug from the client at the end," he said. "To get that sort of feedback is just very emotional and not something we get from our regular clients." The ability to access online support materials has been extremely helpful, he added. "The most important thing is its ability to help sustain the program by making it easy to bring in people who didn't volunteer initially."

LASO has a long track record of using technology to increase its reach and provide resources for pro bono attorneys. The organization recruits pro bono volunteers primarily through free CLE seminars it provides twice a year. These are videotaped and posted on probono.net/OK, where they are available on the desktop to anyone who registers with the site. "It's far less cumbersome than trying to gather everybody together," Margaret said.

In addition to being used for the elder law project, document assembly templates are available for family law matters such as dissolution of marriage and child support. The site's email tools also come in handy to communicate with members given the state's rural nature.

Overall, the site "definitely makes it easier" for lawyers to volunteer, Margaret said. "People think it's great."

"It's something else that allows us to recruit attorneys and provide them with resources," adds Scott Hamilton, LASO Managing Attorney.

Probono.net/OK has close to 1,300 members - about 10% of the state's total attorney population. Pro bono participation has been steadily increasing, according to Scott. The successful partnership with Williams "allows us to expand our efforts in recruiting attorneys in corporate counsel departments," he noted.

Margaret's role in community education includes responsibility for printed materials, probono.net/OK and OKLaw.org (the state's LawHelp site). She has been at LASO for about four years, though her involvement with pro bono extends back more than 20 years, to when she began her legal career as a tax attorney. Her first pro bono case was done with Scott. "He had a really unique bankruptcy case with a tax question," she said. That case ended up going to the Court of Appeals and making law in the Tenth Circuit.

Her more recent jobs have been in public interest law, including working with the mentally ill and women in prison. "Once the 'there but for the grace of God' bug hits you…" she said.

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