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A Conversation with Shirley Williams on Volunteer Project with the Northside Sun

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Shirley Williams
By Katie Eubanks

Shirley Williams is executive director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP), a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal aid. She is the former program manager at the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts. Williams recently spoke with Sun staff writer Katie Eubanks about the mission of the MVLP, which turns 30 this year.

How did the MVLP come about?
“It was formed in 1982 as a partnership between the Mississippi Bar Association and the [federal] Legal Services Corporation (LSC), in recognition that many Mississippians of limited means do not have access to justice because they cannot afford a lawyer.”

How do people qualify for MVLP’s services?
“It’s based on the poverty population guidelines [from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. Based on those guidelines from 2009 and 2010, a household of four can’t make over $27,563 a year and qualify. That’s not much money at all. So we’re helping the poorest of the poor.
“It also depends on the type of case. We don’t handle criminal matters. There are [other] programs to help people facing criminal charges.
“Potential clients are screened by the Mississippi Center for Legal Services Corporation (MCLSC) and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS). Our clients are primarily referred from those two programs.”

This is a statewide organization, right?
“Yes. We provide services in all 82 counties in Mississippi by recruiting lawyers in the various counties. We work with the Mississippi Bar Association and visit local bar associations to recruit.
“Recruiting is the number-one thing we do. Attorneys must be active and licensed in Mississippi. We do training, and we offer legal clinics that provide great hands-on experience for attorneys. It could be a brand-new lawyer coming out of law school.
“Lawyers have a duty under state code to render pro bono legal assistance to the poor. We offer an organized way to meet that need.”

What kind of legal work do y’all do most?
“We handle adoptions, guardianships, birth certificate corrections, removal of minority, child support contempt, child support modification, wills, and divorces. Sometimes it’s a brief service like a letter to a landlord. Other times it’s a full litigation process.”

What’s removal of minority?
“Often a person is underage and living on their own, and they can’t get an apartment. Removal of minority is a legal procedure that allows them to act as an adult.
“With guardianships, often people are raising their grandkids or kids of other folks and trying to get them into school, but they don’t have the legal rights to do that. Before school starts, we have a clinic to assist them with that.”

How big is the MVLP’s caseload?
“When I started working here in 2004, the prior year they had opened 85 cases and closed 256 cases, and they’d placed 38 lawyers with clients.
“Then in 2004 we opened 1,726 cases and closed 1,162 cases, and we placed 202 cases with lawyers. We attacked the problem with both hands, both feet and everything in our being. (laughs)?I was the only staff member at that time.
“Last year we opened 2,497 cases and helped 6,830 individuals with legal matters. But that’s down from the year before because of funding cuts.
“There are 2,300 lawyers who’ve signed up over the years, and that number has grown each year.
“Right now we have about 212 lawyers actively involved in cases. I don’t know what that number will be at the end of 2012.”

How is MVLP funded?
“Our primary funding sources are grants and donations. Right now our largest grant funder is the LSC. We have traditionally received funds from Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), but that has shrunk significantly in recent years.
“We also receive funding from the Capital Area Bar Association and Jackson Young?Lawyers. Every dollar is essential.
“We did our first fund-raiser in 2010 with members of the Mississippi Bar. That campaign was called ‘Advancing Justice, Restoring Hope.’ Last year we exceeded our goal of $75,000.”

Are there any MVLP clinics coming up soon?
“We’re about to have a few clinics under the heading of ‘Know Your Rights.’ These will be held at the Hinds Community College campus in Jackson.
“One is called ‘Employee Discrimination and the EEOC’ and will be held June 11.
“Then on June 12, in recognition of Father’s Day, we’ll have one called ‘Dads Have Rights Too.’ That clinic will deal with visitation, child support and things that dads are often faced with.
“Before those clinics, on May 22, we’ll have a clinic called ‘Expungements 101.’ Oftentimes students are living wild in their youthful days and get something on their record that prevents them from nursing school or other opportunities.
“And we’ll have volunteer lawyers at these clinics to answer any questions people might have.”

How will y’all celebrate MVLP’s 30th year?
“We’re planning an entire month of activities in October, with programs to recognize the pro bono work that attorneys do, making a difference in the lives of so many people.
“We can’t thank them enough, really.”

Is there a hotline people can call to get patched through to MVLP or other legal aid?
“The statewide legal help line is 800-498-1804. You can call from anywhere in?Mississippi, Monday through Thursday, 9:30 to 3:30. They will get you where you need to go.”


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