Public Service Voices
Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education
By Laurie Davenport
Running a pro bono program is probably the last thing I figured I'd be doing in 2002 at age 56 – and here I am in 2010, looking forward with anticipation to another year of a challenging and infinitely varied job. As I look back at the last few years, I realize that being here isn't at all unlikely, rather a natural consequence of everything I've done in my life up to this point.
That 'everything' list doesn't include going to law school, although I did spend 10 years working in law schools (UW and Seattle U) in computer and technology support, and prior to that 15 years in private law firms, moving from word processing to computer support to network administration as the world embraced personal computers, local area networks, and finally the Internet. My own higher education experience wouldn't have predicted a career in tech support either – although I discovered while working at UW Law School through the then-new medium of e-mail discussion lists that many of my law school computing colleagues across the country also had degrees in music. My background in the arts following college included learning how to write successful grants; incorporate and run an arts nonprofit; produce a concert, publicize it and get an audience; use computer graphics programs; produce CD's; create and manage a website, and many other skills which, as you might guess, would transfer well to what I'm doing right now for the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
So back to the Tacoma pro bono program….between 2002 and 2010 we've moved from helping 200 clients annually to opening more than 2,000 cases per year, from one clinical advice program to seven. We have developed family law and landlord-tenant information published on the program's website (www.tacomaprobono.org) which last year was viewed by more than 500,000 people. Our budget has quadrupled, as has the number of active volunteers working through our program. We've moved from a too-small-for-more-than-one-person subterranean room to a 4-office suite co-located with the Tacoma offices of our legal services colleagues Northwest Justice Project and TeamChild.
I learned through that development process that getting something done in this kind of work requires a surprisingly wide variety of skills and human experience, along with the ability to wear many hats at all times. What distinguished this particular job for me from other positions with similar challenges, though, was realizing a deep need to find the best and most powerful things in myself and use them to make the program better, because – literally -- the lives of so many people depended upon us.
The need for civil legal services for people who couldn't afford to hire an attorney was something I'd been peripherally aware of while working in law firms and law schools. I knew there was government-supported legal aid out there. I knew there were accessible personal injury firms dedicated to recovering damages for regular people who had been harmed by corporate crimes and professional negligence. I supported clinical programs in the law schools, where I first saw the great need for help with family and immigration issues. I learned about inspiring programs like the Innocence Project and Defender Association, patiently and passionately working to find real justice in the criminal justice system. What I didn't know was that the existing civil legal aid system was to be dismantled during the 1990's, while the need for services – and the complexity of laws and procedures – continued to increase. I came face-to-face with that disaster when I took this job.
The need is overwhelming. The Civil Legal Needs Study done for the Supreme Court in 2006 told us that 85% of low-income people who need help with civil legal issues affecting basic human needs don't get any help at all.
People who need and don't get help will live with the consequences, which can far too easily become life or death situations – returning to an abusive relationship because you don't have the money to get a divorce; becoming homeless because you lose your job, can't pay the rent, can't get help to respond to an eviction summons and can't rent another place because of the eviction on your record; losing your driver's license and ability to find a job because you were laid off, owe back child support and don't know how to get it modified; etc., etc. Perhaps the reason being confronted with this kind of reality is so crushing, is the quickly reached understanding that these things could easily happen to ME – and to anyone who doesn't have the resources to find a way to negotiate a civil legal system which does not reach out to help those who are drawn into it, but in fact maintains a protective and inscrutable public face. Many years ago, my family was named a defendant in a civil lawsuit over a property issue in Seattle (in which we eventually prevailed pro se). I will never forget the clerk in the King County Courthouse, when I asked him into which unlabeled box on the counter I should put my paperwork, saying, "I can't give legal advice." Legal advice? I just want to know which one is the 'in' box! As I learned later, that answer, if given, would have been legal advice. Something as simple as knowing where to go in the courthouse and who to call for help may be all the 'legal advice' someone working through a civil case on their own may need to move confidently from one step to the next.
Pierce County is a rich place to find work for pro bono volunteers; it has urban problems, rural problems, high poverty population, high population of recent immigrants, large military and veteran population, and severe public transportation issues. The county also has a good-sized, collegial bar with a high percentage of members willing to volunteer. Our pro bono program's work is simply to find as many ways as possible to get the most volunteers involved in giving the best kind of help to the most people. We are privileged to work with an incredibly dedicated, flexible and professional group of volunteers, and we welcome more attorneys, new and old, to the pro bono program every year. However, because there will always be more people in need of help than there are volunteers, we have a continuing need to find more ways to reach out to give people basic information.
How do we reach out to people? And if we can't give them all representation with their own pro bono attorney, what else can we do to help them get through the maze successfully on their own? In answering these questions, I was compelled to bring in everything I was – not just my legal, office and technical experience – to do this better. I began to use my ability as an artist and computer graphic skills to create anything and everything we needed, from information brochures to posters to a website to -- ? – to attract volunteers, get information out to people who needed it, and help with fundraising. I knew that people respond not only to printed and spoken words, but probably even more strongly to shapes and colors, and that if we made materials that were attractive they could draw people in and make them feel confidence in our program.
My belief that this would work has been borne out by experience. All our print and online materials have been revised every year and continue to be sought out and requested. Most importantly, they are effective in getting people to the right place for the right kind of help. The most moving comment I have heard was from one of our Family Law Facilitators, talking about a Family Law Resource Brochure created several years ago through our program's Coordinated Family Law Project, which outlines all the resources available in Pierce County for free and low-cost family law help. The brochure is a little larger than normal and uses strong, warm reds, oranges and golds in its design. She said, "I love to give people this brochure – the colors just make them feel good, and they're not so frightened about what they have to do."
Burnout and high turnover come with the territory in this job. Anyone faced daily with human anguish about which they can sometimes do nothing and most often not enough, will either choose another path or find their feet and keep walking. For me, landing in this unexpected place has allowed me to use my unique background and skills to develop and support a program which helps people get through rough times in their lives with dignity. I don't think anyone could ask for more.