March 28, 2011 — The University of Virginia School of Law recently received a $150,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to develop a partnership that will help meet the growing legal needs of low-income residents of Central Virginia.
The Access to Justice Partnership is expected eventually to yield pro bono services from approximately 75 private-sector attorneys and 75 law students each year, with help from the local bar, the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
"We were looking for a way to deal with decreases in funding for legal services, a need for more supervised pro bono projects for the law students, and, of course, rising client needs as the economic downturn worsened," said Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest at the Law School. Emery worked on the grant application with Alex Gulotta, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. "We really wanted to pull in the local bar and the private-sector lawyers."
The partnership will focus on legal issues such as unemployment, housing, public benefits and family law – areas where there is strong demand for services as a result of the economic downturn.
"We're really trying to target this toward the new working-poor folks that have not had contact with the local legal aid world in the past, but now need our services more than ever," Gulotta said. "We're seeing increased numbers of unemployment insurance claims, home foreclosures, evictions and other things that are a result of the recession."
Rhonda Quagliana, president of the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association and a 1995 graduate of the U.Va. Law School, said the partnership will enhance the bar's strong commitment to pro bono services.
"Providing pro bono services to the community fulfills a basic moral obligation we have as lawyers. It also fulfills a practical need," she said. "The partnership offers exciting possibilities for matching law students with pro bono attorneys to meet the needs of lower-income families, especially those working families suffering the ill effects of the recession."
Legal aid attorneys will train private-sector attorney volunteers and law students involved in the program. The attorneys will supervise pairs of law student volunteers two to three afternoons a week, starting with an initial launch of 25 to 35 students in the fall. Students must apply for the program and commit to volunteering for a year.
"Our students are great – they clamor to do this pro bono work," Emery said. "They'll have the chance to interact with low-income clients and learn client interviewing skills. Depending on what type of case they get, they'll be doing legal research and writing, helping the lawyers draft case documents ¬– probably for the follow-up meetings with the clients, possibly going to court."
Students may participate in administrative hearings for unemployment benefits or participate in court proceedings if they have a third-year practice certificate.
"We may also attach a non-credit-granting seminar dealing with some basic poverty law issues so that they have thorough grounding before they start meeting some of these clients," Emery said.
The grant funds will support the legal aid office's support and training. "A lot of the coordination and intake effort is going to be coming out of legal aid," Emery said.
Emery said both students and private-sector attorneys will benefit from helping those in need.
"It's a really interesting opportunity to see how these kinds of collaborations can work best," she said. "With the continued cutbacks in state funding to legal aid, to the extent that the private sector is another resource that can be leveraged, it's incredibly needed right now."