Local lawyers raise the pro bono bar

by Michael Chielens
Legal Aid of West Michigan

Since 1958, May 1st has been designated as Law Day.

To those in the legal profession it is a day to celebrate the importance of the law in our democratic way of life, to appreciate the liberty we have as part of this great nation, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of justice and equality.

Outside of the legal community, May 1st is merely another day on the calendar.

Just as unnoticed are the attorneys and law firms who contribute so much time and money to help make our community a better place to live. In legal circles it is called pro bono (the Latin phrase is pro bono publico which means “for the public good”). It is helping someone who cannot afford to pay for your services, knowing in advance, that you will not receive one thin dime for the help you are going to provide to that person.

Generally, the only time lawyers are in the news is when they have done something wrong. And, most of us cannot count the number of lawyer jokes we have had to suffer through. However, when it comes right down to it, the much-maligned legal profession is likely the most giving profession as well. The reasons for doing pro bono work are as varied as the lawyers themselves. Some do it because they believe it is an ethical obligation as part of being a member of the bar. Others want to give back to the community which has afforded them a comfortable way of life. Still others do it to help level the playing field, to right wrongs, to fight injustices. Or, perhaps it is because they know they are the only ones who can provide what is needed - the ability to practice law. No other profession can provide what lawyers do for the poor members of our community. The reasons for their doing the pro bono work are not as important as the results they help achieve by doing so.

The private bar helps supplement Legal Aid’s efforts in areas of high demand such as family law. It also provides access to expertise in areas of law which are not within Legal Aid’s normal province.

The following stories are examples of the wonderful work being done by pro bono attorneys:

Client’s husband died of a heart attack during a series of tornados which swept through their area. Her husband had mortgage credit life insurance. When the client filed a claim it was denied. The insurer told the client that her husband failed to reveal his heart condition on his application so it was a pre-existing condition. The client worked part-time making $6/hour and could not make the mortgage payments on what she earned.

Her case was referred to an attorney in her area who handled these types of cases. After negotiations failed to resolve the situation, the attorney filed a lawsuit. She got a local doctor, who had previously treated the husband, to testify that he had had no prior heart problems. The insurer settled the case and the client was able to keep her home.

A 73-year-old widowed woman who needed a new roof went to the City of Grand Rapids for a rehabilitation loan. The City informed her that the title to the house was not in her name so she could not get the loan. The woman and her husband had paid off their land contract shortly before his death in 1981, but never got a deed. They had always made their payments to the parents of the vendors who lived out of state. By the time the widow came in, the parents to whom they had made their payments had both died. She had no way of knowing where the vendors lived. The case was referred to a pro bono attorney who was able to track down the vendors and obtain a deed from them. The client was able to get her loan and get her roof repaired.

Each year, hundreds of poor individuals, families and seniors, are helped in similar fashion by the generous and thankless efforts of the private bar.
In 2010, members of the West Michigan bar (individuals and firms) contributed over 5,200 hours of free legal time to help people like those in the stories above. If billed at normal hourly rates, that would amount to well over $1,100,000 in legal fees. In addition, local firms and individuals made monetary contributions of over $280,000 to help Legal Aid with its day-to-day operations.

We can all be very proud of the great work being done by local attorneys to ensure that our system of justice really is available to everyone.

For more information visit http://www.legalaidwestmich.org.