'One billable hour' was packed with information for Legal Aid supporters



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Legal Aid of Western Michigan’s Board President Paul Vlachos promised at the beginning of the fund-raising “One Billable Hour” luncheon that the program would wrap up within sixty minutes, and he kept his promise.

But not before those in attendance were treated to presentations jam-packed with several types of significant information.

From beginning to end, Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM) supporters were given facts and a few statistics, thoughtful advice on how to help people who need assistance, and an understanding of just how Legal Aid makes a difference.

Executive Director Juan Salazar referred to a statistic that he said “startled” him when he read it: from 2000 to 2013, the number of those qualified to receive legal assistance had gone up 53%.

Vlachos had talked about the dire prospect that the national Legal Services Corporation, which provides about half of LAWM’s funding, since that is the budget recommendation of President Trump. Although Salazar emphasized that legal aid has some very strong champions in Congress, he acknowledged his hope that if that happens, funding will come from other sources, since the Western Michigan office already has to turn many away.

“The challenge to everybody here is that when you talk to individuals about civil legal aid, they think that it’s the law that if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. But that’s only true in criminal cases, so we need to keep making the point that we need to continue raising funds for civil cases, which can ruin a person’s life in many ways.,” Salazar said.

He introduced two people who gave testimonials about the assistance  they had received from Legal Aid of Western Michigan, which has five offices — the Grand Rapids office has just completed a move to 25 S. Division  after so many years in the 89 Ionia space — and over 30 attorneys.

The first speaker was a court-appointed guardian, who, when a man he was serving was evicted from his independent living home, heard that John Smith of the Grand Rapids office might be a perfect choice to help.

Indeed, Smith helped in so many ways, only some of which were necessitated by the legal case, the speaker said.
Smith lunched with the man facing eviction, advised them both on the court process and likely outcomes, and, when they realized the court was likely to allow the eviction and decided to place the man in an Adult Foster Care home, Smith even helped the man move using his own truck.   Fortunately, the speaker said, the new AFC home placement was exceptional.

“John Smith was wonderful, guiding us through what could have been a tragedy, and I have no idea where we would be without his help,” the speaker said.

The second speaker, who worked with Rebecca Shermak out of the Kalamazoo office, had turned her life around after a period of substance abuse, getting first her bachelor’s and then her master’s in social work.

However, the law dictated that her prior conviction for a felony prevented her from working in the job capacity she sought, and was offered.

Shermak and Legal Aid were successful in having her conviction expunged. “When I first met with Rebecca, I?knew she’d help. She listened to me, she believed in me. I cried and she handed me tissues. She did a lot of work that went above and beyond and last January my felony conviction was set aside,” she said.

After that, attorney Elizabeth Welch introduced the high-profile keynote speaker (and her long-time friend), Jocelyn Benson.

Benson, who has been profiled in the Grand Rapids Legal News in the past, said she went to law school to work for protection of voting rights. She always intended to be a public service lawyer, starting out at Southern Poverty Law Center, moving to the Damon Keith Center, being named the dean of Wayne State University Law School (at 36, the youngest woman ever to lead a U.S. law school), and now acting as director of both the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) and the Levin Center at Wayne State.

To ensure people seek public interest careers like those who dedicate themselves to LAWM and legal aid, Benson said, attorneys should: donate to scholarship funds so that graduates are not faced with debt that would preclude taking a public interest position; mentor and work through the schools so students know what is entailed with such work or with pro bono; and support the public interest clinics at their alma maters so students have a taste of how rewarding it is.

“Our legal industry must serve the public now more than ever, and use our legal understanding — our legal authority — to serve those who have  great need,” Benson said.

Those who wish to donate to LAWM or volunteer their time for pro bono work may visit the newly-redone website, www.lawestmi.org.