Community Legal Services will help fill gaps for the indigent

At the Cooley Law School Grand Rapids campus Pro Bono Fair, co-spnsored by the State Bar of Michigan, Dustie Deville, left, and Jan Otto speak to an intersted attorney.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dustie DeVille’s version of being driven is calm and measured — but she is nonetheless driven.

She says about her experience advising indigent clients at a local legal clinic, “With some people you could just tell them the steps to solving their problems, and you could see they would do it. But some couldn’t plug them in, they looked back at you and they had that deer in the headlights look; you could tell they weren’t understanding. And my heart was really going out to them.”

So she did what many attorneys before her have wanted to do: started a non-profit to help those who fall between the cracks of existing agencies’ coverage: the newly-launched Community Legal Services (CLS).

That involved pulling together a volunteer board who shared her passion for addressing the problem. After talking with Cooley Law School Grand Rapids Campus Associate Dean Nelson Miller, who is an advisor to the project, DeVille   assembled a diverse group of people who, in addition to helping her run the organization, will devote some of their time to assisting or representing low-income and indigent clients.

The CLS board of directors includes:  Frank D. Baquero, Macey Bankruptcy Law; Christian Montesinos, Avanti Law Group; Jan M. Otto, Wrigley & Hoffman; Anna R. Rapa, Law Office of Anna R. Rapa; and Laurel A. Romanella, CHC, CPRHM, CPHQ, current student at Cooley Law School with a background in hospital administration and Managing Editor of the Cooley Law Review.

DeVille will act as the unpaid Executive Director, and has cut back working hours at her law firm, Voices for Hope PLC, in order to get the project firmly on its feet.
DeVille’s varied background should help make CLS a success.

After graduating from Western Michigan University with a degree in International and Comparative Politics — “I wanted to work for the United Nations and change the world, “ she says — DeVille realized that attending law school was likely to get her closer to her career goals. But after graduating from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in  early 1999, DeVille moved to Portland Ore., where she worked for a fairly large law firm in medical malpractice, on both the defense and plaintiff sides.

She was not very satisfied with that work, and left the legal profession for a job as Development Officer for Portland’s United Way, a position that prepared her, to whatever degree one can be prepared, for running a non-profit. “At United Way, I worked more hours and had less pay, but I definitely enjoyed it. I knew that every single day what I was doing was having a huge impact on thousands of people.”

Following that, she moved back to the Grand Rapids area and, in 2008, founded Voices for Hope. The firm, which has two additional attorneys, works in family, criminal, real estate, and immigration law. DeVille says that she has done a great deal of pro bono work through her firm over the years.

CLS will offer its services to those who are already participating in a community program or accept public or government benefits, and who have an income at or below the 200% poverty level. The intent is to take on clients who “do not qualify for other existing community legal assistance programs.” Comments DeVille, “Our goal is not to duplicate anything existing, but to handle the unmet legal needs in this area. And I think the need is huge.”

In that respect, DeVille has already spoken to Legal Aid of Western Michigan and to the Legal Assistance Center to ask for their help in getting the word out. She also says she hopes attorneys will refer cases to CLS, adding,  “That’s how we got our first case. An attorney knew one of our board members and was in the middle of representing a client pro bono when he got a job at the prosecutor’s office and had to drop it. So he asked us to step in.”

The launch of CLS at last week’s pro bono fair, sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan and held at Cooley, allowed DeVille to talk with some of the other community service agencies in the area. She intends to touch base with all of the area social service non-profits, starting with Grand Rapids, so they will know to refer clients to CLS.
CLS cannot handle criminal cases, but DeVille is still willing to pursue pro bono representation of indigent criminal defendants through Voices for Hope.

The eventual intention is for CLS to hire at least two staff attorneys who will take cases. Another goal is to set up a filing fee bank to assist those who simply have no money. “We don’t want anybody to be barred from getting the legal relief they need because they can’t pay the fees,” DeVille says.

“At this time we’re asking for a standard $15 fee for the initial consultation,” DeVille continues. “That will just help us with our expenses, and we’ll put at least some of that towards the filing fee bank. But we know probably a lot of clients won’t be able to pay that, and we would waive it in those cases.”

CLS will work with the Cooley Pro Bono Junior Associate program. According to Karen Rowlader, Director of the Center for Ethics, Services, and Professionalism at the Grand Rapids campus, “Any firm or attorney who has been a member in good standing with a state bar for at least three years, who is taking on a pro bono case, can contact [us] to request a Junior Associate ... highly qualified, advanced law students who can handle as much of the work involved with the case as is desired, while under the supervision of the attorney. Attorneys may specify course work and minimum GPA requirements for their Junior Associate.... Attorneys take responsibility for managing the case.” She adds, “Students will not receive pay or academic credit for their work. It is truly pro bono.”

To learn about setting up her non-profit, tax-exempt organization, DeVille took the Tax-Exempt Organization class at Cooley. Now, after following that process to set up CLS, she is an adjunct professor teaching the class.

The website for Community Legal Services, parts of which are still under construction, is

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