Ready and able-- Attorney has a lifelong commitment to nonprofit and pro bono activities


By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Charlie Borgsdorf's early legal experiences read like something from a Patricia Cornwell novel or an episode of CSI.

In 1969, as a newly minted lawyer from the University of Michigan Law School, he became an associate with Shearman & Sterling in New York City--at that time the largest law firm in the country. The workload imposed on young Wall Street lawyers was brutal. But Borgsdorf had two experiences outside the firm that sparked a lifelong commitment to nonprofit and pro bono activities.

The first was a project of the Council of New York Law Associates, formed to locate pro bono projects.

"There had been a number of suicides in the Manhattan House of Detention and accusations were made that Latino prisoners were being killed by guards who then faked the suicides," Borgsdorf says.

Joining a small group of lawyers volunteering to investigate, under the leadership of a partner from another large New York law firm, Borgsdorf found that his somewhat grisly assignment was reviewing autopsy records and interviewing medical examiners to determine whether the listed causes of death were accurate.

Meeting with Dr. Milton Helpern, then chief medical examiner for the Big Apple, Borgsdorf got a tour of various pathological artifacts, including jars of embalmed body parts and photos of particularly gruesome deaths.

"Dr. Helpern asked that I accompany him, right then, to observe an autopsy, an experience that is as vivid in my mind today as it was on the day it took place," he says. "At the end of our investigation, we concluded the prisoners in question had, in fact, committed suicide, but that the suicides were caused by the appalling conditions in the Manhattan House of Detention. Its nickname, 'the Tombs,' was an all-too literal description of the facility. The noise level and the overcrowding were so appalling that some prisoners were literally driven insane and to suicide by those conditions.

"Our report ultimately helped improve the conditions at the prison," Borgsdorf says. "I believe lawyers should offer their legal training and skills to projects like this."

His second experience was as a volunteer at the Community Law Office in East Harlem, providing free civil legal services to low-income residents.

"I always felt odd taking the subway to East Harlem wearing my three-piece 'Wall Street Lawyer' suit and dealing with clients who I'm sure were puzzled by my odd wardrobe," he says. "I learned many of the problems that beset low income clients need specialized legal help just as large business entities and financial institutions do. Navigating the court system to prevent an eviction or the public benefits offices to get food stamps and welfare payments is not easy for a novice.

"I came to believe then, as I do now, that legal services offices staffed with lawyers specializing in the difficulties suffered by the low income members of our population are an absolute necessity."

It's a belief that led him to a lifelong involvement in programs that provide competent legal services to people who could not otherwise afford them.

Borgsdorf has served on the board of Legal Services of South Central Michigan, and its predecessors, for more than 35 years, beginning on the board of the Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society in1974 when he was an assistant dean at the U-M Law School. Back then, the Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society operated two small offices, in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, with a small staff of lawyers and support personnel trying to deal with the needs of the poverty community.

The Legal Services Corporation, established by Congress, set out to determine areas that were not well served by legal services offices. The survey found, to no one's great surprise, that most poor people had no access whatsoever to legal services.

As part of its mission, the LSC adopted a plan to expand legal services programs to under-served areas, and the Washtenaw County program expanded into Jackson, Lenawee and Monroe counties. Later, the LSC strongly recommended that programs merge to provide economies of scale in program management and take advantage of specialized expertise and knowledge in some offices that might not be available in others. The program eventually became Legal Services of South Central Michigan, providing legal services to 13 counties.

The LSSCM board is now diverse geographically and is composed of representatives from the client community, social service organizations and area lawyers, Borgsdorf says.

"Serving on nonprofit boards is something I've been committed to my entire career. For obvious reasons, I much prefer serving on boards of programs with skilled and competent management so the board can devote its time and energy to policy matters, fiscal oversight, furthering the organization's mission and not having to micro-manage the organization which, in my view, is an inappropriate role for a nonprofit board to play," he says.

"LSSCM and its predecessors have always been blessed with highly competent executive directors. Bob Gillett, the current LSSCM director, who has been in his position for more than two decades, is known as one of the best administrators of a legal services program in the country. He has been an effective advocate for effective legal services programs his entire career. He and the deputy director, Ann Routt, have a highly effective, albeit very small, administrative staff and all of the LSSCM offices are competently run."

The problem for all legal services offices is funding, and money available from the Legal Services Corporation provides only a small fraction of the funds LSSCM spends in providing desperately needed services to its client population, Borgsdorf says.

"The State of Michigan has been supportive of legal services programs, not only implementing an IOLTA program many years ago, but now devoting a portion of the filing fees received by the courts to help fund legal services programs state-wide. The funding, nevertheless, falls far short of what is truly needed and the clients in need are often turned away because the staff is inadequate."

Many years ago, Gillett and members of the board started a campaign, "Friends of Legal Aid," raising additional funds to maintain--and even expand--the available service. The campaign has raised $40,000 to $50,000 per year for many years.

The State Bar, through the State Bar Foundation, created the Access to Justice Fund several years ago, an effort to raise funds statewide to add to those available for legal services. Borgsdorf was one of the regional co-chairs of the program which was successful in raising significant funds for legal service clinics.

"Although I think all of us that were involved wish that a significantly larger amount had been raised for an endowment to provide a more significant funding stream," he says. "I'm proud to say that my firm--Hooper Hathaway--and I have been generous supporters of Legal Services of South Central Michigan through our connection with the Friends of Legal Aid and the Access to Justice programs."

In today's troubled economy, the legal problems befalling the poor are greater than ever, he says. The LSSCM board has set priorities to prevent evictions and foreclosures; help clients receive their government benefits; prevent domestic violence; and help vulnerable seniors.

Borgsdorf believes lawyers have skills that are of use to nonprofit organizations, bringing knowledge of nonprofit corporation and tax law, and assisting in administrative organization and personnel policies, and helping in fund-raising.

He has been proud to serve on several nonprofit boards in Ann Arbor, including Child and Family Service of Washtenaw, HelpSource, Dawn Farm and Neighborhood Senior Services. He served on the board of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation for six years, including two years as its chair.

He currently serves on the board of Arbor Hospice Foundation, University Musical Society, and Kerrytown Concert House and is chair of the Advisory Board for the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.

"While there are plenty of lawyer jokes around, and while polls often put lawyers low on the respect totem pole, it's a rare nonprofit board that does not have one or more highly valued lawyer members," he says.

Published: Wed, Feb 24, 2010