Abrahamsen's diligent pro bono work attracts Worsfold award

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Paul Abrahamsen, Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award in hand, prepares to speak briefly at the May 2 Law Day luncheon as award presenter (and former Grand Rapids Bar President) Susan Keener looks on.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE              

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Paul Abrahamsen, who takes his job coordinating local attorneys’ pro bono work for Legal Aid of West Michigan so seriously that his license plate reads “Pro Bono,” makes it clear that he does not feel qualified to join the ranks of those winning the Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award from the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

“Getting this is the most humbling thing I’ve every been through. I looked at the list of winners — they’re hall-of-famers. I keep thinking I don’t belong on this list,” he says in his understated way.

And at the May 2 Law Day Luncheon where the award was given, Abrahamsen commented, “I love what I do and I hope I’ve made a difference — and I’m very proud to be up here — but all of you are why I’m getting an award right now.”

There is a sense in which what Abrahamsen says is true: it is the generosity of the local legal community that has made Legal Aid’s pro bono program such a success.

But it is also undeniable that Abrahansen has gone above and beyond the call of routine duty over his 30 years at Legal Aid.

In addition, he started a statewide organization called the Michigan Pro Bono Coordinators — very helpful in this time, though he says the need for that diminished as legal aid offices consolidated — and chaired the State Bar Pro Bono Involvement Committee during its process of developing pro bono guidelines.

“Everyone on that committee deserves credit,” Abrahamsen says, as modest as ever. “I was just the one that presented them to the Representative Assembly.”

Born in Kalamazoo, Abrahamsen  started his post-secondary education at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. “That was a great way to sart out — the instructors and professors were there to teach. And it offered a smooth transition to Western Michigan University.”

At WMU, Abrahamsen studied business and accounting, skills which help him now with the statistics he keeps to tell the story about pro bono services. He also took a class from a professor who “made the law very enjoyable,” causing him to head to law school even though he did not know any lawyers growing up.

After receiving his Juris Doctor at Ohio Northern University Law School, he worked for a couple of years for a solo practitioner back in Kalamazoo before seeing an advertisement for the Legal Aid of Western Michigan job in 1985.

“Steve Williams was the coordinator and he and Legal Aid hired me as the assistant,” Abrahamsen says. “When he left he entrusted the program to me. I’m grateful to him for that, and we’re still friends. He’s since won the State Bar John Cummiskey Award as well as our Michael Barnes Award.” (For more on that, see the Grand Rapids Legal News for November 14, 2014.)

Those statistics Abrahamsen has been keeping tell an impressive story about just how dedicated and giving a community this really is.

Annual private-bar monetary contributions have increased from about $60,600 in 1990 to about $296,000 in 2015, over a period of time when inflation would have only increased it to about $110,000. Of course, the number of attorneys has also increased, but it is a good sign that the giving ethic has continued to be taken seriously.

Over the same years, private attorneys donated approximately 100,000 hours of free legal services. (Abrahamsen says that, unfortunately, records prior to 1990 were lost when the offices Legal Aid occupied  suffered a flood in 2003.)

But he continues to attribute his success to the generosity of the legal community, in Kent County as well as the 16 other counties Legal Aid now covers. “It’s the attorneys, they’re the real heroes. I just grease the skids,” Abrahamsen says. “The one good thing is that people know me; I think consistency helps.”

He is always accessible and spends a lot of time thinking about how the attorneys who give their services can have the best possible experience. “I want people to know I’m not going to send them a client who won’t cooperate or is going to complain all the time. Since I work behind the scenes and don’t really get to know the clients, I rely on case review meeting, which we have weekly. I also try to estimate what kind of time commitment will be involved, but that’s not always easy,” he says.

“We also have staff attorneys who can act as mentors if they’re outside their comfort area. We’re not going to throw them to the wolves,” he adds.

The primary method for obtaining willing attorneys is a mailing sent to all State Bar members in the 17 West Michigan counties. The packet includes a brochure on the program, focusing on how much help it provides to low-income people.

Legal Aid may help people who earn up to 200% of the Federal poverty level, and in a press release announcing Legal Aid of West Michigan’s new Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, Executive Director Juan Salazar noted that in contrast to the past, “...a very high percentage of our clients are employed.” (Potential clients for the clinic, whose director is Kathleen Allen, may call 888-783-8190 or 616-774-0672.)

The mailing also includes a simple Case Pledge Form with a detailed checklist of what type of cases the volunteer attorney feels capable of taking, as well as in what counties.

Abrahamsen and Lacy Cook, with whom he works closely, also attend pro bono fairs and other events to promote the program, though he says that is not very frequent.

He currently commutes from Kalamazoo and says he has put over 825,000 miles on three cars over his Legal Aid career.

The career spans the terms of three executive directors, including Salazar. Abrahamsen, along with many others, still mourns the loss of Michael Chielens, who took over in 1995. “He was good,” Abrahamsen says. “He lived it and breathed it. And he made me laugh... He’s still missed.”

At this time, the intention is for Cook to take over the program when Abrahamsen retires. But when that will be is anyone’s guess. “I get bored over a four day weekend,” he says, laughing. “I really don’t know if I can retire any time soon.”