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Volunteers are too expensive for cash-strapped legal aid agencies

by Kelsey Snell
Oct 14, 2009

The phones start ringing at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago at 9 a.m. Many days by 10:30 a.m., the lines are full.

Though the organization, which serves poor people seeking legal aid, has 90 attorneys to handle the case load, it depends on volunteer assistance from local lawyers to help keep up. But even volunteers are becoming too expensive.

"The hard part of having pro bono attorneys on staff then I have to provide supervision," said Vivian Hessel, co-supervisory attorney for the central intake office at the foundation. "My first responsibility is to supervise the staff attorneys. If a volunteer comes our way, I may have to say we can’t take you in right now."

A recent study by the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit created by Congress to administer the federally funded civil legal assistance program, found that at least half of all poor people seeking legal aid are turned away each year. The study proposed a doubling of state and federal funds paired with increased volunteer legal services -- called pro bono -- as a solution to the problem, but many Chicago area legal aid organizations say without funding, increased volunteerism is unmanageable.

"There’s an absolute cost," said Michael Bergman, pro bono initiative director at the Public Interest Law Initiative. "Training, supervision and physical space. Many agencies prior to this economy had good strong pro bono structures. To truly effectively, appropriately and ethically use these volunteers, they need more infrastructure."

Diana White, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation, said groups like hers could not meet the need before the economic downturn. Now, with recent Census Bureau data estimating the Illinois poverty level at more than 12 percent, thousands of newly poor Illinoisans need legal representation to help manage the issues that accompany their reduced financial ability, White said.

However, some organizations have found that the economic downturn has driven many attorneys to volunteerism in order to maintain billable hour requirements their employers set. Pro bono work is credited toward billable hours, even though there is no income from them. Even with a growing number of volunteers offering their time, legal aid is still behind.

Kendra Reinshagen, executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau of Metropolitan Family Services in Illinois has had no problem finding volunteers who need work, it's the funding she's missing.

"The pro bono efforts haven’t been hurt as much as the financial support," Reinshagen said.

Reinshagen watched half of the funding her organization received from the state disappear. This year, budget shortfalls in Illinois led to a $1.5 million reduction in legal aid funding, she said.

"I'd be happy with flat funding," Reinshagen said. "The attorneys and legal interns are at capacity. There’s just a greater need."