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Cleveland Legal Aid Taps Expertise of Retired and Late-Career Volunteer Attorneys

By Ann McGowan Porath & Rachel Riemenschneider man with blue glasses and gray hair

For many inner-city residents, big development projects can mean displacement. Cleveland resident Joyce Hairston learned in 2014 that her home of nearly 20 years was in the path of a much-needed but intrusive highway extension. Also slated for demolition was Hairston’s community demonstration garden, where she instructed neighbors on growing their own produce. Through her efforts to help others eat locally, she had become a pillar in her neighborhood. Now eminent domain threatened relationships and the ground she had spent years cultivating. Fearful that her relocation offer would not replace what she had grown over the years, she called the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Stable housing and healthy neighborhoods are among Legal Aid’s top priorities, and Hairston was eligible for the nonprofit organization’s services. The challenge for Legal Aid was that eminent domain was an area outside the staff attorneys’ experience and expertise.

Baby Boomer Attorneys Looking for Their Next Steps

Hairston’s plight coincided with a national trend that continues today: attorneys of the baby boomer generation are looking for ways to spend their retirement. According to data given to Legal Aid by the Ohio Supreme Court, 29 percent of active attorneys in Legal Aid’s service area are 60 or older. Not only do attorneys who retire in their mid-60’s have decades of knowledge and experience, but also many have decades of active years ahead of them. Legal Aid noticed growing interest in its Volunteer Lawyers Program among late-career and retired attorneys because pro bono work allowed them to stay active while maintaining flexibility to enjoy retirement as they pleased.

Civil legal aid programs across the country are becoming aware of the need to use the skills of retired attorneys. In particular, many jurisdictions have adopted emeritus pro bono rules, which incentivize volunteer work by allowing attorneys to register under a special status that promotes pro bono activity. According to the American Bar Association, 38 states have adopted emeritus pro bono rules, most within the last 15 years.

ACT 2: A Volunteer Program for Retired and Late-Career Cleveland Attorneys

In 2014 the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s Volunteer Lawyers Program began examining ways to tap these newly retired and retiring attorneys’ extensive knowledge and expertise. Furthermore, current volunteers at Legal Aid’s brief advice clinics desired to get more involved in volunteering once they had retired. Legal Aid’s ACT 2 project developed out of this effort to engage late-career and retired attorneys.

As a result of conversations with volunteers and Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Committee, the Volunteer Lawyers Program developed a framework for ACT 2. Despite some initial challenges to acquire funding for the project, the program launched ACT 2 in 2014. In the first year Legal Aid held a continuing legal education (CLE) recruitment breakfast and organized a small cohort of volunteers to advise on the project.

The ACT 2 project facilitates retired and late-career attorneys’ participation in Legal Aid’s volunteer opportunities: volunteering at clinics, through extended representation cases, and in-house. These options allow volunteers to choose how much and in what capacity they want to volunteer, an arrangement particularly attractive to retired volunteers who may have changing schedules. Some volunteers had plenty of time to fill, while others stayed busy during retirement and were just looking for short commitments. Many ACT 2 volunteers wanted to do only work with which they were comfortable, while others used volunteering as a chance to learn a new area of law. The ACT 2 program is both robust and nimble enough to meet the needs of volunteers in any situation.

The initiative’s early success led to recognition by the Cleveland Foundation, which awarded Legal Aid the 2015 Encore Cleveland Prize for Nonprofit and Public Sector Organizations, honoring “significant, innovative work that engages older adults in making social impact in Greater Cleveland.” The Encore Cleveland Prize helped jumpstart ACT 2 by increasing awareness in the community and legitimizing early efforts to use older adults for volunteer work. Building on the momentum that accompanied the Encore Cleveland Prize, Legal Aid applied for and was awarded a Pro Bono Innovation Fund Grant from the Legal Services Corporation. The financial support from the Innovation Fund allowed Legal Aid to institutionalize ACT 2 and to hire a dedicated administrative assistant whose sole duty is to support the ACT 2 project and ACT 2 volunteers.

Developing the ACT 2 Advisory Committee

Soon after receiving the Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant, the ad hoc group of advising attorneys was formalized as the ACT 2 Advisory Committee to oversee and guide the development of the program. The committee members, all Legal Aid volunteers, are well-respected members of the legal community with connections to community organizations, bar associations, and law firms. These leading private attorneys have volunteered across the spectrum of opportunities. The advisory committee was instrumental in developing the project’s threefold mission for ACT 2 volunteers to

With its leadership and insight, the committee has helped Legal Aid identify challenges and hurdles every step of the way, from making suggestions about program design to guiding marketing strategy. Committee members have been particularly helpful in identifying perceived barriers to volunteering—such as malpractice coverage, administrative support, coverage of litigation expenses, and office resources—that may be prohibitive to retired attorneys. The committee highlighted benefits, such as mentorship by staff and malpractice insurance, that Legal Aid was already providing to volunteers and that needed to be advertised better to volunteers. Legal Aid made special provisions, such as administrative support, in ACT 2 programs as a result of the committee’s suggestions.

Recruiting

Legal Aid began recruiting participants by identifying ACT 2-eligible volunteers who were currently engaged with Legal Aid and then reaching out to those individuals to invite them to be part of the ACT 2 program. Legal Aid also contacted volunteers who had been active but whose volunteer engagement had lapsed. Legal Aid wanted in particular to reengage those who might have been volunteering with their law firms or corporations but had not volunteered since retiring.

Legal Aid staff made a special effort to reach volunteers who were close to retirement. Planting the seed of volunteering with Legal Aid while the attorneys were still working and looking ahead to what they may do in retirement became a central tenet of the recruitment strategy.

Besides those who had been connected to the volunteer program, Legal Aid sought those who might have been too busy to volunteer while they were working. One tool Legal Aid found effective was a mailer targeted toward Act 2–eligible attorneys who had not volunteered with Legal Aid. The Volunteer Lawyers Program sent out over 4,000 mailers, which gave information about ACT 2 and asked recipients to indicate if (1) they were interested in ACT 2 and were ready to start volunteering now, (2) they were interested in ACT 2 but wanted to be contacted at another time, or (3) they were not interested in ACT 2. Many cards came back with information that helped Legal Aid engage new volunteers.

From Recruitment to Volunteering

Legal Aid has seen the importance of having volunteer opportunities or events ready for newly recruited volunteers as soon as possible. For this reason, Legal Aid holds special CLE opportunities targeted toward Act 2–eligible attorneys. The CLEs cover a substantive area of law and include a discussion of ACT 2 volunteer opportunities. Because many prospective volunteers do not know how they want to get involved, these CLEs have proven to be a great way to explain opportunities and respond to questions. The CLEs have also allowed the volunteers to meet one another and build community. Legal Aid held these CLEs in collaboration with partners in the legal community, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, further strengthening the outreach efforts.

Once the volunteers have been recruited, Legal Aid offers three levels of pro bono involvement: brief advice clinics, extended representation cases, and in-house volunteering.

Brief Advice Clinics. Designed to be an easy first volunteer experience, brief advice clinics have proven to be successful recruiting efforts as well. All volunteers have support from Legal Aid, and new volunteers have the option of pairing up with an experienced volunteer; this backup alleviates the volunteers’ potential anxiety of trying something out of their comfort zone.

Brief advice clinics have been a staple of Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program’s services since 2005. Approximately twice a month, Legal Aid holds Saturday morning clinics where clients can meet with an attorney to talk about their legal problems. The clinics occur at branches of the Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland Clinic health centers, and other community partner sites.

These Saturday morning clinics are convenient for volunteer attorneys who work full-time and have free time only on the weekends. However, partner organizations and clients often request clinics during the week. ACT 2 volunteers make these weekday clinics possible. Since most ACT 2 volunteers are retired or scaling back their practices, they can easily take an afternoon to staff a clinic. Weekday clinics have also been beneficial for clients who work on Saturdays, watch children over the weekend, or otherwise cannot attend Saturday morning clinics.

Legal Aid has partnered with the Jewish Volunteer Network’s IMPACT! program, which engages individuals over 50 in a wide variety of volunteer activities. IMPACT! attorneys staff a clinic in collaboration with Legal Aid at a local synagogue to serve the low-income Jewish population. The clinics are held on Sundays, a culturally appropriate day for clients and volunteers. 

Two ACT 2 volunteers have taken the brief advice clinic model to the next level by holding small-scale clinics on their own. With a focus on veterans, these two attorneys hold regular drop-in clinics at three different community sites. While the goal is resolving problems with advice or limited action, these two ACT 2 attorneys retain many of the cases for extended representation. The ACT 2 administrative assistant’s support maximizes the effectiveness and efficiency of their work.

Extended Representation Cases. The second option available to ACT 2 volunteers is taking cases for extended representation. Volunteers can choose the type and number of cases they want to take and therefore how much time they want to commit. ACT 2 volunteers have the time and experience to take more complicated cases that may be difficult to place with attorneys who are working full-time or who do not have the experience to handle such cases.

One ACT 2 volunteer left a large firm to start her own small practice. Since then, she has taken over 20 cases for extended representation, many of which were challenging to place due to the complicated nature of the issue. She is enthusiastic and thorough, always fighting for the best outcome for her clients. While at this point she has merely scaled back her practice, her current involvement in ACT 2 will certainly continue into her retirement. She has also recently accepted the position of chair of the ACT 2 Advisory Committee.

In-House Volunteering. Legal Aid has been able to develop projects specifically for in-house ACT 2 volunteers. These volunteers come to Legal Aid’s office one or two days a week to volunteer. Most in-house volunteers work in substantive practice groups alongside a Legal Aid staff attorney. Depending on what the staff attorney needs on a particular day, ACT 2 volunteers may help with routine client follow-up, research, or a special project.

Other in-house volunteers work with the Volunteer Lawyers Program on discrete projects. One such volunteer helps with Legal Aid’s estate planning project. Throughout her years as in-house counsel at a leading financial institution, she attended brief advice clinics and took cases for extended representation. When she retired, she wanted to increase her commitment to volunteering and started coming in-house one day a week to prepare wills, property transfers, and advance directives for clients. She has expanded her involvement to helping with probate matters to supplement the work of a staff attorney’s consumer cases. By clearing title issues, her probate work allows clients to move forward on resolving foreclosure matters. The impact of this single ACT 2 volunteer is impressive: in her nine months working in-house with Legal Aid, she has served more than 70 clients.

Steps Toward a Legal Resolution for Hairston

When Paul Binder retired from his 36-year career as a federal prosecutor, he reached out to Legal Aid to see how he could use his skills and expertise to help. He became one of Legal Aid’s in-house volunteers, coming to the office one or two days a week and working with a staff attorney. Just a few months after Binder started, the case of Joyce Hairston, the avid gardener being displaced by a highway, came across his supervisor’s desk. Because Hairston was legally entitled to relocation assistance, the Ohio Department of Transportation was offering her what it said was a “comparable” new home. But it was far from her neighborhood, had no room for a garden, and had prohibitively high property taxes.

Because Binder had extensive experience with litigation, he felt comfortable jumping in on this case. He did not, however, have experience with eminent domain cases. Using Legal Aid staff members’ connections in the legal community, Binder was able to discuss the case with attorneys who had experience in eminent domain cases and who acted as mentors for him. He also used Legal Aid’s digital research database. Binder soon became Legal Aid’s resident expert on eminent domain cases.

With Binder’s help through the complex negotiations, including an appeal of the transportation department’s original offer, Hairston was granted a fair settlement that allowed her to purchase a new home with space to plant a new garden. Of course, the highway expansion that threatened Hairston’s home and garden was also threatening an entire community—Hairston’s friends and neighbors, many of whom were elderly. In total, Binder has assisted nine clients with eminent domain problems since 2014.

Binder’s support allowed Legal Aid to serve these individuals in a profound and life-changing way. Without his expertise, skill, and enthusiasm, the clients would not have gotten the settlements they deserved.

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Integrating ACT 2 volunteers into existing programs has allowed Legal Aid Society of Cleveland to increase services to clients. These volunteers are eager, experienced, and talented. They are willing to dedicate a great deal of their time to volunteering, and clients reap the benefits. Colleen M. Cotter, executive director, has endorsed the project every step of the way: “ACT 2 brings to Legal Aid clients the wealth of skill and expertise of greater Cleveland’s experienced attorneys. This is a tremendous benefit to Legal Aid and our clients. And I hope that because we have created a supportive program, it is tremendously satisfying for the ACT 2 volunteers.”

Today, ACT 2 volunteers are active in every opportunity that Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program offers. Whether attorneys are volunteering in-house, taking cases for extended representation, or staffing brief advice clinics, ACT 2 helps late-career and retired attorneys answer, What is my next step?

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