Before I begin… I need to preface this post by saying that there are good ones out there; I’ve worked with them. It’s just that for some reason it is strangely difficult to find those good ones.
When I was in law school, sometime during the first month or so, we had one of the ubiquitous free lunches where the coordinator for the local Legal Aid Society chapter came in and gave a presentation. They mentioned at the end that they were always looking for law student and attorney volunteers to come help out. My legal writing teacher made a point to also mention during their classtime that legal aid was a great way to be exposed to new legal issues you might not otherwise come in contact with. (For those who don’t know, legal aid is in itself a specialty within law known as Poverty Law… no kidding.)
Still with that fresh 1L smell on me, I thought this was a great idea. So I marched on down to Legal Aid and started volunteering there. And in the city I was in, it was great. The legal aid society went out of their way to include the law students and volunteer attorneys. The whole office was committed to the concept of legal aid for the masses. If there was a way to increase exposure and their coverage area, they did their damnedest to make it happen. I volunteered so often there I ended up getting an award at graduation for service.
Well, sort of at graduation… my law school being who they were received the award prior to graduation and promptly put it in a desk drawer until 2 months later and then sent it to me through the mail. So it wasn’t announced or in the grad program or anything… if I were a more paranoid person I might think it had been intentional (wink to those who know me). Not that being incompetent is much better, but the option is basically stupid or evil and I am not sure where they fall on this.
Anyway… my point is that I had a very positive impression of Legal Aid when I left law school. What happened next I document here in all its glory. But, then I moved again. Maybe, just maybe, the new city will have a setup more like my original experience. So once I get settled and start plastering the neighborhood with my resume, I decide to contact the various legal aid organizations and see if they can use someone with copious free time on their hands.
The first one I got in contact was again, the one that had at one point been the official Legal Aid Society in the state. It seems they are much like a church, distance and politics cause schisms in legal aid organizations and they become something similar, but different based on the state you are in. A couple emails to people there get me no response and finally a phone call gets me a proper point of contact. The volunteer coordinator there is one of the higher placed attorneys in their organization. I contact her and get sent a bevvy of forms which really don’t apply to me. I offer to call or just show up to talk to someone if its easier for them so I can get setup to volunteer. I get a strangely mixed message about how hectic their office is and difficult to just show up, so why don’t I come show up. (It seemed like she talked herself into setting up a meeting the further she got into writing the email.)
I show up at the office, which is a lovely and large 4 story office building that legal aid completely fills. I immediately figure that an operation of this size must need a veritable army of volunteers. I am brought up to the coordinator’s office which most notably has a huge map of the state covering one whole wall. I end up talking to the coordinator for the better part of an hour. It turns out the map is to coordinate disaster relief efforts. She tells me how they have a response team whenever there is a natural disaster to go on location and provide services alongside first responders. Which was amazing. I had never really considered legal needs as necessary during emergencies but once brought up, it became very clear how it would be helpful. We also talked about how the money completely dried up from IOLTA based funding in the state after 2008/2009. She told me the actual numbers and the massive drop… it was so bad they petitioned to the state government for funding to stay afloat. The state to its credit buoyed them up and they were now a state sponsored non-profit. We finally get around to talking about what I was looking to volunteer for. I explain I am looking to do anything. I told her I was open to working in any area they needed more warm bodies, the caveat was that since I had literally just moved into the state, even though I had passed the bar there, I had zero time in their court system so I would need some guidance initially. This was not a surprise to her, it was in my email in a bunch of different places. “Hi, I just moved here and I am seeking to volunteer…”
The reaction I got in return was distaste with a soupçon of disdain. I was then treated to a story. She told me they had a volunteer who came in and offered to volunteer and was very interested in family law but had no experience. So they had them volunteer and taught them all sorts of things coupled with the attorneys there and then, this volunteer up and moved to a different city and got a job in family law. The implication being that legal aid had provided the ability and training for her to get that job.
Now… most people would maybe think, “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?” You show interest, you volunteer and gain experience, and then you port that over to a job. Not so from this coordinator’s point of view. She was pissed. It was the same argument small firms make when they don’t want to train new attorneys. “You’ll take our training and go get a higher paying job…” (a fallacy that has somehow become entrenched in the legal world). The difference here was legal aid was getting an unpaid volunteer working for them; and the volunteer was getting something from it as well. Apparently from the coordinator’s view, the volunteer should not have been getting any benefit. Regardless, because of this, they didn’t really want to use me. Wait… what? They didn’t want to use me because I might get better at what I was volunteering for, and be able to use those skills professionally?
The meeting was at an end. Hard not to end it after dropping something like that on someone. I left the offer of volunteering open and the coordinator said she’d send out a note to the different departments to see if anyone needed a random volunteer. About 2 months later I got an email from the coordinator saying she had a half filled out form from me. I refreshed her memory that we had met in person and talked about all the details. Almost verbatim the response was “Oh, right.” and then radio silence.
I ended up coming across several listings in the legal journals where this organization was looking for volunteers. Without going into depth, it became clear they weren’t looking for volunteers. They were looking for people to voluntarily write checks to them in lieu of actually showing up to do anything in person. Had I known they didn’t want volunteers and were only throwing out these pleas in an effort to get money… well, lesson learned. Thank you legal aid for this valuable lesson you gave me (for free!!! I bet the coordinator is pissed I learned something from them.)
I decided there must be other organizations to volunteer at so I contact another one. I was told I could volunteer there if I showed up to a free 8 hour training CLE. (Woo free credits). So I show up and I get the basics of the whole setup. This one was a specifically immigration related organization. I talked to one of the coordinator’s underlings and asked a few pertinent questions. Namely, do you have meeting rooms to meet with clients? Yes, absolutely. Since most of the immigrants speak Spanish (and an assortment of other lesser known languages) do you have translators. Yes, absolutely.
I told them I am very interested and I would like to volunteer, but I wanted to get some more specifics from the lead coordinator that the underling didn’t know. So they had me fill in my contact info on the sheet of interested volunteers (just a blank legal pad) told me they would get in touch with me, and off I went assuming I would get a call or email with more info. Instead I got an email stating that my name and contact info was passed on to a client who was told I was going to be their attorney. WTF!!! I called up immediately to the organization. I said I was supposed to get more info before I was signing on definitely. Specifically:
#1. whether they covered me with malpractice coverage while working on their case… No.
#2. About those translators… Oh, they are only for use by the organizations employees… and the meeting spaces? Those too? Huh.. I mean I suppose the underling didn’t lie; they DO have them. I am just not allowed to use them. Which is an odd way to construe my question considering I prefaced it by making a point of telling them I don’t speak Spanish.
#3. What if I have questions… you have a list of random attorneys unconnected with your organization who may be able to help answer my questions if they have free time. Are you kidding?
I told them they were crazy if they thought I was taking on a client from them. They were literally setting up the volunteer to fail or worse, censured. And to just tell some random client… oh hey, this person is your lawyer. Go contact them and figure shit out. Christ. Who set this system in place and thought “Yeah, that’ll work, that doesn’t look like malpractice at all.”
I did finally find a good legal aid org… but I also suffered for having worked so hard trying to volunteer. I am going to double down on my initial advice from my first posting… the next time someone tells you that as a lawyer you need to give away your services for free, laugh. Laugh at them and walk away.
And I will also add… Before you or your firm donate time or money to a legal aid organization, ask around. Find out which one is actually worth donating to.