"With Liberty & Justice for All"
By: Tami Munsch, Esq.
Published in "The Mississippi Lawyer" October-December 2007
The conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance says it all. This pledge is quite specific in stating that EVERYONE has the right to justice, not only those who can afford an attorney.
In Mississippi, it is estimated that 700,000 residents live at or below the poverty level. These citizens are being denied access to the courts because they cannot afford attorneys to take care of their legal needs. It is imperative that these underserved citizens receive pro bono legal assistance. Pro bono does not mean working for a client with the expectation of payment and then not getting paid. It is the designation given to the free legal work done by an attorney for indigent clients and nonprofit organizations such as the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project is a joint venture of The Mississippi Bar Association and Mississippi Legal Services Programs whose primary mission is to provide low-income Mississippians with high-quality, pro bono, legal assistance and equal access to justice.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project primes pro bono cases referred by the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services for referral to private attorneys. Once the cases have been examined and the necessary documents collected from clients, the case referral associates contact attorneys that may be interested in the case. Under a no-pressure system, attorneys are asked to review the cases to further determine whether to pursue the case.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project tracks the hours that the attorneys volunteer through regular case status letters. This makes reporting pro bono hours to The Bar under Rule 6.1 of the MS Rules of Professional Conduct hassle-free.
Some services provided for clients made possible by volunteers are:
* The Legal Line is open to the public and operates from 12:00-2:00 p.m. every weekday to provide callers with free legal information.
* The Homeless Legal Clinic on Tuesdays at Stewpot Community Services, to provide legal advice to those in attendance.
* The Guardianship Clinic helps families get past custody-related roadblocks that interfere with enrolling children in school.
* The Access & Visitation Clinic informs parents of rights once a custody order has been issued.
* The Wills & Estates Clinic addresses the needs of the elderly.
* The Pro Se Divorce Clinic helps clients with their own irreconcilable differences divorces.
Attorneys who volunteer with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project gain access to several helpful practice tools and benefits including:
* Access to an attorney and support staff for needed assistance.
* Professional liability insurance while working on MVLP matters.
* Relevant CLEs at discounted rates.
* Manuals and forms to assist with over 10 types of cases.
* Trouble-free tracking of pro bono hours to The MS Bar for the Rule 6.1 requirement.
* Knowledge of different types of cases that you may not see in your every day practice.
My mission as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps attorney with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project is to increase law student and pro bono attorney participation. Whether it is through direct legal assistance, educational programs, clinics, or literature, my goal is to amplify the number of low-income clients assisted. It is time for the unheard minority to be given a voice regarding the right to justice. It is my job to work with lawyers to make sure the underserved are heard.
Currently, more than 1,300 Mississippi attorneys volunteer their time and expertise to participate in the Project with more than 5,000 low income citizens assisted by the Project each year. We are so very grateful for these attorneys; however, more assistance is needed.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project has been around 25 years and they could not have done that without the support of self-less attorneys and law students. With the need constantly growing, it is important that you continue to serve. During the rush of our daily lives, we must stop and reflect on what originally drew us to the legal community. Share with others the unique and powerful joy that you receive from knowing that you have helped a deserving person get through what is likely one of the scariest and most challenging moments of his life. Presently, less than 25% of all barred attorneys in the state are signed up with the Project. The need is compelling and you have the power to make a difference by volunteering through the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. The privilege of practicing law is a gift that can be given continuously, not just once.