I want to help provide legal aid to people who cannot afford to hire attorneys, and I know KCBA’s Neighborhood Legal Clinics are one of the easiest ways to get involved. But it’s easy to make excuses. I worry that it will be too large of a time commitment. I worry that I won’t have the right legal knowledge to help pro bono clients. I worry that I’ll show up to a clinic and be overwhelmed by a mob of people chanting “Free legal services!” and waving over-stuffed envelopes of papers.
As you may have guessed, I worry a lot. In this instance, most of my worries come down to the fact that I don’t really know what being a clinic volunteer involves. Luckily, Riana Nolet, the Neighborhood Legal Clinic Program Manager at KCBA, was kind enough to talk to me about the Neighborhood Legal Clinics. For fellow worry-warts and others who are curious about the legal clinics, here is a run-down of what actually happens at a clinic – and why.
I had assumed that the clinics existed to match pro bono clients with attorneys who will represent them. Nolet explained that this is not the case; KCBA handles actual representation of pro bono clients through their Volunteer Legal Services programs, which are separate from the clinics. Some attorneys do take on pro bono clients they meet through the clinics, but that additional commitment is entirely voluntary.
Nolet mentioned four main purposes to a clinic. The first three are to diagnose the client’s legal issues, to treat simple problems, and to refer clients to the appropriate resources for resolving more complex issues. The fourth is less tangible, but critical: to give hope.
According to Nolet, “Most of the cases are general, common sense stuff. Many clients don’t know if they have a legal issue or not…. Often, the most important thing [volunteer attorneys] do is reassure them that they do have rights.”
A few hours before each clinic starts, KCBA emails volunteer attorneys a list of their clients and a summary of each client’s legal issues. Attorneys can choose to do a couple of hours of research on their assigned clients’ issues before each clinic, or they can just show up.
During the clinic itself, attorneys spend half an hour with each client. If the client has a problem that can be resolved on the spot, the attorney may handle the issue then and there. If not, the attorney refers the client on to receive further services from the community resources list. Each clinic also has one non-attorney volunteer to check in clients, pull resources for attorneys, and keep everyone on schedule.
The Time Involved:
Nolet informed me that KCBA schedules volunteers for one clinic every six to eight weeks. Each clinic is one to two hours. Depending on whether a volunteer decides to do some legal research before a clinic starts, the total time commitment is between one and four hours every month and a half or so.
The Client Load:
Although Nolet confirmed that there is an enormous demand for pro bono legal services, it turns out my vision of crowds at legal clinics was unfounded. Nolet explained that most clinics are done on an appointment basis. KCBA screens potential clients and schedules them for attorneys ahead of time. Each appointment is half an hour, so they schedule up to four clients per attorney per clinic.
Research and Resources:
As Nolet explained, many clinic clients have simple issues. For the more complicated cases that come through the door, each clinic has a “resource box” containing legal forms, self-help packets, and lists of organizations that attorneys can refer clients to for more assistance.
Nolet also mentioned that, while some clinics do have computers or Wi-Fi for volunteer to use, others are limited to the paper resources in the box. This is because the clinics are located wherever KCBA can negotiate free space: office buildings, community centers, and even doctors’ offices. According to Nolet, some volunteers meet their clients in patient check-up rooms and even storage closets – “wherever the location has room.”
Although this might sound daunting, Nolet pointed out that volunteers know the conditions of their assigned clinics ahead of time. “Everyone’s assigned to a specific clinic, so they get real familiar with what their clinic has available to them.” She said some attorneys compensate for the lack of resources by bringing in their laptops or doing research ahead of time, but she noted that this is not mandatory. Since the clinics focus on referrals for any complicated issues, many attorneys can get by with the paper resources the clinic provides.
Learning to Swim:
Handling up to four clients a night in half-hour increments is a very different pace from what many attorneys deal with in their regular practices. Fortunately, KCBA eases volunteers into their posts. Nolet explained that every new volunteer begins by completing an orientation session. After they complete orientation, volunteers are assigned to a clinic and paired with an experienced volunteer. For their first clinic, the rookies just shadow their mentors. Then, after they’ve spent a clinic observing, volunteer attorneys receive their own clients.
Nolet said that volunteers “usually can dive right in” by the second clinic. But, if they run into trouble, they can always ask the non-attorney volunteer to pull resources for them. They can also ask the other attorneys for help.
After Nolet answered all of my questions about volunteering for a Neighborhood Legal Clinic, I asked her if she had any additional comments. She spoke about how much of a difference the clinics make to low-income clients with no other access to legal services. “Getting that half hour of advice can really turn someone’s spirit and life around, so we really encourage it, and it’s pretty easy to do.”
She makes a compelling case.
Do you have questions about volunteering at the Neighborhood Legal Clinics? Are you considering signing up to volunteer? Please leave your questions and comments below!