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Volunteer lawyers, law students provide invaluable service to us all

Madison, Wisconsin - October 21, 2011

A column by Shirley S. Abrahamson, Chief Justice, Wisconsin Supreme Court

The week of Oct. 23-29 is an opportunity to recognize lawyers and law students nationally and in Wisconsin who do "pro bono" work, in other words, volunteer their time to provide legal services to the poor. Pro bono roughly translates from Latin to "for the public good," and when lawyers and law students volunteer to provide legal representation for the poor, they indeed help us all.

The need for pro bono legal work has perhaps never been greater. As our nation’s economy struggles, so do many families – with job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure and other issues worsened by financial stress. More and more, people who most need legal help simply can’t afford it.

Thankfully, many Wisconsin lawyers and law students have responded by volunteering to represent someone in court, by helping out at a free legal clinic, or by providing limited legal services. No one should be denied equal justice under the law because he or she can’t afford it. Judges throughout Wisconsin and at each level of the court system understand this and appreciate the crucial work these lawyers provide. It is estimated that more than half of all lawyers do some level of volunteer work for people of limited means or for organizations serving the poor. Some of the state’s largest law firms also sponsor pro bono programs, as do many local bar associations throughout the state.

The state’s two law schools also have responded to the need. Working alongside lawyers, students at the UW Law School and Marquette University Law School volunteer to help with a variety of programs, and each school has a pro bono society to encourage volunteer work.

The UW Law School is expanding its five-year-old pro bono program, thanks in part to a three-year renewable grant from Wisconsin Campus Compact's AmeriCorps VISTA program. The school recently added two staff members, including its first director, Atty. Ann M. Zimmerman.

The UW Law School assists students with placements in private and nonprofit law firms, legal aid groups, in-house programs and other organizations such as the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups (CWAG) Elder Law Center, where they help attorneys provide assistance to individuals age 60 and older with legal issues related to housing, consumer, and health care.

Marquette University Law School’s Office of Public Service was established in 2006, and a pro bono coordinator position, now held by Atty. Angela F. Schultz, was added in 2009, thanks to the generosity of the Gene and Ruth Posner Foundation.

Marquette University Law students volunteer at the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics, the Milwaukee Justice Center’s family law help desk, and the Marquette Legal Initiative for Nonprofit Corporations. They also partner with a variety of other legal support programs, such as the Milwaukee Foreclosure Mediation Program, the Eastern District of Wisconsin’s bankruptcy help desk, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance project, the Guardianship Clinic of Children’s Hospital, and the National Immigrant Justice Center, among others.

The State Bar of Wisconsin coordinates a variety of programs, and as part of its “Just Take Two” program, asks each Wisconsin lawyer to take on two new pro bono matters for low-income individuals each year. Atty. Jeff Brown coordinates the State Bar’s pro bono program, which hosts a Facebook page and provides extensive Internet resources that allow lawyers to search for volunteer opportunities by practice area and region of the state.

The State Bar coordinates, among other programs, Wisconsin’s “Wills for Heroes” program, which is part of a national volunteer effort to prepare wills and other estate planning documents for eligible first responders and their spouses or domestic partners. The State Bar also offers grants each year to support new or expanded pro bono projects around the state.

Without this dedicated service, Wisconsin’s courts would function less efficiently, and many of our most vulnerable residents would go without crucial legal services. Please join me in thanking so many Wisconsin lawyers and law students for volunteering their time.


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