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Joe Surkiewicz: Community Law Center celebrates its pro bono lawyers

For lawyers committed to increasing access to justice and eager to give back to their communities, taking a pro bono case is the obvious way to go.

But how should a legal nonprofit thank the lawyers who use their time and expertise to help clients who otherwise couldn’t afford legal advice?

Community Law Center, Maryland’s only free legal services program dedicated to helping neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations, is celebrating the lawyers who volunteer to make communities stronger.

The free event is Pro Baltimore Pro Bono: Connecting Lawyers & Communities, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Mt. Washington Conference Center, 5801 Smith Ave. in Baltimore.

“It’s a way for us to recognize and thank our pro bono lawyers,” said Community Law Center executive director Kristine Dunkerton. “The number of volunteers through our Pro Bono Program has nearly doubled since 2010.”

Over nearly three decades, Community Law Center has assisted the growth of hundreds of community associations and nonprofits. Those programs are located throughout Maryland and work to revitalize blighted land and vacant structures, reduce crime and nuisance activities stemming from residential and commercial properties, and achieve a variety of charitable purposes — from creating dog parks to low-income housing to charter schools.

Volunteer lawyers are the engine that make much of it happen. As the Community Law Center’s pro bono panel increased in size, so did the number of donated hours, which grew from 743 in 2010 to 4,620 in 2014.

“The growth in volunteer time is exponential and has been increasing every year,” Dunkerton said. “I hope it’s a trend that all nonprofit law firms are seeing.”

The obvious question: Why the explosive growth in pro bono?

“I think the reason is just that we’re getting the word out,” she said. “We have lots of opportunities for both litigators as well as transactional lawyers—real estate, tax, and corporate law. Our nonprofit clients need transactional lawyers to get started and to grow.”

Helping Baltimore

About 75 percent of Community Law Center’s clients are in Baltimore city.

“Attorneys want to help Baltimore’s neighborhoods,” Dunkerton said. “Volunteering though us connects them directly with community leaders on the ground who need legal expertise.”

Post-Freddie Gray, many groups in West Baltimore are strengthening organizations to address systemic issues like gang activity and vacant housing—and lawyers can help.

“We help residents figure out how to move forward as a community,” she said. “And it’s not just in West Baltimore. There are many neighborhoods around the city that have been disinvested for decades and are rebuilding from the ground up.”

Dunkerton added: “Community revitalizing involves lawyers in a million different ways –acquiring, licensing or leasing property, financing construction, contracts, tax credits, entity formation, advocacy before an administrative body or litigating in a courtroom.”

The list of top honorees for next month’s event is headed by Venable LLP, which donated over 1,000 hours of pro bono.

“Twenty-four Venable attorneys worked on six cases,” Dunkerton said. “In one large case in which we have been co-counsel, we have benefitted from their expertise in litigation in circuit court, federal district court and bankruptcy court.”

The “large case” was against an out-of-town property owner with many vacant properties across six Baltimore communities that have fallen into disrepair. The case recently settled and the owner was ordered to repair the properties.

“Community Law Center provides a unique kind of pro bono opportunities for litigators and non-litigators,” said Jason Rose, a Venable partner who donated more than 200 hours on the case. “We’ve supported Community Law Center for more than 20 years as pro bono attorneys and as board members.

“Community Law Center empowers communities to organize and become more vibrant,” he added. “I’ve enjoyed working with the leaders of different community organizations. They’re people on the ground trying to make a difference. That’s something you don’t always get in the corporate environment. And it’s meaningful to be thanked for our work.”

Finding a passion

Volunteer attorneys are also connected with groups outside of Baltimore. Attorneys get matched with nonprofit organizations of all types.

“Lawyers often find that it’s easier to volunteer in a field of law that they’re comfortable with. But lawyers will frequently volunteer to help a group with a mission the attorney is passionate about,” Dunkerton said.

Other honorees include Gregory Bedward, a solo practitioner who donated over 300 hours, as well as Dechert LLP, DLA Piper US LLP, and Hogan Lovells. In addition, community development clinics from both of the law schools in Baltimore will be thanked with “special partner” awards.

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Community Development Clinic has donated more than 1,000 hours from law students. The University of Baltimore School of Law’s Community Development Clinic co-sponsors one-day Saturday clinics for nonprofits who need brief advice.

“Each nonprofit gets 45 minutes with a Community Law Center staff attorney and a law student,” Dunkerton said. “We are grateful that this partnership helps us to reach clients we normally wouldn’t. Plus, working with the law schools helps to introduce us to the next generation of pro bono attorneys.”

To RSVP for the free event (which will feature live music, drinks and refreshments), go to http://communitylaw.org/support/pro-baltimore-pro-bono-connecting-lawyers-communities.

 

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.