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MVLS director Sullivan to retire, Francis to lead nonprofit

Bonnie Sullivan

Bonnie Sullivan

The executive director of the largest provider of pro bono civil legal services in Maryland announced her retirement Thursday after 11 years in the role.

In an interview, Bonnie Sullivan said she will leave the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service at the end of September. Current deputy director Susan Francis will take over on Oct. 1. MVLS will seek a new director of program management as a result of the change in leadership.

On Thursday, Sullivan said she informed the board last September that she would be stepping down in the next year. She and Francis have worked closely together in recent years and had plenty of time to plan the transition.

“I know this organization will be in very good hands,” Sullivan said. “She knows the ropes and has a few things to learn, but she came to MVLS with a strong nonprofit background and advocacy background.”

Susan Francis

Susan Francis

Francis joined the organization in 2013 as the foreclosure prevention project manager and was promoted to deputy director in 2014. She said that she and Sullivan had time to think about the future of the organization together but that the entire staff will be sad to see Sullivan leave.

“She has been our leader and guider and kept us on point and mission-focused for a long time,” Francis said of Sullivan. “I think all of the staff was sort of struggling a little bit with what will happen next but (was) also really excited for Bonnie.”

Sullivan said she plans to return as an MVLS volunteer and is considering other volunteer opportunities, though she’s been advised not to rush into commitments right away.

“I know I’ll be gardening and traveling and visiting my grandchildren,” she said of her immediate plans.

Challenges, accomplishments

Sullivan presided over a period of increased funding for MVLS, which was founded in 1981 to provide access to legal counseling and representation for low-income residents. The organization matches clients with volunteer lawyers in cases from family law to bankruptcy, foreclosure, wills and estate planning.

Under Sullivan’s leadership, MVLS expanded its presence throughout the state and increased funding by 56%, doubling staff and expanding programs.

“Ms. Sullivan always had a broad vision for expanding access to justice – one that supported and unified the state’s other legal services organizations,” E. Hutchinson Robbins, MVLS board of directors president, said in a statement. “Her dedication has greatly benefited the Maryland pro bono legal community and the lives of all state residents seeking legal services.”

When she took over as executive director in 2008, Sullivan said she wanted to refocus programming efforts on providing legal services from the beginning of a case to the end, rather than on providing just “brief advice” through clinics.

Calling MVLS representation the “gold standard of legal services,” Sullivan said she wanted to highlight the importance of full representation.

Francis said that by strengthening daily operations and adding staff, MVLS also has been able to look at “higher-level” issues and to partner with local groups to identify problems.

“What can we do to change the system overall so we’re not just spinning our wheels day to day?” she asked rhetorically. “(The local groups) help us identify potential legal issues (and) we help them identify legal issues they might not know yet are legal issues.”

A continued challenge will be getting volunteer attorneys, Sullivan and Francis agreed.

“I think one of the challenges we are looking at is a perpetual issue for us (and) for all legal services programs: All of our hard efforts leave many folks without the provision of legal services generally because there’s only so many legal services attorneys and pro bonos out there,” Francis said.

Sullivan said that her generation has provided the bulk of pro bono service and that, like her, other baby boomer lawyers are retiring. MVLS launched a young lawyers’ group last year

Francis said that unlike older attorneys, young lawyers graduate from law school with considerable debt and are more likely to be expected to keep round-the-clock schedules.

“It’s also just human nature. It’s hard to add one more thing to the plate,” she said of asking lawyers to take on pro bono work. “We’re asking them to really step out of their comfort zone and, obviously, we provide those supports, but that’s a big ask.”

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