Guest post by Nancy Yarbrough, Esq., Executive Director, Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program.
After a career as a newspaper reporter and in financial services management, Nancy Yarbrough attended law school later in life. She wanted to make a difference and has been able to do that as the executive director of the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program for the past 17 months.
Most people who attend law school do so because they want to help others, and I was no exception. Being involved in the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program provides attorneys a way to make a difference in the lives of others who very much need our assistance.
The Volunteer Lawyers Program enlists volunteer attorneys to provide free legal services to low-income citizens who are unable to afford representation and need help with civil legal problems. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that was established in 1995 by the Birmingham Bar Association in conjunction with Legal Services Alabama.
There are so many life-changing situations where our volunteer attorneys can assist. When we see people who are facing evictions for unjust reasons, we can file paperwork and represent those individuals in court to help keep them from becoming homeless. Attorneys who volunteer with us also help families by ensuring parents get the support they need to raise their children and are able to see their children to be positive influences in their lives. Our attorneys assist with credit issues and help people avoid bankruptcy. We help with adoptions and have helped several grandparents adopt their grandchildren because of difficult circumstances. Basically, attorneys who volunteer with the program clear paths for our clients so that they can be productive citizens and not be stuck due to insurmountable legal issues.
Any interested attorneys can volunteer, starting with just two hours of their time at our three weekly “Help Desks,” which are held at the Jefferson County Courthouse and the Domestic Relations Courthouse. Volunteer attorneys meet with clients who are income-eligible and provide counsel and advice and, if necessary, show them how to complete court forms in order to reach a successful outcome to their legal case. Volunteer attorneys also provide information about next steps in the legal process of a case and encourage clients to come back to the Help Desk if they need further assistance.
Attorneys can also volunteer to be assigned to cases and go on to represent clients pro bono until their legal issues are resolved. While the commitment often starts out small, many attorneys have told us that they’ve found the experience so rewarding that they take a case and become regulars in our program. Last year, approximately 400 Birmingham-area attorneys donated their time and legal expertise to the program.
We wouldn’t be able to do this important work if it weren’t for the generous financial support of the legal community and grants from the Alabama Law Foundation, Legal Services of Alabama and other foundations. Because there are so few organizations like the Birmingham Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program, and because there are so many people living below the poverty line in Birmingham, only one in four citizens actually gets the legal assistance they need. This is why we are always grateful when attorneys volunteer with our organization or pledge financial support; we have too many people to help and not enough lawyers.
In 2014 alone, we were able to assist more than 2,300 eligible citizens. With more support from area attorneys and the legal community, we look forward to increasing these numbers in 2015.