It has been said that if you want to be incrementally better, be competitive, but if you want to be exponentially better, be cooperative. The justice gap is so wide, and the need for pro bono services so large, that we must find ways to be more effective, to collaborate and to be exponentially better.
The statistics are startling. Even with the efforts of stellar legal services organizations and pro bono attorneys, only approximately 20 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor are currently being met. That means only one in five low-income people who experience a legal problem is able to get help from any source. And for certain vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the need is even more acute.
Pennsylvania and Philadelphia are aging quickly and in great numbers. By the year 2020, one of every four Pennsylvanians will be a senior citizen, 60 or older. Today, Philadelphia is home to the highest percentage of seniors among the 10 largest cities in the nation. And it’s a shocking reality that one in five older Philadelphians lives in poverty, living on less than $10,890 annually for one person. Poverty levels increase with age, with more than one-third of our seniors 85 or older living at less than 150 percent of the poverty level. Thousands of seniors in Philadelphia living on low, fixed incomes need help with legal problems that affect their daily lives, their safety, health, families and survival. Many seniors face special challenges in accessing help, such as mobility problems and lack of transportation, disabilities, health challenges and isolation. Creative, collaborative and accessible responses to serve the needs of our seniors are needed. One excellent response with documented success is the Life Planning Pro Bono Legal Partnership.
The Life Planning Pro Bono Legal Partnership model was developed by SeniorLAW Center to meet a critical need in Philadelphia: the provision of living wills, financial and health care powers of attorney and simple wills to low-income seniors. Through this pro bono program, low-income seniors are able to plan for their future and to express their end-of-life decisions with clarity and dignity, to select trusted individuals to ensure that their limited income and possessions are not exploited or stolen, and to help in the transfer of property to a next generation to help avoid blight and vacancies of property. Senior clients receive legal advice, counseling and the peace of mind of knowing that their wishes have been memorialized. These are documents of critical legal importance to all of us, but especially for vulnerable seniors who are at higher risk of abuse and exploitation and who may need a third-party decision-maker to make key choices about medical interventions, long-term care placement and financial transactions in the near future.
The partnership is a true collaboration with four distinct partners: (1) SeniorLAW Center; (2) a partnering law firm, such as Blank Rome; (3) a community senior venue; and (4) in-house counsel from a corporate legal department. The partnership succeeds by drawing on the strengths and resources of all of these participants.
Founded in 1978, SeniorLAW Center is a nonprofit organization that improves the lives of older Pennsylvanians and protects their rights through legal representation, education and advocacy, now serving over 8,000 seniors in wide-ranging areas of law each year, including seniors in all 67 counties through our Pennsylvania SeniorLAW Helpline. With this project, SeniorLAW Center begins by locating volunteer attorneys who are: (1) interested in serving elders; (2) interested in learning or already have experience in drafting advance planning instruments; and (3) willing and able to serve seniors in their communities. A firm with a longstanding pro bono commitment is ideal, but this is also an excellent project for others with less pro bono experience who are committed to undertaking a focused project and who want to launch a project that is compelling, personal and satisfying.
To develop expertise of volunteers, SeniorLAW Center conducts a training for volunteers on relevant Pennsylvania law, counseling and drafting techniques, pro bono ethics and special considerations in serving senior clients. It is wise to also record the session, so that any attorney who has a conflict with the training date is able to participate in a later clinic date. Once the attorneys have been trained via a live training, or have confirmed that they watched the DVD and reviewed the written training materials, they are ready to attend a clinic session.
SeniorLAW Center identifies one of its many community partners in the aging services network, such as a senior center or senior residence, that is interested in participating in and hosting a Life Planning Partnership event, and has the commitment and capacity to be a vibrant partner and venue. SeniorLAW Center works with the community partner to identify a date, time and space that best meets the needs of the potential clients, noting that morning programs are usually best for seniors. The center educates the venue’s staff members about the services that will be offered and the venue’s staff advertise the clinic and help in scheduling clients and recruiting clients, if needed. Many clients come to clinics from the waiting lists of SeniorLAW Center, which receives more than 100 requests for assistance each week for legal help and more than 700 requests for advance planning services annually.
SeniorLAW Center conducts a pre-clinic community education workshop for seniors, so that those who sign up to participate have a basic understanding of why advance planning is crucial, what the various legal documents are and how they impact their lives, and what decisions need to be made. This includes questions to take to their physicians before they document their end-of-life health care decisions. Thus, clients are more prepared and more comfortable in making major decisions on the day of the pro bono clinic event. The end result is a less stressful, more productive experience for attorneys and clients.
Providing services in the community where low-income clients live is critical. It makes the services truly accessible and exposes volunteers to neighborhoods and struggles that may be unfamiliar to them. The community venue is ideal for seniors who may be frail or disabled. Being in a pro bono client’s community helps the attorneys to understand the hardships faced by the clients and provides a greater perspective of their lives.
The layout of the venue is also essential to the success of the clinic. The site must be large enough to hold multiple “teams” of attorneys (or attorneys and paralegals or law students), who are meeting with their clients, and must be able to accommodate the technology that the attorneys will use to serve the clients. Importantly, the space must provide sufficient privacy to allow attorney-client communications to remain confidential. Working together in a large space builds a team atmosphere where problem-solvers can roam and support the volunteers and clients. Having simple food for both volunteers and clients, educational materials for clients to refer to and take home and welcoming remarks from partner leaders is highly recommended to build comfort and partnership.
The law firm recruits the volunteer attorneys for the clinic and provides all needed technology, including laptops and printers, pre-loaded with templates for all of the documents that will be drafted. As noted above, the attorney volunteers need not be experts in trusts and estates, as SeniorLAW Center provides training, mentoring and supervision.
The clinic event launches with welcoming words and a brief review of the clinic protocols, the law and counseling and drafting techniques. Attorneys are paired together, with new attorneys partnering with experienced participants. Members of SeniorLAW Center staff are on-site to provide oversight and guidance, address unexpected problems and review all documents before they are finalized. SeniorLAW Center staff work closely with volunteers to ensure the excellence of the pro bono services provided. The law firm also provides notaries, as well as administrative support following the clinic (to copy and send the original, plus copies, of the executed documents to each client). Law firms can easily provide this administrative support, whereas for a nonprofit legal services organization, such as SeniorLAW Center, with limited administrative resources, this task would be arduous.
Finally, in-house counsel from corporate legal departments also participate in the clinics, by volunteering themselves and by encouraging their outside counsel law firms to volunteer as well. As more corporate legal departments formalize their pro bono programs and emphasize pro bono participation, more in-house counsel than ever before are searching for pro bono opportunities. The Life Planning Pro Bono Legal Partnership provides an opportunity to do a lot of good with a relatively modest and defined commitment of time, which is a perfect fit for in-house counsel searching for discrete, but meaningful, projects.
This four-way partnership works well because it allows each diverse participant to bring its distinct skills and capacity to the table. And the impact of this partnership is significant. As an example, in the last year, Blank Rome and SeniorLAW Center have held Life Planning Partnership clinics around Pennsylvania in Juniata Park, Germantown, Roxborough, West Philadelphia and Center City. More than 60 Blank Rome attorneys have volunteered for these clinics, with additional in-house counsel volunteers from Harleysville Insurance and Exelon Corporation. Through these joint efforts, more than 140 senior citizens, including many veterans, grandparents and great-grandparents, those in wheelchairs, on walkers and on respirators, from age 60 to 102, now have powerful tools to address decision-making for the rest of their lives and the end of their lives. And because volunteers assisted these seniors with these advance planning needs, the staff of SeniorLAW Center was able to focus their efforts on other critically needed areas of crisis, such as mortgage foreclosure, eviction, domestic violence, grandparent custody and financial exploitation, serving more than 8,000 Pennsylvania seniors each year. This is truly a win-win for all involved and one that could not be accomplished without the collaborative efforts of all partners who come together to serve the needs of “the greatest generations,” those who fought not only our wars but the battle for civil rights, equality and justice, and who created the opportunities we all enjoy today. •
Kathy E. Ochroch is a partner and serves as director of pro bono services at Blank Rome. She can be reached at 215-569-5711 or Ochroch@BlankRome.com.
Karen Buck is the executive director of SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit organization that protects the rights of older Pennsylvanians through representation, education and advocacy.She can be reached at 215-701-3201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.