Agency recruits attorneys to do free legal work for poor

July 13, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

In May, Winifred C. Borden closed her Baltimore law firm management consulting business to take on another legal challenge -- getting lawyers to do for free what they're ordinarily paid to do.

Mrs. Borden is executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services Inc., a non-profit organization that recruits attorneys to handle "pro bono" civil cases around the state.

With lawyers riding out an economic downturn and looking for ways to maximize profits and cut costs, one might expect they would be hesitant to commit to pro bono activities. But Mrs. Borden said that hasn't been the case.

"I think that there is an increased interest in pro bono," she said. "That's just based on what I'm seeing -- and that's not to say that there's a huge groundswell -- but there continue to be lawyers that are interested."

Financial doldrums have prompted some law firms to do a delicate balancing act regarding pro bono work, Towson attorney Stephen J. Nolan said.

"I wouldn't say there's a reluctance, but I do think that law firms are still trying to do what they can for indigent clients and at the same time address their other client and office needs," said Mr. Nolan, who works with a Towson law firm and is president of the People's Pro Bono Action Center Inc., a statewide, non-profit group.

"Lawyers recognize that in these slow financial times, the economic downturn just means there are more people with legal needs."

Mrs. Borden said her 10-year-old organization, which recruited more than 500 lawyers and dealt with more than 700 clients last year, has managed to attract more attorneys since she came on board in May.

The organization has a staff of four and an annual budget just under $200,000. Funding comes in part from the Maryland State Bar Association and Legal Services Corp., a non-profit, national organization that receives federal money.

Mrs. Borden notes that law firm involvement with pro bono work isn't totally altruistic. Working with the indigent lets young attorneys to gain courtroom experience.

Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of the cases handled by Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services are related to family law, said Mrs. Borden, who is not an attorney.

From 1985 until May, Mrs. Borden was an entrepreneur running her own law firm management consulting business, W. C. Borden & Associates. The firm closed down when the recession began to put a crimp in the demand for legal services, affecting the small and medium-sized firms that were Mrs. Borden's clients.

Maryland may be more responsive to pro bono needs than other states: Two years ago the state bar association began a program to encourage lawyers to do more free work for poor clients. The program was the first of its kind in the country and has been widely copied. "I want to be able to expand MVLS and give it a broader presence statewide," Mrs. Borden said., adding that her management skills have been put to the test.

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