Virginia Legal Aid Society has launched a program, “Building Pro Bono Capacity in a Small-City & Rural Service Area,” to double the number of attorneys and cases in its pro bono volunteer program in two years. The program includes a new clinic launched in partnership with the Liberty University School of Law.

More than 600 private lawyers work in the six-city, 20-county region served by VLAS that extends from Lynchburg and Danville to Western Tidewater. About 170 of them provide free legal services to the low-income clients VLAS serves, and they closed 151 cases last year.

Legal Services Corporation., a not-for-profit company established in 1974 by Congress to fund legal aid programs throughout the nation, has awarded a competitive $327,899 grant from its Pro Bono Innovation Fund for this project.

Kristine Smith, a former partner with the Lynchburg law firm Woods, Rogers, Edmunds & Williams, has assumed the new position of Pro Bono Director to lead the program. She began work Jan. 9.

Smith received her law degree from William and Mary Law School, where she was a member of the law review and the Order of the Coif, signifying the top 10% of her graduating class. She began her career in 1991 as a judicial law clerk in U.S. District Court in Richmond, worked as an associate for Gerald T. Zerkin & Associates in Richmond before joining Edmunds & Williams (which became Woods, Rogers, Edmunds & Williams in October 2016) in Lynchburg in 1993.  Smith focused on litigation, organizational management, and domestic relations in her private practice, and was an active pro bono volunteer for VLAS.

VLAS also hired Frances White, a communications studies graduate of James Madison University, as pro bono project coordinator, another new position to support the program. White also began work Jan. 9.

The VLAS program will create three innovative initiatives:

  • local task forces of private attorneys, judges, and legal aid staff to recruit and support new pro bono participation in the Danville, Farmville, and Suffolk service areas.
  • a clinical program with Liberty University School of Law, involving up to eight students who will represent low income clients each semester with case supervision and support by legal aid and private attorneys.
  • continued development of a statewide online pro bono portal that will allow private attorneys from any part of Virginia to review and volunteer for cases from anywhere in Virginia; the portal will combine cases from the two case management systems, JusticeServer and Kemps CaseWorks, used by Virginia’s nine legal aid programs.

“Liberty University School of Law is excited about and proud of our new partnership with VLAS,” said B. Keith Faulkner, dean of Liberty Law. “The opportunity to partner with an organization dedicated to helping our local community and the Commonwealth is exciting.  Our students will benefit from learning practical skills alongside a quality group of attorneys.  Our talented faculty and the dedicated men and women at VLAS will work together to inspire our students to help those who are often the most vulnerable in our communities and impact their lives.”

VLAS relies on pro bono work from private lawyers to supplement the efforts of its staff attorneys and paralegals. More than 140,000 people in VLAS’s service area are eligible to receive free legal aid on civil cases covering housing, access to health care, income and public benefits, family issues, consumer lending and assets.

“We have found that systematic local peer recruitment, early exposure to pro bono work, and ease of case selection are keys to a successful pro bono program,” said David Neumeyer, Executive Director of VLAS. “Our new program combines all three elements to serve our entire service area and support the rest of the Commonwealth. We are grateful for the Legal Services Corporation funding and the partnership with Liberty University that makes it possible.”

Since 1991, VLAS has had a successful pro bono program in and around Lynchburg, with about 130 private lawyers volunteering their time, completing about 130 of the 3,000 cases VLAS closes each year. The Building Pro Bono Capacity Program will seek to replicate that success throughout the rest of its service area. VLAS receives more than 18,000 new requests for help each year through its LawLine intake and advice system at 866-LEGL-AID (866-534-5243). All applicants can receive legal advice in their first phone contact with VLAS, but less than half receive help they need in extended-service cases such as trials, due to VLAS’s lack of sufficient resources.

Anyone who would like to help VLAS sustain this valuable program is asked to contact Rhonda Knight, VLAS Director of Development, at rhondak@vlas.org or (434) 660-4461.

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Virginia Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit law firm that provides legal information, advice and representation in civil cases to underprivileged individuals and families. Since 1977, VLAS has been the only institutional provider of such services in Central, Southside, and Western Tidewater Virginia. VLAS attorneys and paralegals use legal skills to solve problems in housing, access to health care, income and public benefits, family issues, consumer lending and assets. Our mission is to resolve serious legal problems of vulnerable people, promote economic and family stability, reduce poverty through effective legal assistance, and to champion equal justice. For more information on our services, to get involved, or to make a donation, please visit us at www.vlas.org and follow us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/VaLegalAidSociety, and Twitter @VA_LegalAid

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