Barristers Benefit Ball Celebrates 40 Years of Metro Volunteer Lawyers
by Stacy Carpenter and Steve Hahn
There are not very many people in this world who give so much of their time out of the goodness of their heart, and I am forever indebted to you. When I said you saved my life I really meant it, I was desperate, seeing no way out of my situation and then you came along. The Bible says when you are in despair God will send you an angel, I truly believe that you are my mine."
It is hard to imagine the despair Metro Volunteer Lawyers clients encounter. As explained by one MVL client in a letter to her volunteer attorney, navigating the judicial system is nearly impossible for the average person.
The oldest continuing program of its kind in the country, MVL celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Originally know as the "Thursday Night Bar," MVL was started in 1966 by members of the Denver Bar Association and its Young Lawyers Section, in coordination with the University of Denver College of Law and the Legal Aid Society, to provide pro bono legal services to indigent people in Denver.
The creatively-named "Thursday Night Bar" came about because the founding volunteer attorneys met with clients on — what else — Thursday evenings at the Legal Aid offices in northwest Denver or in the Five Points neighborhood. These attorneys provided help and advice in person, and then met the next morning to discuss the cases and assign client matters to individual attorneys if further assistance was needed. In its early years, DBA members responded to the calls for assistance, and approximately 15 percent of the membership volunteered to take pro bono appointments.
When MVL was founded, the question was whether the DBA and the then-existing Legal Aid Society could make an impact on the increasing legal needs of the indigent population in the Denver area. The answer was yes; the program was a success. Today, MVL has grown into a legal assistance program with three full-time staff members and a full-time executive director, who is a licensed attorney. MVL has found a home with Colorado Legal Services, and the two programs share office space, with CLS handling initial client intake and screening for financial eligibility.
The heart and soul of the program is direct one-on-one legal representation of clients. Volunteer lawyers accept cases from filing through conclusion. In 2005, the program placed nearly 1,184 clients with volunteer attorneys. By far, the greatest need is in the area of domestic relations. Of the total placements for 2005, 318 were family law cases. MVL also placed 162 bankruptcies; 464 Social Security appeals; 54 consumer cases; 21 real estate, landlord/tenant or other housing cases; 68 immigration cases; 84 wills, estates, powers of attorney, guardianship, conservatorship or probate cases; and 13 tax and tort cases.
In addition, MVL operates the Family Law Court Program, which offers assistance in a short-term clinical setting. Here, accepted clients who have non-contested divorce or custody cases meet with MVL staff and file pro se. Volunteer attorneys represent those clients at the permanent orders hearing. The Family Law Court Program runs in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Jefferson Counties, and allows attorneys to volunteer their services on a more limited basis. In 2005, 373 clients were assisted through the Family Law Court Program.
In an innovative new program, MVL has partnered with Faegre & Benson, LLP, to start a domestic relations post-decree clinic. This clinic addresses post-decree matters, such as enforcing parental responsibility rights, parenting time and child support orders, and is fully-staffed by MVL employees, and Faegre & Benson attorneys and paralegals. This clinic was so successful in Denver that it has been expanded to serve clients in Jefferson County. In 2005, 207 clients were assisted though the post-decree clinics.
Despite the phenomenal success of MVL, the legal needs of its clientele are constantly increasing, and MVL has not found a way to keep up. The panel is in desperate need of attorneys. The staff remains hopeful that the adoption of Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 260.8 will result in more panel members. This rule allows attorneys to obtain one hour of Continuing Legal Education credit for every five hours of uncompensated pro bono representation or time spent mentoring other attorneys and law students who are working on pro bono cases, up to a maximum of nine hours per reporting cycle.
According to Steve Choquette, partner at Holland & Hart, LLP, and MVL volunteer attorney, lawyers have a higher
This year at the Barristers Benefit Ball, MVL will honor nine attorneys who were instrumental in the creation of MVL: Jerry Conover, Bill DeMoulin, Donald L. Giacomini, Garth Grissom, Peter Holme, Hardin Holmes, Bill Miller, Howard Rosenberg and Richard Young. Their dedication to providing pro bono legal services and their vision to start a program that has become a well-recognized, full-time Bar-sponsored organization is an amazing accomplishment. MVL also will honor three outstanding volunteers who are relatively new to the practice of law: Adam DeVoe, Scott Ellis and Elizabeth Thomas. Each has found the time to represent MVL clients, despite the increasing demands on attorneys who are just starting their legal careers.
• Adam DeVoe is an associate at Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber, P.C., and was admitted to practice in 2000. DeVoe practices with the firm’s Environmental & Natural Resources and Water & Public Lands Group, focusing on environmental litigation and water rights. Since he started practicing, DeVoe has accepted nine cases from MVL, including four domestic relations cases, even though he is not a family law attorney. He explains that upon his graduation from law school he "took the obligation to volunteer seriously." DeVoe credits much of his enthusiasm to volunteer to the atmosphere at his present and prior firm. He finds a firm’s willingness to give billable hour credit for pro bono work vital. "Sometimes the best intentions fall by the wayside with high billable hour requirements."
• Scott Ellis, admitted to the Bar in 2001, is employed with the U.S. Department of the Interior in Lakewood. As a government employee, Ellis works a flex-time schedule and uses his days off to volunteer at the Family Law Court Program in Adams County. He assists with permanent orders, and helps clients prepare initial paperwork and financial affidavits. He often provides direct representation to clients who originated in the Family Law Court program, but whose cases have become too complicated to continue in the clinical setting. Ellis’ commitment to pro bono stands out as he volunteers at the Family Law Court Program, even though his area of practice is not domestic relations. He is one of a very few government attorneys who volunteer with MVL. According to MVL staff member Kathy Tourtelot, "Scott is always very personable to everyone, extremely helpful and very willing to do whatever is necessary to help the clients."
• For Elizabeth Thomas, the practice of law is a second career. In 1976, she obtained a Masters of Science in Human Genetics from the University of Colorado Medical Center. Just prior to attending law school, she was the owner and director of a child day care center that was a visitation site for non-custodial parents, where visitation was arranged and supervised by the Jefferson County Department of Social Services Child Protection Unit. Prior to that, she was the
The money raised from the Barristers Benefit Ball provides a majority of MVL’s annual operating budget, with the remainder coming from contributions by the Arapahoe, Jefferson/Gilpin, Adams/Broomfield and Douglas/Elbert bar associations and the Denver Bar Foundation. The Ball is an event not to be missed, with lavish decorations, a casino, live music and dancing, souvenir photographs and fine dining. Please join us this year as we celebrate and honor MVL and its wonderful volunteer attorneys’ metro-wide commitment to pro bono representation. See page 3 for more information on attending the Barristers Benefit Ball.