WHAT IS LEGAL AID?
Pro Bono Texas has a broad view of legal aid. When we say “legal aid,” we don’t mean only the organizations that have “legal aid” in their names. We mean all the organizations across the state dedicated to providing free legal services to low-income Texans. Here’s a short summary of the types of legal aid we have in Texas:
We have three organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation: Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Each of them have a service area approximately the size of Colorado and a broad civil practice including family law, housing, consumer, domestic violence, and much more.
We also have three large, community-based pro bono providers in Texas: Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, and Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. These organizations specialize in matching pro bono lawyers with pro bono clients in their communities, and like the LSC organizations, have cases in a broad array of practice areas.
Many of the other legal aid organizations around the state have a specific focus such as disability rights, domestic violence, employment, civil rights, or immigration, for example. There are too many to name individually, but they include Disability Rights Texas, Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, Mosaic Family Services, RAICES, Texas Advocacy Project, and Texas Civil Rights Project, to name just a few. No matter what issue you are passionate about, you can probably find a legal aid organization in Texas working on it.
WHY LEGAL AID?
Volunteering with a legal aid organization is an easy way to do pro bono in Texas. Most legal aid organizations will take care of screening the client and the case, and they will match you with a volunteer opportunity that fits your needs and abilities. They typically have interesting cases in a variety of practice areas and clients who are truly grateful for your help. Because they always have volunteer opportunities, you can volunteer when it fits your schedule rather than waiting for a particular time of year or a special event. Virtually all of them also provide malpractice coverage for their volunteers.
One of the other benefits of volunteering with a legal aid provider is the opportunity to build a relationship with an organization and its client community over time, making the experience even richer. From a practical perspective, acquiring expertise enables you to do your pro bono work more efficiently.
YOU CAN HELP
For most legal aid organizations, the biggest need by far is lawyers who will take pro bono cases. It is common for lawyers who have never volunteered to overestimate the time commitment for a typical pro bono case. Talk with the pro bono coordinator at the organization of your choice about the average total time commitment and the average commitment on a weekly basis. You will probably find that it is manageable for you—especially with the support of the organization and Pro Bono Texas on your side.
PRO BONO OUTSIDE THE BOX
If not, consider teaming up with a friend, colleague, or even a group on a case. If that isn’t possible, ask about other types of pro bono work. Clinics, mentoring, research, drafting, public policy advocacy, or developing educational materials are just a few examples. While placing cases is usually the priority, don’t be afraid to think creatively about how you can help low-income Texans when other commitments prevent you from taking a case.
HAVE NO FEAR
Lawyers who have never volunteered are often afraid that they don’t know enough to help at a clinic or by taking a case in an unfamiliar area. But it’s important to remember that, for the most part, people looking for a pro bono lawyer will either get help from you or they will get no help at all. Your help is undoubtedly better than no help and can make a huge difference in their lives. Your legal aid partner will make sure you have the support you need to succeed, and you can find mentors and resources here to help guide your way.
What tips do you have for first-time volunteers? Tell us your pro bono success story. Share your experiences volunteering with a legal aid organization in Texas.