Every year, about 20 Bowdoin students get an up-close-and-personal look at Maine's judicial system. Instead of a professor's lecture, they hear the tales of impoverished Mainers who are down on their luck. Instead of lecture notes, they record the relevant details of troubled lives. And instead of abstract positions, they stand up for the rights of real people facing eviction, divorce, and personal bankruptcy. But they're not part of a special pre-law seminar. They're volunteers for the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP).
The VLP, which provides free legal assistance with civil matters to low-income Maine residents, has had Bowdoin on its team from its start in 1983. Since then, VLP has taken more than 175,000 calls on its volunteer-staffed toll-free hotline and referred more than 27,000 pro bono cases. Shirley, a disabled woman caught in a tangle of regulations that threatened her social security benefits; Michael, a father who struggled to maintain custody of his son; and Karen, a nurse wrongfully accused of abuse on the job, are just a few of the many pulled out of crisis by VLP. The demand is enormous, evidenced by the 600 to 1,000 calls to VLP each week. "We could triple our volunteers and still not meet the need," says Lin Martin-Hunt, VLP's volunteer coordinator since the project's founding.
As one of two statewide providers of civil legal services to low-income citizens, VLP handles mostly family and consumer law cases. "Sixty percent of the cases involve divorce, parental rights, child support and custody, and so on. Another 25 percent are consumer law, mainly personal bankruptcy," says Mary Richardson, director of the Project. "Our work involves a huge educational piece," she continues. "The majority of our callers receive appropriate legal information and client education materials via the hotline. We are only able to match a small percentage of these callers with volunteer attorneys who provide limited or full pro bono representation, so the assistance callers get from Hotline volunteers is vital."
Bowdoin's involvement began when Martin-Hunt pinpointed colleges as a good source for volunteers. "It seemed a natural place to go," she recalls. "A number of the attorneys involved at the time were Bowdoin alumni. We contacted other colleges too, but right from the start it was Bowdoin en masse."
One pivotal Bowdoin alumnus is Justice Howard Dana '62, associate justice of the Maine Supreme Court. Dana was chair of the Maine State Bar Association legal aid committee when that group saw the need that led to the creation of VLP. He helped obtain funding by securing a grant from the American Bar Association and convincing the state to set up an opportunity for Maine lawyers to voluntarily contribute to VLP when they paid annual dues.
But VLP didn't just fill a gap for legal services, it also broke new ground in how those services are delivered. "One innovation was to get Portland lawyers to volunteer and help place cases with other lawyers around the state," says Justice Dana. These "Lawyers of the Day" became an effective way to tap Portland's large supply of lawyers who could do the legwork of connecting clients in need with lawyers around the state who had district court expertise. Putting non-lawyer volunteers on the hotlines to filter calls was another first, and an important one. "You don't have to be a lawyer to determine if a caller has a legal problem, or if they qualify for legal assistance," says Dana. These approaches have helped VLP serve far more clients than would be possible with the limited staff and resources available to the program. (Every year, the efforts of volunteers are worth more than four times VLP's annual budget).
VLP's Lawyers of the Day include Bowdoin alumna Margaret Minister O'Keefe '89. An attorney at Pierce Atwood LLP in Portland, O'Keefe worked the hotlines as a Bowdoin student, and now spends two days a year recruiting attorneys all over Maine to take VLP cases. "As a student, my time at VLP really opened my eyes to the power of the judicial system, particularly on issues of social justice and poverty," says O'Keefe. "As a lawyer, it inspired me to fulfill my obligation to help the under-represented, and I always strive to have a pro bono matter open." In addition to donating time and expertise to the Maine Bar Foundation, O'Keefe's pro bono work currently includes serving as a guardian ad litem and providing representation in a four-year-old class action suit.
An Education by Phone
Like the volunteer lawyers, hotline volunteers are essential to VLP's operation. And of those who work the phones, Bowdoin students play a vital role. "They bring energy, idealism, and incredibly quick minds," says Richardson. "They bring a lot of positive energy, and they have compassion. That's as important as legal knowledge, because our callers have already hit so many brick walls when they reach us." In terms of sheer numbers, the impact of the students' nine shifts a week is also clear. "When they're on semester break, we can fall behind by 300 to 400 calls," adds Martin-Hunt. "Needless to say, we are always grateful when they return."
Students don't have to be law school-bound government majors to help. "It's more about your makeup," says Ben Yormak '06, VLP's on-campus coordinator. "It takes discipline and a bit of a thick skin, because sometimes the callers are rough around the edges and the stories you hear are very sobering."
To find the right students and then prepare them, Martin-Hunt first screens student volunteers through an interview process. Some are then selected to undergo three training sessions (plus supplementary refreshers later on) on legal and ethical issues, as well as the nuts and bolts of taking calls and handling tough situations and understandably emotional callers. "The most helpful training was listening in on calls with experienced VLPers," says Fred Fedynyshyn '05, who spent three hours a week at VLP for four semesters and who is now a first year law student at Harvard Law School. "This is especially true of the 'difficult' calls, where to a large extent you're dealing with people, not legalities. It's very much an art, not a science. The more calls you take, the more likely you are to ask the right questions."
Some calls take 15 minutes, others run as long as 45. When you hang up and complete your case notes, volunteers say there's another right on its heels. "The phone never stopped ringing," remembers O'Keefe. Aside from the rapid pace, there's the helpless feeling you get when you're not able to assist them. "Far and away, that's the worst part," says Fedynyshyn. "Maybe you can't find the lawyer they need by tomorrow's deadline, or the caller is just slightly above the income requirement levels. You feel like you and the system have let them down."
The flip side of course, is the reward that comes from making a difference. "I take away from this a great appreciation for this segment of the community that you don't hear about," says Yormak. "If one out of ten callers says you've helped, it's all worth it." There's no doubt this new perspective has a big impact on every student volunteer. "It takes me out of the Bowdoin bubble for a bit," explains Conor Carpenter '05. "An exam isn't such a big deal when someone tells me her husband has her children and she's so scared you shouldn't call back, and she's out of heating oil."
The Greater Good
Given Bowdoin's long-standing tradition of volunteerism and the value placed on giving back, it's no surprise to find that some 300 students have dedicated their time over the years. What is perhaps unexpected is that students get back as much or more than they give. "VLP serves a need in the community," says David E. Warren '76, Bowdoin trustee, managing partner at Verrill Dana, LLP, in Portland, and chair of the statewide 2005 Campaign for Justice, which raises funds to support VLP and other Maine legal services providers. "But it's also an extraordinary learning opportunity for students coming from an environment like Bowdoin to understand the problems and desperation that the general populace faces every day."
"They develop more empathy and an understanding of poverty, as well as the role the legal system can play in breaking the cycle that keeps our clients in poverty," explains Richardson. "It's incredibly valuable to understand the impact of not having the means to hire a lawyer, whether you have no roof over your head, or you can't raise your children in a safe environment."
Students, too, appreciate this stuff of real life, understanding that it's impossible to replicate it in a classroom. "It's a whole different learning experience," says Lucas Burke '01, a paralegal who started law school this fall, and who volunteered for five semesters at VLP. "You practice thinking and anticipating issues. You get room to make choices and an immediate sense of making a difference."
This type of experience has obvious practical benefit when you're exploring a career in law or social services. And for many student volunteers, such as Darcie McElwee '95, the lessons learned at VLP still pay off. McElwee, a federal prosecutor in Portland, volunteered at VLP for two years as a student. "When I was a state prosecutor, I was exposed to so many struggling people," she says. "I was prosecuting the same people who call VLP, and my time there gave me sensitivity to their experience that helped me use discretion appropriately. I also learned early on what it meant to be an advocate, arguing for someone who had no voice. And of course, I learned so much about the law. We couldn't take every case, but we learned about the options and resources out there, and I still use that knowledge today."
Whether VLP student volunteers stick with careers in law or choose unrelated paths, the benefits are plentiful. Students become mindful citizens. VLP gets a steady source of engaged, talented volunteers. Desperate people get a helping hand. The community grows stronger. "The more you can address impediments to healthy living and barriers by clearing debt or resolving custody or whatever the issue might be, " O'Keefe says, "the more people can pay attention to working, raising their children, and living healthfully. And that benefits us all."