We recently read a brief, but powerful piece of writing by Rachel Pisors (pictured right), an attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas. It’s worth reading, whether you work in legal aid or not.
The Power of ‘Mmm’
Legal Aid of Arkansas Attorney
It doesn’t get you into trouble.
You’re not giving legal advice.
It won’t make the other person stop talking.
But what it will do is tell the person on the other end of the line that you care.
That you’re human—and not a machine.
That someone is listening to them, and that it’s safe for them to keep talking.
But first, let’s just try something.
I’m gonna run through a few basics to get to know where you’re at.
Just shout out the answer; won’t take but a minute.
How much money is in your bank account?
Do you have a car?
Do you go to Commodities to get free peanut butter?
And about that abuse…were you sexually assaulted?
Did this happen to you more than once?
And you said your name is “______,” right?
And you stay at the “________” shelter?
I now know exactly how bad-off you are financially, and I know what happened in your bedroom last night.
Me? Well, you don’t have to know me.
I just ask the questions, and you answer them.
Tough luck; that’s how this system works.
What if we gifted our callers with pauses?
What if we gifted them a brief “Mmm,” after they’ve provided us with an answer that must have been particularly difficult to tell us—a stranger.
What if—just sometimes—we combined the “Mmm” with the pause, and after he says, “Well, I’m on SNAP, and I really don’t have any assets,” we say, “Mmm,” pause a second, and then gently pose our next question.
How about after she says, “Yes…he tore my panties off and held me down; it really hurt,” we say, “Mmm,” pause a second, and then gently pose our next question.
This isn’t an expensive gift.
It doesn’t commit us in any way or require you voice an opinion.
Just empathy—that’s all.
No sympathy—just a brief second of empathy.
Would you consider giving this gift to your HelpLine callers this New Year?
I know if I had been a HelpLine caller when I needed my divorce, I sure would’ve been grateful to you for this.
Arkansas’s rural communities face a looming crisis when it comes to access to essential legal services: a dwindling and aging attorney population in the state’s 25 most rural counties. A policy brief entitled Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas, released today by the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, indicates that these counties average fewer than 0.44 practicing attorneys per 1,000 residents. Seven of these counties have no attorneys licensed this millennium, and one has no attorneys at all.
Despite these sobering statistics, there is hope. Many Arkansas law students would consider locating in a rural part of the state if certain incentives were made available. Rural legal aid fellowships, loan repayment assistance, and paid internships are among the programs that a majority of law students showed interest in, according to the survey of law students and attorneys that is the subject of the policy brief. Rural attorneys indicated a greater willingness to mentor and hire young lawyers than did attorneys from non-rural communities.
The survey probed the likely effectiveness of five complementary programs that the state’s two law schools and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission are jointly considering. Among the factors most likely to encourage students to practice in a rural setting were (1) the ability to have one’s own practice, (2) the opportunity to become a community leader, and (3) the ability to have and maintain their own clientele. Factors most likely to discourage students from locating to rural communities included (1) the perception that they would earn a lower income, (2) a perceived lack of career and economic opportunities, and (3) a relative lack of entertainment, restaurants, and similar amenities.
For questions about the policy brief, which details the results of a series of recent surveys conducted by Prof. Lisa R. Pruitt of UC Davis School of Law, please contact us. A forthcoming article in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review will provide a more in-depth analysis of the rural access problem and its implications.
Legal Aid of Arkansas is one of seven recipients nationally to receive a catalyst grant from the American Bar Association’s Legal Access Job Corps initiative, according to a release issued by the ABA earlier this month. A total of 96 applicants submitted grant proposals to the program, which was created by ABA President James Silkenat “to help nurture innovative programs that bridge the unmet legal needs of our society and the unmet employment needs of our young lawyers.”
The catalyst grant will provide $15,000 to LAA for the creation of two one-year fellowships for recent Arkansas law school graduates. LAA will match the funds dollar-for-dollar and provide supervision, mentoring, support, and assistance as they become established in the practice of law. Fellows must demonstrate a desire to establish law practices in rural and underserved areas of Arkansas and show a commitment to serving the legal needs of poor and moderate-income persons. Among the fellows’ responsibilities will be helping establish a “low bono” or “modest means” pro bono panel to provide services to Arkansans who do not qualify for legal aid, but who do not have the means to hire a private attorney.
“Arkansas has some of the most impoverished communities in the country,” said LAA Executive Director Lee Richardson. “This program will ultimately give us the opportunity to build a self-sustaining legal service delivery model to assist Arkansans who live in poor, sparsely populated areas of the state.”
Arkansas Legal Services Partnership Director Vincent Morris received the National Legal Aid & Defender Association‘s 2014 Innovations in Equal Justice Award at a May 1 award ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The ceremony was attended by over 400 guests, including American Bar Association President Charles Silkenat and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Balmer. Morris received the award in recognition of his outstanding career contributions to creativity and innovation in the delivery of legal service to poor people.
NLADA annually sponsors thirteen awards honoring the distinguished men, women, firms and organizations whose outstanding service and achievements advance the cause of equal access to justice. Past awardees have included Brad Smith of Microsoft; Rick Cotton of NBC Universal; Legal Services Corporation Technology; Hillary Rodham Clinton, Legal Services Advocate and First Lady; New York Times; Daily Record; Hon. Janet Reno, Former United States Attorney General; Brooklyn (NY) Bar Association; State Bar of California; and many others advancing the cause of equal access to justice.
In presenting the honor, NLADA Vice President of Civil Legal Services Don Saunders highlighted a variety of Morris’s achievements in the eleven years since he began work for legal aid as an eight-week intern. While working as an intern, Morris applied for and received a Technology Initiative Grant to build a statewide legal aid website for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas. He has since grown the website to include more than 170 automated resources, real-time chat assistance, streaming videos, and hundreds of advocate resources.
“Morris’s work is vital to the more than 17,000 clients that Arkansas’s two legal aid providers serve each year, the advocates who help them, and the Arkansans who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford an attorney,” said Saunders.
A team of graduate students conducted research to help Arkansas Access to Justice Commission calculate the economic impact of civil legal aid services in Arkansas provided by the state’s two legal aid providers: the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, which serves 44 counties in central, western, and southern Arkansas; and Legal Aid of Arkansas, which serves 31 counties in northern and eastern Arkansas.
University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service students Paola Cavallari of Termoli, Italy, Matthew Devlin of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Rebekah Tucci of Lakeland, Florida, spent the past year completing an assessment of direct cost/benefits and opportunity costs by comparing state and national data trends, as well as a qualitative assessment that included legal aid attorney interviews and surveys of circuit court judges and former legal services clients.
They collected basic information on these programs’ operations and assessed the impact of the services provided on individual clients and on the larger community. The data indicated that in 2013, the two legal aid programs created an estimated $25 million of total economic activity in the state. The financial recoveries and avoidance of losses for legal aid clients alone totaled more than $8.6 million—an amount that exceeds the programs’ combined operating costs by over $2.5 million.
“Access to legal representation often makes the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency for a family that is living on the edge,” said the Commission’s Executive Director, Amy Johnson. “This study has confirmed that civil legal aid not only improves the lives of Arkansas families, but it has a stimulus effect on the state’s economy.”
With access to the legal system at crisis levels for the poor and working poor in Arkansas, the Commission emphasized the need for data that will assist it in making the case to policymakers and funders that civil legal aid is a cost-effective tool for combating poverty.
The final report consisted of a more holistic understanding of legal aid services in Arkansas—including the direct and indirect savings to Arkansas taxpayers, a better understanding of the individual impact to the clients receiving services and a clearer picture regarding the impact of legal aid services on the administration of justice.
“This study has laid the groundwork for further examination of innovative ways that we can deliver services in a way that ensures that all Arkansans have access to the civil justice system,” said Johnson. “This is important work.”
The Clinton School team will present the results of their research on May 5, 2014 at a 5:30 p.m. public forum at Sturgis Hall on the Clinton School’s campus.
The students completed the project as part of the Clinton School’s Practicum program, the first of three field service projects in the Master of Public Service degree program.
Arkansas Access to Justice Commission member Bill Waddell is the 2013 recipient of the Arkansas Bar Foundation‘s Equal Justice Distinguished Service Award, according to the Foundation’s Executive Director Ann Pyle. The award, which was presented at a June 12, 2013 awards banquet, is given each year in recognition of commitment to and participation in equal justice program for the poor, including pro bono efforts through legal services programs.
Mr. Waddell is a partner with Friday, Eldredge & Clark, where he leads the firm’s Commercial Litigation and Regulation Practice Group. Drawing from his leadership and experience with the practice group and his dedication to pro bono service, Mr. Waddell has committed to providing two attorneys from his practice group to lend their legal expertise twice monthly in the town of Clarendon where the Mid-Delta Medical-Legal Partnership holds a free legal clinic for area residents seeking legal assistance. He is also a member of the Volunteer Organization for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (VOCALS) and the Equal Access to Justice Panel (EAJP). In the past year alone, he has performed over 120 hours of pro bono service for individual clients—this in addition to the outreach work he has put into the Clarendon MLP.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Waddell has handled over 300 pro bono adoption cases for Bethany Christian Services of Arkansas, which honored him in October 2012 with a service award during the 10th Annual Bethany Golf Classic. He has also assisted with several private pro bono adoptions, charging only court costs. In February 2013, Mr. Waddell was honored with the Living Legend Award from Philander Smith College for his social justice work.
Deeply committed to his faith and his church, Mr. Waddell serves as legal counsel to the Arkansas United Methodist Church’s clergy and is presently the national legal advisor to the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops. He has further served his church as Chancellor to the Arkansas Conference of UMC, as the Volunteers in Mission Coordinator, and currently teaches a young adults class at St. James UMC in Little Rock.
Since his appointment to the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission in 2008 by bar president Rosalind Mouser, Mr. Waddell has led a number of statewide efforts to expand access to justice. He took a leadership role in developing and implementing the first statewide campaign to raise significant private funds for legal aid. His days of devoted work on this project made it a major success including, for the first time, major corporate gifts of over $100,000 to legal aid.
But Mr. Waddell’s efforts to aid the administration of justice did not stop with the fund development campaign alone. He recognized the need to have an organization which could accept and distribute the funds raised to the two legal aid organizations in Arkansas. The Commission itself, being a creature of the Arkansas Supreme Court, could not function in that capacity. He thus set about preparing organizational documents to create The Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation, Inc. and securing nonprofit status for the organization from the IRS. Mr. Waddell and other members of his firm donated many hours pro bono to this effort. The end result is a permanent operational arm of the Commission that can accept and distribute funds in such a way as to positively impact the access to justice for all Arkansans.
Bill is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and has served as chair of the Financial Services Committee and the Legal Services Committee of the Arkansas Bar Association. He is currently a commissioner of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission and is chair of the commission’s Pro Bono Committee. He is also the president of the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation. He recently received the 2013 Living Legend Award from Philander Smith College for his social justice work.
Lawyer Uses Legal System to Battle Poverty, Improve Health for Working Poor
PRINCETON, N.J. — Growing up in Arkansas, a state that ranks at or near the bottom in the country on many health indicators, Amy Johnson witnessed firsthand the connection between poverty and poor health. But even Johnson was surprised when health care providers told her they were seeing patients in some areas suffering from some of the same conditions that occur in Third World countries. Legal issues were often a complicating factor in managing health care and adequate living conditions.
“There is a real overlap between health and legal issues, especially in Arkansas, where it is a crime not to pay your rent, but there is no warranty of habitability,” said Johnson. “That means you can be required to pay rent on a place that is not livable. It may be infested with mold that inflames your asthma, or it may have faulty wiring that makes it impossible to operate the ventilator that you need to breathe.”
As the first executive director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, Johnson works to help low-income Arkansans overcome legal barriers that perpetuate poverty. In that role, she has helped raise more than $2.1 million to support the provision of free legal aid to low-income people. She also served on an advisory committee that oversaw the formation of the state’s first hospital-based medical-legal partnership.
Working with local clergy, she helped to establish the Harmony Health Clinic in Little Rock, a free clinic for the working poor—people who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare and do not make enough money to afford health insurance. Harmony Health Clinic provides local medical and dental professionals with the opportunity to serve their community, help others, and volunteer their time and services to improve the quality of the health of their neighbors.
For her tireless commitment, Johnson has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Johnson will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.
According to Johnson, most employers in Arkansas are small businesses that cannot afford to provide health insurance for their workers. Given this, Johnson said, there is no limit to the number of free health clinics that could be opened in her community. “We opened our clinic doors at the beginning of the economic downturn in 2008—patients just came flooding in. Our clinic, like many other nonprofits that serve low-income families, struggles daily with an overwhelming need for the services and a real lack of resources to provide them.”
The clinic has 2,000 patients, the vast majority of whom suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. The care it provides is crucial to avoiding bigger health problems later. The results: There have been approximately 1,000 fewer emergency room visits and many families have been saved from the financial ruin that often follows an uninsured hospital stay.
Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Johnson for her creativity and tireless determination. “The impact of Amy’s aggregated efforts to improve the health of the residents of Central Arkansas is an outstanding example of creativity across a broad spectrum,” Griffin said. “Her legal background and earlier experience as a social worker provided a tremendous foundation for the leadership she contributed to the establishment of Harmony Health Clinic. Her work touches the lives of thousands of Central Arkansas residents who otherwise would not have access to health care. Her persistence improves health for these individuals—and in many cases, quite literally saves lives.”
While an attorney may not be a typical member of the health care team, Johnson’s legal training along with her experience as a social service worker have increased her ability to be a visionary and a powerful leader. “An attorney is often able to address underlying legal issues that are affecting the patient’s health,” Johnson said.
For example, Johnson has helped more than 25 families petition for guardianship of adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Guardianship allows them to access critical mental health treatment and to avoid the involuntary commitment process and the hospitalization that accompanies it. She sees great possibility in the medical-legal partnership setting as well. “When a child has a chronic and debilitating health care issue and the school won’t make accommodations, or if someone is denied benefits they are qualified for but there is a paperwork mix-up, an attorney can often resolve the problem,” she said.
Rev. Michael Mattox, formerly of Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church, said in his letter of support for Johnson’s nomination: “Expertly trained in her field with accolades and honors, Amy has that something extra that makes her stand out in human relations. She has the ability to value her own opinions, but also the grace to be patient and forgiving to others. Were it not for her efforts, along with a couple other like-minded young professionals, I doubt that Little Rock would have a center for health care like Harmony Health Clinic. She has been that ‘behind the scenes’ force that has navigated through choppy waters to bring an institution to a better place of being able to help others, enhancing and even celebrating diversity and difference of opinion, which seem to be very rare things.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mental- health services in Seattle; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia, and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are more than 200 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For 40 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter www.rwjf.org/twitter or Facebook www.rwjf.org/facebook.
The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission is one of nine recipients of a State Justice Institute Technical Assistance Grant for the 3rd quarter of 2012, according to Commission Executive Director Amy Johnson. The grant will cover $46,400 of the project’s total estimated cost of $69,656. Grant partners include Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation, and the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts.
The project will build a foundation to establish a statewide strategy for addressing the growing number of unrepresented litigants in Arkansas courts. Specific objectives of the project are to (1) conduct an assessment of resources that currently exist which address or may potentially address the needs of unrepresented litigants in Arkansas; (2) determine which additional resources are most needed to address the needs of unrepresented litigants; and (3) prepare a plan for the development and sustainability of those resources.
“This study is a necessary step toward addressing a huge problem for low-income Arkansans and for our courts,” said Johnson. “When those who can’t afford attorneys are left to try to navigate the legal system on their own, justice is not served.”
A 2011 pilot study conducted by the Commission through the Clinton School of Public Service suggests that as many as 90 to 95% of cases involving family law, consumer protection, and guardianships and small estates may have at least one unrepresented party.
Arkansas attorneys and law students will celebrate National Pro Bono Week beginning October 24, 2011, with a series of events that will include the provision of free legal services to first responders.
The celebration is a coordinated national effort to meet the ever-growing needs of this country’s most vulnerable citizens. Events throughout the week will encourage and support local efforts to expand the delivery of pro bono legal services and serve to showcase the great difference that pro bono attorneys make to the nation, its system of justice, its communities, and most of all, to the clients they serve.
Event highlights in Arkansas include:
Monday, October 24 – Proclamations Recognizing Importance of Pro Bono Service
Governor Mike Beebe, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, and Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan will issue proclamations recognizing the important role that Arkansas pro bono attorneys play in ensuring that low-income Arkansans have access to civil justice.
Tuesday, October 25 – Pro Bono Luncheon in Northwest Arkansas
Presidents of the Benton and Washington County Bar associations, along with 2011 Legal Aid Outstanding Service Award winner Eva Madison, will speak at a luncheon hosted in the E.J. Ball Courtroom at the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Wednesday, October 26 – Free Lawyers for First Responders in Northwest Arkansas
Volunteer attorneys will be available to prepare simple wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney for health care and financial matters to first responders in northwest Arkansas, including firefighters, police officers, and emergency health care workers. This is a free service provided by Arkansas lawyers from multiple organizations, law firms, bar associations and the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Thursday, October 27 – Free Lawyers for First Responders in Central Arkansas
Following issuance of a proclamation from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel recognizing the importance of pro bono service, volunteer attorneys will be available to prepare simple wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney for health care and financial matters to first responders in central Arkansas. This is a free service provided by Arkansas lawyers from multiple organizations, law firms, bar associations and UALR Bowen School of Law.
Friday, October 28 – Just Jeans
Law firms, corporate legal departments, government legal offices, judicial offices, and law schools are encouraged to participate in the Just Jeans event by observing a casual Friday on October 28, 2011, with participants making a minimum suggested contribution of $5. Contributions collected will go to the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation to support efforts to increase the financial and pro bono volunteer resources available to our state’s two legal aid providers. This will, in turn, help low-income Arkansans, including domestic violence victims, children, and senior citizens, access the legal services they need.
Saturday, October 29 – iProBono
Arkansas pro bono attorneys will be able to download, free of charge, the first Pro Bono mobile service application through iTunes. Through this app, registered Arkansas pro bono attorneys will be able to accept cases representing low-income Arkansans based on legal topic, county, or by other categories with their iPhones. Two Arkansas web and software development companies, LogiCurrent and Path Designs, are providing free development services for this innovative project.