Kim Ahern is a second-year law student, but she didn’t expect to get this type of hands-on education so early in her legal career.
Ahern and two other students have teamed with lawyers from the Providence offices of Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP and the Women’s Center of Rhode Island to provide extensive free legal assistance to six women.
The team is helping the women navigate through family-law issues such as divorce and custody rights that they are in no position to deal with alone. “I didn’t think I’d be doing law that’s this substantive,” Ahern said last week.
Ahern’s work is part of a program at Roger Williams University School of Law called the Pro Bono Collaborative. It matches students and lawyers with community-based agencies to help people who need legal services but can’t afford the fees, or to teach clients of those agencies about their legal rights.
Leslie Gifford, the program’s administrative coordinator, said the Pro Bono Collaborative was established more than a year ago, but recently changed from a pilot program to permanent status and received a $75,000 grant from The Rhode Island Foundation.
And the collaborative has recently doubled the number of law firms participating in the program, from three to six.
In addition to Hinckley Allen Snyder, the firms involved include Partridge Snow & Hahn LLP, Brown Rudnick LLP, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP, Adler Pollock & Sheehan PC and Motley Rice LLC.
Eventually, Gifford said, she would like to see all the major Providence law firms and in-house corporate legal teams play a role. There’s no question that there would be enough work to go around, with about 20 community-based organizations poised to join the collaborative.
She emphasized that the collaborative is not a replacement for Rhode Island Legal Services or the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Program, both of which provide free legal services to those who can’t afford it.
The Pro Bono Collaborative is different in that it is aimed at clients of community organizations involved in the program, either providing individual legal representation or conducting legal workshops.
Participants in the collaborative are performing legislative and transactional work, too.
One group of students is working on a project with the George Wiley Center, an anti-poverty group based in Pawtucket, to help draft legislation that would restrict utility companies in shutting off power and gas to those who can’t pay their bills, a longtime issue for the center.
The law students are researching regulations and laws governing shutoffs in other states, according to Liz Marsis, operations manager at the Wiley Center. The legislation will be drawn up with the assistance of lawyers from Motley Rice.
Marsis said the project may also include posting information on utility rights on the Wiley Center’s Web site.
Michael A. Gamboli, a partner at Partridge Snow & Hahn, said the RWU students have been indispensable in providing legal assistance to parents of children with special education needs.
Gamboli and four other attorneys from his firm have partnered with several law students and the Meeting Street School and Casey Family Services in representing some families who were struggling to get their school systems to provide services required by law.
While law students can’t legally represent clients, Gamboli said they’ve done the “grunt work,” researching and investigating cases to allow Gamboli to focus on advocating for the child. Seven cases have been resolved so far.
“It’s not usually a contentious situation,” said Gamboli, who took an interest in this pro bono work because he is a parent of a special-needs child. “Ninety-nine times out of a 100, it’s just getting everybody on the same page.”
Gamboli said he has volunteered about 50 hours a year for the Pro Bono Collaborative. RWU law students who participate must commit a year to the program. Gifford said it works out to be about three to five hours a week on average.
For the students, the hours invested in the collaborative go toward the requirement that students complete 20 hours of pro bono work before they graduate.
Other projects include:
n Brown Rudnick is working with students to research legislation and draft documents on affordable housing for the Community Housing Land Trust, Church Community Housing Corporation and Housing Network Rhode Island.
n Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge and the law students are organizing workshops on landlord-tenant rights and immigration rights for poor urban parents and clients of Children’s Friend & Service of Rhode Island.
n Adler Pollock & Sheehan is assisting Rhode Island Legal Services in drafting revisions to the state tax code that would provide relief to the poor and elderly.
At the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, lawyers for Hinckley Allen Snyder and the law students, including Ahern, agreed to take on six family law cases this year.
Ahern said there are other plans in the works, including researching and proposing a Court Watch program that would observe how various judges handle domestic violence issues and provide feedback.
Gifford said the design of the program allows for the lawyers to focus on legal matters and lets the law students handle the research and investigations, while the community-based agencies can deal with other issues.
“By structuring it the way we do, the Women’s Center of Rhode Island is there to provide that social service infrastructure, and our attorneys can go and do the legal services required and go back to their jobs,” Gifford said. “That’s the beauty of the Pro Bono Collaborative.” •