Volunteer Lawyers Network: Protect And Promote

Volunteer Lawyers Network Tom Walsh
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Attorney at Law Magazine Minnesota asked Volunteer Lawyers Network Executive Director Tom Walsh to tell our readers more about the network and how attorneys can become involved.

AALM: How was VLN founded and what does it do?

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Walsh: Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) was founded in 1966 by six young attorneys. Originally named Legal Advice Clinics, the organization was founded in response to the critical need for legal services for people experiencing poverty. VLN’s mission is to protect and promote the basic human needs of people experiencing poverty through the power of legal volunteers. We accomplish our mission by helping people at legal advice clinics at community centers and courthouses, phone advice services, community legal education, and representing clients in a wide variety of civil legal issues. Through our volunteers, we help more than 8,000 people annually.

AALM: How would you encourage a young lawyer to become involved in their legal community?

Walsh: I’m fairly biased, but I think volunteering is truly the best way for young lawyers to become involved in their community. Volunteering provides young lawyers with the opportunity to practice client counseling skills, learn about court processes and procedures, make court appearances, and be exposed to new legal areas or topics. In addition, by volunteering a young lawyer can meet and network with lawyers, judges, and court staff while at the same time making a positive difference in the community.

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AALM: How frequently does VLN offer CLE events? How much do they cost?

Walsh: VLN offers a mix of CLEs, with some focusing on specific legal topics and others focusing on the “soft skills” needed to competently serve our clients. VLN holds a new volunteer orientation and CLE about every month. Th e session, based on an award winning training developed at VLN, focuses on cross-cultural communication and how to effectively represent clients living in poverty. We also offer trainings on substantive legal issues monthly. VLN CLEs are either free or very low cost for current or prospective volunteers.

AALM: Does the program offer any mentorship opportunities?

Walsh: Yes! VLN provides mentoring for new volunteers through our staff resource attorneys and our experienced volunteers. Mentor attorneys answer questions, review pleadings, and even accompany pro bono attorneys to court. If you are interested in mentoring, please let us know. We need your help! It’s a very powerful way to help Minnesotans in need and improve the legal community.

AALM: How is the program involved in the local community?

Walsh: VLN strives to offer clinics and programming in the communities where our clients live. We host community legal clinics at libraries, medical clinics, community centers, social services agencies, and places of worship. We also partner with other legal nonprofits and social service agencies to offer culturally sensitive and comprehensive services.

AALM: What is the traditional demographic of your volunteers? Young? Solo practitioners?

Walsh: Our volunteers reflect our diverse legal community. They range from brand new attorneys to those who’ve practiced for more than 40 years. We work with volunteers from all walks of professional life, including solo practitioners, corporate counsel, government attorneys, and lawyers from large firms.

AALM: Besides networking and CLE events, what benefits do you provide your volunteers?

Walsh: VLN has malpractice insurance which covers all pro bono cases, clinics, workshops, and activities performed by a volunteer. We have a staff of six resource attorneys who develop forms and resources, answer questions, and mentor volunteers. VLN also offers meeting spaces, a mailing address, and use of our phone number for volunteers. We also have a board of directors with several sub-committees and a special event board comprised almost entirely of volunteers.

AALM: How does VLN meet the challenges facing your clients?

Walsh: We continue to expand our services to meet the ever-changing legal needs of our client community. For example, in the past 18 months, we have responded to the affordable housing crisis by helping tenants living in substandard housing seek much needed repairs, representing tenants facing eviction, and helping potential renters remove the barriers to housing by expunging eviction records.

AALM: How do volunteers become involved with VLN?

Walsh: New volunteers can go to our website to apply and sign up for a new volunteer orientation. I also encourage new volunteers to contact me or any VLN staff member directly about volunteering.

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