3 Practical Benefits of Pro Bono  

Providing pro bono legal help is the ethical responsibility of all attorneys and is based on a tradition that dates back to before the Constitution. Volunteering to provide free legal help to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it also has practical benefits, especially for attorneys looking to hone their skills.  

Early in my legal career, I was the judicial law clerk for The Honorable Lynne Stewart Mays. As a new lawyer fresh out of my clerkship, the world of legal practice was both thrilling and daunting to me. Once I joined the team at MVLS, I was charged with staffing the weekly consumer protection clinic at Baltimore District Court. I found that spending time at the clinic has been one of the most rewarding and beneficial ways to start my legal career; I have become a more confident and capable lawyer. Here are some benefits of spending my time at the consumer clinic:  

  1. Enhancing Communication Skills 

As we all know, efficient communication is at the core of practicing law. At the consumer protection clinic, attorneys are working closely with the people of Baltimore City, many of whom do not have a legal background. I also get the opportunity to present in front of a judge. For many new lawyers, both can be seen as daunting, but volunteering at the clinic is a significant first step that can lay the foundation for skills that will serve you well.  

  1. Gaining Practical Legal Experience 

Entering the legal profession can be a sharp learning curve, and new attorneys might feel like they are navigating uncharted waters. My time at the consumer protection clinic has allowed me to gain hands-on experience. With the aid of MVLS’ experienced Staff Attorneys, I can work on real cases, interact with clients, and apply the law to legal issues that achieve actual results through my consultations.  

  1. Contributing to the Community 

Many Marylanders are sued each year under the “Affidavit Judgment” process in which a creditor can secure a money judgment in district court without even having to show up at the courthouse. Through my time at the weekly clinic, I am providing legal aid to people who are facing financial hardship and an imbalanced legal system. Almost always without legal representation the outcome of these cases favors creditors. With legal representation, people can find hope that their voice is being heard. The people that attend the clinic for legal help report the most relief once their issue is resolved.    

As a new lawyer working at our weekly consumer protection clinic, I was offered many benefits that I know can be an advantage for any new attorney. Volunteering with MVLS – at the consumer protection clinic or in any of our program areas – is an opportunity to enhance your communication skills, gain practical experience, and make a real difference in the community. As you start your legal career, consider getting a head start and volunteering with MVLS. 

About the Author: Courtland Merkel is a housing and consumer attorney at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). MVLS’ 12 staff attorneys provide expertise and support to a much-larger volunteer panel of attorneys and financial professionals across the state who work together to bridge the gap between the number of legal aid attorneys and the need for legal help. Courtland runs a weekly Consumer Protection Clinic at the Baltimore City District Court. To volunteer at this clinic, you can contact Courtland directly at cmerkel@mvlslaw.org

Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force Announces Series of Public Meetings

The Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force has announced the series of public meetings where they will address their efforts to recommend a new governance model for the water and wastewater systems under Baltimore City and Baltimore County jurisdictions. The work of the Task Force has the potential to deeply impact Baltimoreans, especially low-wealth and Black, brown, and immigrant communities. There will be 5 meetings listed below.

Date: Wednesday, October 4 
Time: 6:00 p.m. 
Location: Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center 201 Reedbird Ave, Baltimore, MD 21225

Date: Wednesday, October 18 
Time: 6:00 p.m. 
Location: CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center Upper-level Lobby 201 Rossville Blvd, Baltimore, MD 21237 

Date: Wednesday, November 1 
Time: 6:00 p.m. 
Location: Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries 6000 Radecke Ave, Baltimore, MD 21206 

Date: Thursday, November 16 
Location: Virtual. Additional details forthcoming.
Time: 6:00 p.m. 

Date: Thursday, January 25, 2024 
Location: Virtual. Additional details forthcoming. 
Time: 6:00 p.m. 

Volunteer of the Month | Monica Basche

We’re proud to recognize Monica Basche as the Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about Monica and her experience as an MVLS volunteer. 

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS? 
I volunteer with the Consumer Protection Project Clinic in the Baltimore City District Court, which provides legal services to those who need assistance with defending, negotiating, settling common debt collection cases, including debt buyers, medical debt, and auto loans. I chose to volunteer with the CPP because I didn’t have the capacity to take on an individual case, but I still wanted to find a way to help those in need of legal services. Debt collection cases are common, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are often an individual’s first interaction with the court. Volunteering with the CPP allows me to help people understand the process and their options and how to make an informed decision on how they want to proceed.  

Are there any recent cases that you’re proud of? Tell us more about what happened, or about what you learned.  
We help lots of people in the CPP clinic, so it’s really hard to pick just one. However, I distinctly remember one of my first cases, which involved a mother who had cosigned on her son’s credit card that he got through his veterinarian to pay for his dog’s cancer treatment. It was her first time in court, and she was very nervous about the process. I explained her options to her, and then negotiated a workable payment plan with the debt buyer. Although I wasn’t able to get rid of her debt, I was able to help her find a way to make it manageable and to alleviate some of the stress of the situation.

How does volunteering with MVLS impact you (personally, professionally, or both)?  
Personally, I think it’s important to use my legal knowledge and skill to minimize the potentially harmful impact that the legal system can have on those who come in contact with it, and MVLS is a way of doing just that because it offers assistance to those who are most vulnerable. On a professional level, volunteering has helped me to understand a new area of the law, learn client interviewing and listening skills, and speak with confidence when I’m before the court.

What would you say to others who are considering volunteering with or supporting MVLS?   
Just do it! MVLS has so many different ways for you to get involved. Not only will you get personal satisfaction out of helping those in need of legal services, but you will grow professionally by taking on cases in new and different areas of the law.     

How would you explain the impact of your pro bono work to someone who isn’t familiar with MVLS? 
You really just have to do pro bono work to understand how impactful it is. The clients are so appreciative for your time and assistance. It’s like you can see a weight being lifted off their shoulders.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 
If you’re looking for a way to volunteer with MVLS but don’t have the capacity to take on an individual case, please consider volunteering for the CPP clinic.

Rianna Eckel Interviewed by Food and Water Watch, “Advocates Urge Expanded Public Hearings About Baltimore’s Water and Sewer System”

Rianna Eckel, Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with MVLS is quoted in the latest press release from Food and Water Watch. The Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force is deemed with creating awareness and ultimately recommending a new plan of governance, and they want to hear from you! Learn more about how you can get involved below.

Community Partner of the Month | Bon Secours Community Works

We’re proud to recognize Bon Secours Community Works (BSCW), as the Community Partner of the Month. Read on to learn more about BSCW and their experience as an MVLS Community Partner.

How long have you been in existence, and what is your organization’s mission?  
Bon Secours Community Works (BSCW) works to enrich West Baltimore communities with programs, services, and affordable housing that contribute to the long-term economic and social viability of neighborhoods.

What/who/how do you serve your community?   
We organize our efforts into three primary service delivery departments: Economic Development, Youth & Family Services, and Housing & Community Development.

The Economic Development department provides programs and services designed to increase the economic viability of West Baltimore residents and communities. We offer support for job seekers including occupational training and job placement services, financial education and low-cost tax preparations, access to healthy foods, neighborhood revitalization projects, and support for citizens returning home after incarceration.

The Youth and Family Services department offers resources and services designed to assist West Baltimore residents in building strong foundations for the future. Our programs target expectant mothers, children and their families, youth and young adults, and women in need of basic services.

Bon Secours Community Works currently owns and operates over 800 units of high-quality affordable housing within 8 developments, supporting families, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Our facilities are conveniently located to critical amenities including transportation, shopping, recreation and health services and residents benefit from the support of property managers as well as Resident Service Coordinators.

Why do you think it’s important to work with a legal services program, like MVLS? 
Expungement services provided by MVLS play a pivotal role in the reintegration and rehabilitation of many of our community members, providing them with a crucial second chance to rebuild their lives after serving their sentences. These services are essential because they help remove the stigma and legal barriers associated with a criminal record, which can otherwise hinder individuals from securing employment, housing, education, and even access to social benefits. By expunging or sealing certain past convictions, our clients can regain their self-esteem and become productive members of society, reducing the risk of recidivism. Expungement services not only promote fairness and justice but also contribute to the overall well-being of communities by reducing the cycle of crime and poverty, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and equitable society. 

MVLS Featured in the Baltimore Banner, “Unsuccessful on Probation? Your Criminal Case Now Can’t be Expunged in Maryland”

Last year, the Appellate Court of Maryland decided an expungement case that has had a substantial impact on those seeking expungement. The Court held that a violation of probation can permanently bar a person from expungement eligibility. MVLS Workforce Development Manager, Chris Sweeney, was interviewed about the subject for The Baltimore Banner, along with our colleagues at Maryland Legal Aid and University of Baltimore. We are thankful to The Baltimore Banner for shedding light on this decision, which many expungement advocates see as a devastating blow to the progress made on record clearing opportunities.

Baltimore City’s DPW Announces Over 75,000 Residents to Receive Water Bill Debt Relief

MVLS has been advocating for years for Baltimore City’s residents’ access to affordable water.  

On Thursday, Baltimore City announced that over 75,000 residents of Baltimore City and Baltimore County will be able to receive financial relief on their upcoming water bills. The aid will be prioritized to residents who are already participating in financial water assistance programs, like Water4All, and the State Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). Single-family residents who live in low-income housing will be prioritized next. Eligible residents do not have to do anything to access the relief and should receive credit for outstanding water bills.  

Access to this debt relief is critical to making water more affordable for residents of Baltimore. MVLS staff are actively participating with the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, which advocates for affordable water bills, a fair dispute process, and equitable access to decisions about Baltimore’s water system. If you or someone you know is currently seeking water assistance, please visit DPW’s website for more information on current programs. 

How to Claim Unreceived Economic Impact Payments or “Stimulus Checks”

The IRS isn’t sending out stimulus checks any more, but if you can show that you were eligible to receive one when they were, but didn’t, there is still a way to get the money – at least before next tax day. The Recovery Rebate Credit is a refundable tax credit that lets you claim any unreceived Economic Impact Payments (EIPs, or “Stimulus Checks”) on your tax return. And if the credit is larger than what you owe in taxes, you get the money added to your refund.

The part that makes this not as easy as it sounds is that you have to claim the tax credit for the year in which the specific check you are claiming was issued: 2020 for the first two, 2021 for the second. You also have to be able to specify exactly how much money you were eligible to receive, or the IRS won’t issue the credits. The size of the stimulus checks were determined by your income and number of dependents – and of course, you needed to have a valid SSN and not be a dependent yourself that year. The IRS Form 1040 Instructions (for 2020 and 2021, respectively) include a worksheet that lets you work out the math yourself. Finally, you should know that taxes for previous years, whether you are filing them for the first time, or amending what you have already filed before, can’t be filed online. You have to mail them in to the IRS.

If you find this too difficult to do yourself, you can use a reputable tax preparer for help, so long as you are careful with how much they charge. Some VITA sites may be able to help as well, but keep in mind that you will want to check with them soon, as the closer tax day is, the busier they get!