2023 Annual Report
Natushia Lewis-Smith called MVLS because she needed help with her divorce.
Family law cases like hers are the most common legal problem that drive people to seek help from MVLS. The legal system is extremely difficult to navigate, and family law clients often find themselves enmeshed in particularly emotionally and mentally devastating situations with everything about their future in turmoil. In these moments, it takes a special volunteer to accompany clients.
Ms. Lewis-Smith was placed with one such volunteer, Curtis Cooper. She shared that she will never forget the day she learned she would have the support of an attorney.
Watch Natushia and Curtis share their story in the video below:
Family law cases are increasing throughout the state of Maryland, and pro bono programs like MVLS continue to see huge numbers of family law clients like Ms. Lewis-Smith seeking help. The high demand means clients with family issues must often wait a long time – sometimes for more than 60 days – to get help.
In FY23, support from the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) and our generous donors allowed MVLS to expand our family law program by hiring a dedicated staff attorney for the program for the first time.
That staff attorney is Nancy Grimm who joined MVLS in November 2022 to lead the program. Nancy works closely with MVLS legal advocates who answer clients’ calls for assistance and a panel of family law attorneys who take cases. Having an attorney on staff is key to developing and cultivating a strong network of volunteers. In some instances, Nancy also works directly with clients as they wait for placement with a volunteer, providing advice about navigating the process or assisting them in preparing their case.
In just one year, having an attorney on staff has allowed MVLS’ family law program to place or close 42% more cases in FY23.
Many clients express fear and uncertainty when suddenly faced with a family law matter that requires representation. Their lives are upended, and they often feel they have nowhere to turn for help. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
“…Clients need to know they are accepted, that they mean something, that their issues are important, and that they can trust their attorney.”
Good family law attorneys put clients at ease, quickly develop trust, and work with empathy.
It is such a relief for a client to know they are in good hands with their volunteer attorney. Nancy described what that looks like in practice, commenting on Curtis and Natushia’s case: “Obviously Curtis has great abilities,” she said, “but it’s not just about that. Clients need to know they are accepted, that they mean something, that their issues are important, and that they can trust their attorney. That’s what he brings.”
Nancy herself was a volunteer with MVLS before she joined as the first family law attorney on staff. Her experience volunteering made her realize the need for good family law representation. Joining the staff was a goal realized and a personal honor. “I always wanted to be a part of the mission to provide equity within legal services,” she said.
Nancy addressed the intersection of equity within legal services and racial justice, explaining that issues of bias within the courts continue to be a major barrier for family law clients.
The unfortunate reality is that pro se clients, particularly people of color, are less likely than their white or more affluent counterparts to receive a successful outcome in court. Black and brown individuals face discrimination that has devastating effects on not only their case, but also their health and well-being. For example, courts often presume that people of color do not know how to care for their children and are in fact neglectful and abusive; Black fathers in particular face the presumption that they are incapable or disinterested in caring for their children. And while many judges show fair treatment toward Black individuals in custody cases, there are many who continue to harbor implicit racial bias that influences their rulings.
“Our volunteers are getting quality programs…we engage and learn with each other.”
Because of these issues, volunteer attorneys must be prepared to advocate for both racial justice and a favorable legal outcome. MVLS offers trainings and mentoring, with an emphasis on the core value of eliminating systemic barriers to justice based on race and economic disparities. “Our volunteers are getting quality programs through MVLS, Nancy emphasized. “We engage and learn with each other.”
Funding from the MLSC allows MVLS to reimburse family law volunteers who take complicated or contested cases at a low-bono rate. But as Nancy sees it, the primary benefit of volunteering is improving the lives of others. “We as attorneys develop a sense of accomplishment by providing a worthwhile and valuable service to our community,” she said.
In Ms. Lewis-Smith’s case, the benefit was tangible. Together, she and Curtis Cooper won her case, securing a modest alimony that she uses to cover groceries and medical expenses.
Interested in volunteering? Visit our Pro Bono Portal to take a case today.