“Why Pro Bono, A Legal Perspective”- Special Issue 2024, Trial Reporter – Journal of Maryland Association of Justice

As the world becomes increasingly more complex, attorneys are in a unique position to bridge the gap between those who can afford and access legal services and those who cannot while promoting justice and equality to all. It is important to recognize and discuss the challenges that underserved and poverty-stricken litigants, particularly persons of color, face when dealing with the court system. This article, written by MVLS Family Law Attorney, Nancy Grimm, examines the importance of and need for pro bono services and how trial attorneys can support their communities through such services while combating the impact of racial injustice on Black individuals and people of color.

Volunteer of the Month | Dan Guy

We’re proud to recognize Dan Guy as the Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about Dan and his experience as an MVLS volunteer. 

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS? 
I volunteer with MVLS because I’m recently retired and I am in a position to use the expertise that I gained over many years in Federal service to help resolve tax issues for those who find it difficult to navigate through complex administrative systems.

Are there any recent cases that you’re proud of? Tell us more about what happened, or about what you learned.   
The matters that I have taken on as a volunteer over the past year all involve tax collection procedures and taxpayers who are unable to pay. Along the way I have experienced mixed results and learned some of the nuances and challenges inherent in the tax collection process. One client achieved significant relief from Federal and State tax debts through an offer in compromise, while another client’s offer was rejected and we are now moving in the direction of an installment payment plan.

How does volunteering with MVLS impact you (personally, professionally, or both)?   
I feel really fortunate to have been a member of the Maryland Bar and to have had the opportunity to be part of a profession that makes a real difference in people’s lives by providing access to justice that might otherwise be out of reach.

What would you say to others who are considering volunteering with or supporting MVLS?
From my experience, MVLS is well managed and organized and is very deserving of volunteer and financial support. As a volunteer, you control your level of involvement, mentors are available to provide guidance and assistance, and odds are good that you will learn something useful to your practice along the way.

How would you explain the impact of your pro bono work to someone who isn’t familiar with MVLS?  
What I have seen in the MVLS clients that I have worked with is a sense of frustration, distrust, fear, and hopelessness in interacting with Federal and State tax authorities. To the extent that Federal and State laws and policies are intended to provide tax relief to low-income taxpayers, the unfortunate reality is that the administrative system is too complex. Lending a hand as an MVLS volunteer bridges the gap.

Volunteer of the Month | Kate Cook

Kate Cook spent more than 20 years as an FDA lawyer, working toward the goal of doing what was good for society, people, and public health. She left the agency in 2016 and now has her own practice, but it was those same goals combined with the opportunity to help individuals that motivated her to volunteer with MVLS.   

In her time as an MVLS volunteer, Kate has taken more than 50 cases, assisting clients with expungements, housing stability, and advance planning. She recently dedicated 100 hours to a deed change case, working with her client to save a five-generation family home.  

Today, MVLS is proud to recognize Kate Cook as Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about why she volunteers and donates, and why she ends each pro bono case by asking her clients if they’re ready to make a will.  

What made you pursue a career in law? I’m a third-generation lawyer. My mother was a federal government lawyer, and my grandfather was a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago.  

What inspired you to get involved in pro bono?  My work was always done with the goal of trying to do what’s good for society, for people, and for public health. But I had not had a practice that was one-on-one, where I could do something that would have a specific benefit for a client – something seen, perceived, or enjoyed. I saw MVLS’ pro bono work as an opportunity to make those differences in individual peoples’ lives.  

What have you enjoyed about your volunteer experience?  I’ve valued the opportunity to learn a new area of law while enjoying the assistance and oversight of mentors. I’ve really learned a lot in my MVLS practice, and I’ve had the chance to work with good lawyers like Alice Young who has been a mentor to me.  

You also give to MVLS. What inspired you to give?  Knowing it makes such a difference for people. I’ve worked at some of the clinics and know the value of having decent equipment – I really wanted to support that.  

How does volunteering and donating impact you? I feel part of a bigger effort. Donating for me is all about the personal satisfaction of supporting the organization. 

Could you tell me about some of the cases you’ve worked on? I recently worked on a case that wasn’t complicated in a legal sense but was complicated by poverty. I was working to get my client’s name on the deed to her family home. My client was the third generation of her family to live in the house, and two more generations were living with her. This was a house that needed to stay in the family. But there was an almost $9,000 water bill. It’s such a chicken and egg situation. You can’t transfer the deed to a home when there’s an outstanding bill.  And the person who is entitled to own the property can’t get assistance from any of the community programs because the house is not in her name. And that makes it even harder. 

What happened?  My client is a really remarkable woman. She devoted every penny to this in order to get it transferred. We ended up setting up a GoFundMe. It didn’t cover all of it, but what she did get put her over the top so that she was able to pay off the bill. It really was satisfying at the end of the case to say, “Here is your deed. It has been recorded. You can now look it up here.”  

Is there anything else you would add?  Whenever I do an estates case like this I say to my clients when we’re done, “Can I do a will for you now?” Most or all of the people I work with are seeking help from MVLS because the person who owned the property died without a will, which really complicates things. And that’s not what the homeowner would have intended. Last year, I worked with a widow whose husband had owned their house outright but hadn’t put her name on the title. We were able to wrap up that case appropriately and fairly. She died a few months ago, but we had made arrangements for her. We’d titled the house in her and her daughter’s name. So now, her daughter owns the home, which is what my client wanted. 

How do you explain the impact of pro bono?  For the estate work, the impact is clear – suddenly a client owns their home! It’s in their name. For expungements, just imagine being able to put someone in a better position to get a job. I also think it really makes people feel valued – that someone is willing to do this for them. It’s a great thing.  

What would you say to people who are considering volunteering or donating?  Do it. As I mentioned it’s a chance not only to connect individually with clients. It’s also a chance to learn a new area and work with good lawyers. 

*Interview edited for length and clarity.  

Volunteer of the Month | Cindy Motsko

Cindy Motsko

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

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS? 
As a retired, but still licensed attorney, I wanted to see if I could use my skills to help people who need legal help and to give back to the community.  I have supported MVLS financially (but modestly) for many years.

How does volunteering with MVLS impact you (personally, professionally, or both)?  
Professionally, I had to adjust to a completely new system of dealing with the Court – everything had to be filed online in pdf format. This was a big learning curve for me.  Because of the sensitive nature of the cases, (protecting victims of human trafficking) I also had to learn the process of sealing the case files and making sure that access to the information was restricted. As a former commercial real estate and business attorney, this was a very different world.  So, the short answer is that I have increased my skills, although not without difficulty. But the clients have been so appreciative that I am pleased to have helped them in my small way.

What would you say to others who are considering volunteering with or supporting MVLS?   
Of course, I would encourage volunteering and support for MVLS.  But they should be prepared for the challenges, and growth opportunities if they deal with subject matter outside of their areas of expertise.  That said, the MVLS staff is so helpful and supportive of volunteers’ efforts and that assistance is crucial to successful outcomes for the clients.

How would you explain the impact of your pro bono work to someone who isn’t familiar with MVLS? 
Although a person may not be familiar with MVLS, they certainly can understand the value of volunteering to work for people in need of legal assistance. 

Volunteer of the Month | Sarah Nadolny

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

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS? 
I choose to volunteer with MVLS for a few reasons. I started my career in non-profits and never really thought I’d leave them; I like the work and the people. MVLS cases offer me a sense of balance in my career. Mulinazzi Law Office is very dedicated to volunteering with MVLS and encourages a similar commitment in me. I strongly believe that if you can help, then you should. 

Are there any recent cases that you’re proud of? Tell us more about what happened, or about what you learned.  
I helped a woman with a very straightforward divorce. She was terrified of her husband, she was dealing with two family emergencies, and still trying to remain calm and professional. I was able to empower her, validate her, give her the opportunity to see someone say no to her husband, and get her divorced months earlier than expected.  

How does volunteering with MVLS impact you (personally, professionally, or both)?  
Volunteering with MVLS gives me purpose.  

What would you say to others who are considering volunteering with or supporting MVLS?   
MVLS does incredible work and provides an invaluable service to our communities. Volunteering with MVLS will make you feel like a better human. It is very easy to help, and there is a wonderful built-in support system to help with your questions and case issues. If you do not have time to take on extra cases, they have other ways you can support their mission. Supporting this work helps to protect the rights and well-being of those who are most in need of assistance.    

How would you explain the impact of your pro bono work to someone who isn’t familiar with MVLS? 
Working with MVLS gives you the ability to impact people in many ways, at the very core you give people a better chance to accomplish their legal goals, and in other cases to stand up to their bullies and their financial resources. In addition to case outcomes, you have the opportunity to help people find peace, relief, security, support, and validation.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 
You should volunteer with MVLS. In addition to helping people, volunteering can be a continuous learning experience. You may encounter unique cases and legal challenges that provide valuable insights and broaden your understanding of the law while at the same time making a difference in the life of a person who may not have the funds to pay for legal representation. It helps them as well as the community they live in. 

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

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.

Volunteer of the Month | Chester Hobbs

Chester Hobbs

We’re proud to recognize Chester Hobbs, as the Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about Chester and his experience as an MVLS volunteer. 

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS? 
When I was admitted to the Maryland Bar Association in 1987, I worked for Thomas G. Bodie. As my mentor, Tom Bodie highly prioritized pro bono service. He thought it was an integral part of any law practice and an integral part of our firm that was then known as Power & Moser.

With his influence, pro bono has always been a part of my practice. I appreciate the referrals for pro bono clients from MVLS, because they have pre-screened the clients and I know that each client genuinely needs pro bono services. There are so many people in need, but certainly having MVLS screen and qualify persons as genuinely in need of pro bono representation is a big help in not having to independently assess a client’s financial ability to pay for services.

Are there any recent cases that you’re proud of? Tell us more about what happened, or about what you learned.  
There are numerous cases that I am proud of, but for many years I have been primarily taking chapter 7 bankruptcy referrals from MVLS. Often, the clients who are referred to me are under severe emotional distress due to creditor harassment and stress related to their inability to pay their bills. It gives great satisfaction to see the mental state of the client improve once they have gone through the bankruptcy process and are relieved of these debt obligations.

People don’t often think of bankruptcy practice as emotionally satisfying, but until you have represented a client who wishes they could pay their bills, but be unable to do so, relieved of the stress, you don’t appreciate the impact of bankruptcy discharge on a client’s mental wellbeing.

How does volunteering with MVLS impact you (personally, professionally, or both)?  
Again, as stated above, it gives me personal satisfaction to see the vast improvement in the mental health of clients who have received a bankruptcy discharge of debts they have no ability to pay, despite their best efforts.

From a professional standpoint, I am able to render significant representation on a pro bono basis because I have a wonderful staff who can handle much of what is required to administer a successful bankruptcy case. As such, we are able to take pro bono cases and manage them efficiently within the infrastructure of a well-established bankruptcy practice. It allows us to take more MVLS referrals than if we were taking referrals in an area of law that I don’t regularly practice.

What would you say to others who are considering volunteering with or supporting MVLS?   
MVLS is a wonderful organization and well-needed in the State of Maryland to assure that persons of modest means have access to legal representation in critical areas. If a practitioner has an area of practice that can benefit MVLS clients, that attorney should certainly consider volunteering, at least in their areas of practice, because volunteers in all areas of the law are needed.

How would you explain the impact of your pro bono work to someone who isn’t familiar with MVLS? 
MVLS is a non-profit organization designed to connect persons of modest means in the State of Maryland with lawyers qualified to handle the much needed legal work on their behalf, and that handling these matters is of vital importance to both the clients and the communities where they live.