Updates from MVLS’ Executive Director, Susan Francis

On March 24, 1981, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service was officially created to give voice to the voiceless in the judicial system.  And here we are, 40 years later, focused on achieving our founders’ vision of providing access to justice for all, not just for those that can afford it.  In our first 40 years, MVLS and our volunteers have ensured that over 100,000 Marylanders didn’t have to face a complicated legal system on their own. It is humbling to participate in this audacious vision.
As part of our 40th anniversary, we created a timeline to highlight major moments in MVLS history. You can see it here. It gives you a sense of the growth and evolution of MVLS over the years.
In addition to our core pro bono program, currently MVLS has 16 dedicated programs that address pressing needs of vulnerable Marylanders including keeping older adults in their homes, helping survivors of human trafficking, closing the wealth gap in Black neighborhoods, and reducing employment barriers for workforce trainees.
Here are a few highlights:
In 1994, we created our first dedicated project, the Adult Protective Guardianship Review Board (APGRB) Project, to ensure that the rights of individuals with disabilities in guardianship proceedings were protected. It continues to this day.
In 2000, we added our Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). In an area that’s easily overlooked, we provide essential help to individuals facing tax controversy issues with the IRS or Maryland Comptroller and most recently have led the effort to ensure that those who most needed the Economic Impact Payments and the Maryland Relief Act credits could navigate various barriers in order to receive their funds.
Following the housing crisis in 2008, MVLS launched our Foreclosure Prevention Project. I joined MVLS in 2013 to serve as the first staff attorney on this project. The Foreclosure Prevention Project showed us that with a targeted staff attorney, we can provide support for our volunteers, particularly in evolving areas of the law, focus on collaborating and partnering with other programs and community partners, and highlight and work towards changing problematic barriers in the law. This model has instructed every new project we have launched since then because it enables us to have tremendous impact both with individual representation of clients as well as with securing systemic changes to the issues we work on.
Within the last decade, MVLS grew exponentially. When I joined MVLS we had 12 staff members, now, we are a staff of 28. I believe our focus on addressing issues of income and racial inequities within our legal system, as well as being laser focused on what type of legal challenges we can address as a pro bono program, is what has driven much of this growth. When the expungement law changed in 2015, it provided the opportunity to remove many more non-guilty convictions from an individual’s record.
At that point, we didn’t have dedicated staff to expand this work, but we had a deep conviction that we needed to remove employment and housing barriers, particularly for Black neighborhoods that have been historically over-policed and over-incarcerated. In that year, we went from helping seven expungement clients to over 700. This work led to the creation of our Workforce Development Project and a fundamental shift in how we engage with community partners. We now invest significant time and resources working with our community partners throughout the state and making sure our staff are regularly engaged in the communities we serve.
In 2018, we launched our My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign, targeting Black legacy homeowners in Baltimore City, who are all too frequently at risk of losing their homes to tax sale, foreclosure or disrepair.  Housing stabilization has become a core tenet of our work at MVLS. First with foreclosure prevention, and then addressing tax sale, and then providing estate planning outreach through our Advance Planning project. We came to realize that MVLS had a critical role to play in reducing wealth extraction in communities of color. The My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign builds upon all of these existing programs to ensure that homeowners can preserve their homes for themselves and future generations.
Throughout our first 40 years, what has made the depth of our services possible are our volunteers. Despite our doubling in size, our 13 staff attorneys couldn’t possibly be subject matter experts in all the civil legal areas that MVLS provides assistance in, and they couldn’t have helped 4,459 clients last year without our volunteers. The impact of MVLS directly relates to the commitment of our volunteers.  With COVID-19, our clients face unparalleled challenges. The needs of Marylanders as moratoriums lift and courts reopen will be staggering. We will look to our volunteers to help us meet the tremendous need.
I don’t think any of our founders could have guessed all that MVLS has become. We commit to them and to ourselves to continue each day to pursue justice for all, not just for those who can afford it.
Susan Francis
Executive Director