Amid Virus, In-House Pro Bono Efforts Get Cash Injection

By Michele Gorman | May 17, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Misdemeanor marijuana or sex-trafficking convictions can sideswipe a resident's ability to land a job. But with the help of a new project involving in-house lawyers in Nevada, people with certain criminal offenses who live in the southern part of the state will have much-needed assistance in trying to have their records sealed.

For the project, the Nevada chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel is partnering with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada to host a workshop to teach in-house lawyers about records sealing. The Legal Aid Center will then assign records-sealing cases to those attorneys, with the ultimate goal of helping eligible residents re-enter society without the burden of their former convictions.

And the need to have records sealed might prove to be even more crucial in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, as southern Nevada — part of the Silver State that relies heavily on tourism and hospitality — has been hit particularly hard by layoffs and furloughs.

"Having those really old convictions hampers a person's ability to be employed," said Krystal Saab, the immediate past president of ACC Nevada who is contributing to the project. "We want to make sure that we're really helping people out."

The project is just one of four programs funded by the ACC Foundation Pro Bono Jumpstart Fund. In its second year, the fund will award as much as $10,000 each to four U.S. chapters that have pledged to "jump-start" a new program or advance an existing one, said Jennifer Chen, director of the foundation.

"There can be challenges that prevent in-house counsel particularly from being engaged in pro bono service," she said. "Where we can partner with organizations and with our chapters to help create those opportunities and strengthen those opportunities ... it's part of our mission, it's something that we're deeply committed to."

The exact amount given to each chapter will depend on their final expenses.

Chen said the ACC Foundation received 10 submissions this year, up from four in 2019. With the most recent nominations, the board looked for activities that could still take place despite the pandemic and that promised an immediate impact to communities.

The other chapters are Wisconsin, southwest Ohio and Florida. In the Badger State, the fund will aid in expanding the Milwaukee Justice Center Mobile Legal Clinic, a program that serves the city's isolated and marginalized neighborhoods.

The mobile clinic is a large van equipped with a law student driver, two office spaces, computers, Wi-Fi and two volunteer lawyers that visits libraries, medical clinics, shelters and other sites around Milwaukee, said Jim Cauley, the pro bono chair of the chapter's board of directors.

Inside, the attorneys — often shadowed by students — offer free legal advice and referral information to clients on civil legal matters, from family law and landlord-tenant issues to debt collection and small claims.

"The reason that this came to be is because there is an increasing gap in the access to justice for disadvantaged people within Milwaukee County," said Amy Westrup, executive director of ACC Wisconsin, adding that the mobile clinic helps to bridge that divide.

With the grant and ACC members looking for pro bono opportunities, the chapter plans to help the Mobile Legal Clinic — a collaborative project between the Milwaukee Bar Association and Marquette University Law School that first hit the streets in September 2013 — grow in size and outreach.

Last year, the MLC served 725 clients through 102 clinics, according to its 2019 annual report. The goal for 2020 is to increase the number of clients to at least 900 and clinical events to 150, according to ACC Wisconsin.

The chapter also plans to use the grant for technological upgrades, including four new laptops, a tablet computer and two new printers in the van, as well as for training additional volunteer lawyers, including ACC members, Cauley said.

The improvements will come at a crucial time, as stay-at-home orders during the pandemic have created uncertainty around in-person meetings. ACC Wisconsin hopes the new technology and virtual capabilities will ultimately expand the program beyond Milwaukee County.

"It's really an important message ... to say that people that are struggling, their civil legal concerns are worthy of our attention, they matter," Westrup said. "In order for us to all move forward and thrive and deal with even our current situation, we have to all pull together."

The COVID-19 outbreak has also caused logistical challenges for the records-sealing project in Nevada. The ACC chapter there had initially planned to host its one-day training workshop by the end of June. But given complications brought on by recent events, leaders are reevaluating the date and whether it will take place in-person or virtually.

Saab said she first mentioned the idea for the project with the board last year. Initially the goal was to take on 300 cases by 2021, but given the current situation, Saab said she hopes they can go past that number and eventually expand throughout the state.

She underscored that the project aims to help as many people as possible who are eligible to have their criminal history records sealed.

"I'm really looking forward to helping my fellow Nevadans," Saab said. "Especially now more than ever, everybody needs every opportunity and chance they can with what the nation is facing."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

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