Meeting a Growing Need

Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership members work together to alleviate legal need in their hometown

Published in 2013 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2013

Last year, Pittsburgh’s Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA) was forced to lay off its two attorneys who handled expungement cases. Considering that more than one out of every four Pittsburgh residents lives beneath the poverty line—that’s roughly enough people to fill every seat in Heinz Field—the funding cuts were especially painful. “We have a growing need and shrinking resources,” says Barbara Griffin, pro bono coordinator at the Allegheny County Bar Foundation.

Since 2001, though, Pittsburgh has had the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership to help fill the gaps. Made up of 34 local law firms and corporate legal departments, the organization works with NLSA and the bar foundation to provide additional pro bono legal services to low-income clients in the region.

When NLSA needed volunteers to take over expungements after the layoffs, the Partnership stepped in. In less than six weeks, two member firms agreed to manage the project, CLE training was set up, and the new program was operating by August. “We had a list of 100 people waiting to be a part of the project,” says Katie Kenyon, chair of the Partnership’s administrative board and a partner at Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti.

The organization also operates five community clinics, allowing volunteer attorneys to serve the needs of the homeless, families and veterans. The Partnership also handles issues like custody conciliation, protection from abuse and the preparation of wills. Kenyon says participation has been overwhelming. “I can’t think of one project where we say to ourselves, ‘We wish we had more volunteers.’ When we say, ‘There’s a need; we need help,’ people are there.”

This enthusiasm within Pittsburgh’s legal community makes the Partnership unique. “I think it’s always existed, but I don’t think at this level of collaboration,” Kenyon says. “Before the Partnership, there were those top-tier firms … who really were more visible in helping. … Through exposure of the Partnership and this collaboration, I think [it] enables firms of all sizes and corporations of all sizes to be involved.”

Kenyon says the volunteers receive wonderful responses from their clients. “People are extremely grateful that someone is helping them maneuver the legal system,” she says. “They feel like they have a voice.”

One of Griffin’s stories comes from the Partnership’s Wills Project. A case came in for an elderly woman after a lawyer who knew about the project referred her. The project’s lawyer went to the coffee shop where the woman worked to help her prepare her will because she was unable to travel. “She had no family, she had very few friends who were still alive,” Griffin says. “[She] thanked the attorney profusely, offered her free iced tea anytime she came into the shop. A month later, we found out that this woman had passed away, and she had mentioned to her manager at the coffee shop what a positive experience she’d had with the volunteer attorney. It just made a big difference in this woman’s life.”

In 2011, the Partnership was able to serve 535 clients, and, Kenyon says, in the future, the organization plans to address landlord-tenant issues, launch two new community clinics and continue to recruit new members.

“I derive the most satisfaction from knowing that I’ve helped others, and I know most everyone I work with in the Partnership feels that same way,” she says. “Knowing that someone can sleep safe at night or can see their kid a little more often is all the reward I need.”

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