Maryland Legal Aid (MLA) is a statewide private, nonprofit law firm that provides free, civil legal services to low-income and vulnerable people to address their most fundamental legal problems. From its 12 offices around the state and through its many community-based clinics, we help our clients preserve and access safe and affordable housing, maintain custody of their children, and be safe from domestic violence. MLA increases our clients’ economic security by defending against consumer debt, including foreclosures and tax sales, removing barriers to employment, and accessing critical income supports such as unemployment, food stamps and other vital public benefits. Through special projects, we represent seniors, nursing home residents, children in alleged abuse and neglect cases, migrant farmworkers, and those in mental health institutions. In its advocacy, MLA seeks systemic change through impact litigation, policy advocacy, and by telling our clients’ compelling stories. Angus Derbyshire is MLA’s Director of Pro Bono.

What you should know about Maryland Legal Aid:

We are largely the provider of last resort, meaning we are providing free civil legal services to clients who don’t have a lot of other options. We are the go-to for civil legal issues that a low-income person might have.

Our approach to pro bono:

When we started building our pro bono program, we asked, “How do you build a pro bono program inside a direct legal services organization?” We built our program to cover areas that aren’t covered by our staff attorneys – to find homes for those unusual or interesting cases that we don’t have the in-house expertise to host, or where we’re looking for law firm partners to provide resources to support the case.

Trends I’m seeing in the pro bono space:

I’m starting to see more interest in full representation opportunities from the private bar, which I haven’t seen since 2019. First we needed to get people out of Zoom [post-pandemic], then into clinics, then into brief service opportunities. Now there seems to be more of an appetite to not just meet a client at a clinic, but have the experience of taking a case and working with a client. I’m excited to see that come back at a larger scale that I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.

Investing in volunteers and serving client needs:

We try our best to find opportunities that fit with the feedback we hear from attorneys, but at the end of the day, it has to have a positive client impact. We’re here to serve clients. So oftentimes it’s about finding a middle ground. For instance, if there are a lot of attorneys who want to do a clinic, let’s do a clinic, let’s get the attorneys out there, and then let’s find some of those attorneys to take on a full case. You want to make your volunteers happy, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that it has to have a positive client impact and serve the mission of the organization. It’s a great day when those line up.

You also have to have a long-term approach. We’re investing in volunteers. How can we build a five-year roadmap for a volunteer who says, “I want to help, but I don’t know how”? They start with a clinic and it’s not that scary. Then they take a small claims case, it’s not that bad. Now they can take on a housing case, and a few years down the road, they’re a really effective and supportive volunteer for our organization.

How we use Paladin to increase volunteer engagement:

What’s been exciting about Paladin is that, while we had our volunteer connections and 1:1 case placements, Paladin has really allowed us to advertise cases across a wider network and get those cases out to more volunteer attorneys. It’s also provided a functional tool to allow us to be more organized in our clinic work.

In 2016, we started a community lawyering initiative, staffing clinics at libraries, schools, and community centers – it was an opportunity to bring our attorneys into local communities where the need was. Our pro bono program was initially focused primarily on staffing these community clinics. It’s brief service, limited capacity – but it’s very time-intensive to promote, build, and staff, and it was very time-consuming and difficult to upscale the clinics.

We initially started using Paladin as a clinic registration tool. Paladin offered the opportunity to create a one-stop link for clinics where we were registering 30-40 attorneys every week. I could put in on social media, and email it out to our partners to share with their networks. It really allowed us to get those clinical opportunities in front of many, many more people, and seamlessly track and communicate with volunteers.

Paladin took a process that used to be time-consuming and made it less so, and allowed our small staff to focus their energy elsewhere and upscale the clinic registration process.

We’ve also started putting more case opportunities on Paladin, and utilizing the Network, as well as taking [Opportunity List] links and posting them on social media and in our newsletter. This way we can drive everybody to one central location to see our case opportunities. I’ve been placing multiple opportunities a week since I started doing that. It has really been a great tool. It’s allowed me to have multiple avenues of getting cases in front of volunteers.

Pro bono cases we are most proud of:

We had a client who had gotten a pro se judgment against her landlord, but the landlord was evading the judgment. We found a volunteer attorney who was retired but had done debt work in the past. He took the case on, and in about a six-month period, he got a lien recorded against the landlord’s house, and got a judgment for the client, close to $45,000. I think about that one a lot because it’s not a case we would have been able to take at legal aid.

We also had a family law case where we were representing the client in a divorce. The opposing party filed a bogus protective order action against her. The staff attorney wasn’t able to be at the hearing, and protective order hearings can’t be postponed. In the span of three days, we got a pro bono attorney trained – she had never done a hearing before – and she successfully defeated the action, which made a big difference for the client.

We have a project that works with victims of domestic violence in Baltimore County. We represented a woman who had fled an abusive marriage and was staying in a shelter. The husband allegedly had close to one- million dollars in income that he was hiding and moving around. We were able to place the case with a pro bono attorney who got the client a very substantial alimony child support award, getting her out of the shelter and stabilized.

These were all cases that we didn’t have the internal capacity to take on. They required expertise or availability that we didn’t have.

They’re clients that, if not for these volunteers, would not have had an attorney.

What I would tell other legal services organizations:

There’s always a fear when you’re embracing a new technology, that it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to learn.

Paladin has been incredibly user-friendly, and the Paladin team has been really easy to work with.
If I have questions, or I have things that the platform is not doing that I need it to do, I reach out to Paladin and we work through that.

Organizations all have different programs and different needs. Find ways to adapt and use Paladin in the ways that work best for you, to enhance how you’re already recruiting and working with volunteers. Use Paladin as a tool to make signing up for pro bono a more seamless experience, and find creative ways you can do that. Also, understand that Paladin is something that’s going to grow, and as it does, being on the front end has really been positive.