Access to Legal Services

Jennifer A. Fulmer, Chair

Vice chair: Alexandra S. Fannon

Members:  Adonica Baine, Donna Sue Baker, Polly Chong, Karl A. Doss, Teirra M. Everette[1], Paul C. Garrett, Valerie Aline L’Herrou, David L. Marks, Kristopher R. McClellan, Dale W. Pittman, Devon R. Slovensky, Joanna L. Suyes, Crystal Y. Twitty[2], Martin D. Wegbreit, Judge Patricia West

VSB staff:       Crista L. Gantz, VSB Access to Legal Services Director

2019-20 Major Accomplishments

  • Access to Legal Services officially became a standing committee of the Virginia State Bar
  • Successfully completed the first year of Voluntary Pro Bono Reporting and exceeded goals for attorney response rate
  • Court approval of proposed amendments to Voluntary Pro Bono Reporting Rule
  • Court approval of proposed amendments to Section 5 Voluntary Pro Bono Reporting form
  • Distributed more than 13,000 copies of the Free & Low-Cost Legal Resources Guides to Virginia courts
  • Hosted the first ever full-day Pro Bono Conference with morning poverty simulation
  • Publication of the December 2019 Pro Bono issue of Virginia Lawyer
  • Virginia.freelegalanswers.org leading the nation in attorney response rate and surpassing 3,000 questions asked and answered on the portal

Meetings:

The Committee met in Richmond on 8/26/2019, 1/28/2020, and during the joint Pro Bono Conference/Virginia Legal Aid Conference in Harrisonburg on 10/16/2019.[3]

Over the course of the Bar year, the Access Committee worked on a variety of access to justice issues through its subcommittees: Awards, Alternative Delivery Systems/SRL, and Rules. 

During regular Access Committee meetings, subcommittees would report on their work and receive input from the entire Committee. Over the course of the Bar year, the Access Committee and its subcommittees discussed access to justice issues with numerous guests, including Marni Byrum, VSB immediate past president; Brian Buniva, VSB president; James McCauley, VSB ethics counsel; John Whitfield, Co-Chair Virginia Access to Justice Commission and executive director, Blue Ridge Legal Services; Nicole Harrell, Co-Chair, VBA Pro Bono Council and Kaufman & Canoles; David Neumeyer, Executive Director, VBA Pro Bono Council and VLAS; Kristin Clarins, CABA; Hon. David Lannetti, VBA Pro Bono Council and Judge, Norfolk Circuit Court.

Change from Special to Standing Committee of the Virginia State Bar

On June 13, 2019, Chip Nunley and Joanna Suyes, on behalf of the Access committee, presented a bylaw amendment proposal to Bar Council requesting to make Access to Legal Services a standing committee of the Virginia State Bar. The proposal was unanimously approved by Council[4]. The committee name, purpose, size (15 members) and composition are now written into the bylaws. The bylaw amendment solidifies the Committee as an essential part of the Bar’s mission, achieves structural uniformity within the Bar, and is consistent with the majority approach taken by other mandatory state bars. 

Voluntary Pro Bono Reporting:

On February 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of Virginia approved the addition of Paragraph 22 to Part 6, Section IV of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia, which requests that each active Virginia State Bar member voluntarily report their pro bono hours and/or financial contributions in support of pro bono legal services on their annual dues statement. The new voluntary reporting rule went into effect on December 1, 2018. The July 2019 VSB annual dues statement for the 2020 bar year incorporates voluntary pro bono reporting as new Section 5. Members were permitted to report online or by mail. Below is an outline of three areas where the Access committee realized major successes related to voluntary pro bono reporting in the 2019-2020 bar year. 

  • Successful Completion of First Year of Reporting & Favorable Response Rate Achieved

In the first year of voluntary reporting more than 66 percent of active members of the Virginia State Bar participated, accounting for approximately 368,846 hours of service and more than $974,000 in financial contributions. Overall response rates in most states with voluntary pro bono reporting have been below the rates achieved in Virginia, and not a single state has had response rates higher than Virginia within the first year of implementing voluntary pro bono reporting.  Oregon, Louisiana, and Georgia had response rates in the single digits in the first year of reporting, and Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington had response rates in the teens. Except for Tennessee, the response rates seen in the states with low participation have not significantly improved in future reporting years. Montana, Arizona, and Connecticut enjoy higher response rates compared to these other states, but even these three states have not had rates as high as Virginia in the first year of reporting. 

  • Court Approval of Proposed Changes to Voluntary Pro Bono Reporting Rule

The Court approved changes to the voluntary pro bono reporting rule allowing Associate members of the VSB to report and allowing the VSB flexibility in determining how to best collect the voluntary reporting data.

  • Court Approval of Proposed Amendments to Section 5 Reporting Form

The Court will annually approve the VSB Section 5 form. This year they approved the proposed changes to the form without amendment. The updated form will help VSB develop a more nuanced understanding of pro bono service as well as improve data collection and reliability to help us more accurately measure the pro bono contributions of Virginia attorneys. It reflects feedback from members and stakeholders and is a significant process improvement. The 2020-21 dues statement contains the amended form. 

 

Other Accomplishments

Virginia.freelegalanswers.org:

Virginia.freelegalanswers.org, the online, interactive, pro bono question & answer website hosted by the Virginia State Bar, celebrated its three-year anniversary on August 22, 2019. The Committee continued to support the Virginia Free Legal Answers portal through daily administrative functions of the staff liaison and year-round promotional engagements. Ms. Gantz continued her annual interactive CLE training event at the University of Richmond School of Law (the third annual training of such kind). Ms. Gantz also hosted a VA FLA table at the ABA Business Law Section’s annual meeting in DC, where she was also interviewed for an ABA promotional video highlighting the Free Legal Answers program. Ms. Gantz also presented on two ABA webinars highlighting Free Legal Answers as a pro bono tool. Quarterly email updates were sent to volunteer attorneys containing helpful tips, reminders, website statistics, and volunteer recognition to increase engagement and interest. These efforts have resulted in significant growth in the number of clients (3,590 registered clients), volunteer lawyers (406) and questions asked (3,259) and answered (3,038).  Virginia.freelegalanswers.org has consistently had an attorney response rate of 93 percent, putting us at the top of the nation in this category. An estimated 1,063 hours of pro bono service have been contributed to date.

Free and Low-Cost Legal Resources in Virginia Pamphlet:

In February 2017, the Access Committee published, on behalf of the Virginia State Bar, a pamphlet entitled "Free and Low Cost Legal Resources in Virginia".  This eight-page pamphlet is a guide for helping low-and modest-income Virginians find legal assistance and includes options for assistance by counsel and advice and counsel services for self-represented litigants. In the 2018 bar year, the Access Committee kicked off a partnership with the Diversity Conference to translate the Access guide into Spanish, which as completed last year and made available in PDF form on the bar website; next year we will print and distribute the Spanish guide to Qualified Legal Services providers and the courts. 

In September 2020 Ms. Gantz attended the Annual Circuit Court Clerks Association Annual Meeting in Bristol, VA. She distributed more than 13,000 copies of the guides to GDC and circuit courts throughout the commonwealth, saving the VSB hundreds of dollars in shipping costs. Similar distribution efforts are planned for the future when in-person conferences resume. 

Conferences, Webinars, Seminars, Presentations, and Outreach:

The 2019 Virginia State Bar Pro Bono Conference was held on October 16, 2019, in Harrisonburg, VA in conjunction with the Virginia Legal Aid Conference. This was the fifth time these events were held together, and attendees were welcome to attend sessions at either conference. More than 65 people participated, plus additional attendees from the Virginia Legal Aid Conference. For the first time the conference offered a full day of events, including a well-attended, interactive poverty simulation conducted in the morning. 4 hours of CLE programming was offered in the afternoon, including a session on trauma-informed lawyering. 

The Access Committee collaborated with Legal Aid organizations, law firms, non-profit legal services organizations, and bar associations to offer several webinars and seminars during the 2019-20 Bar year, most notably programs on eviction defense to mobilize pro bono attorneys to help respond to the eviction crisis in Virginia.  

Awards and Recognition:

On October 16, 2019, during the Pro Bono Conference, the Committee presented the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Pro Bono Award to Herbert L. Sebren. The Committee also presented the second annual Frankie Muse Freeman Organizational Pro Bono Award to co-recipients Consumer Litigation Associates, P.C. and Kelly Guzo, PLC. Bar President Marni Byrum was the master of ceremonies and LSC President Jim Sandman gave the guest remarks. More than 350 people attended this event.

 

The Committee designated Emily Lopynsky of UR Law as the 2020 recipient of the Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award and Marcel Slag of the Legal Aid Justice Center as the recipient of the 2020 Legal Aid Award. The 2020 Legal Aid Luncheon was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemics, so we were unable to formally present the awards this year. The recipients will be formally recognized at future statewide event. 

Departing members:  Polly Chong; Paul C. Garrett. The Committee wishes to extend its heartfelt gratitude and a tip of the hat to departing members. Their service was very valuable, and they will be missed both as colleagues and fellow Committee members. 

New Members (2020-21): Llezelle Dugger; Brandy Disbennett-Albrecht

Officers (2020-21):  Jennifer Fulmer, Chair; Ali Fannon, Vice Chair


[1] Ms. Everette joined the committee in the 2019-20 bar year to fill the unfinished term following Ms. Twitty’s resignation. 

[2] Ms. Twitty resigned from the committee in the 2019-2020 bar year; her term was filled by Ms. Everette. 

[3] The Spring 2020 meeting scheduled for March 20 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related instructions from the governor. 

 

Updated: Jul 13, 2020