Changing with the Times
What is known today as Community Legal Services of Prince George's County
first got its start as the Law Foundation of Prince George's County, which
began offering services in 1989. The organization began simply, hiring a paralegal
to do intake, but then quickly realizing that they needed someone to supervise
the paralegal. Current Executive Director Neal Conway "came on as a paralegal,
with a little bit of experience doing research work in domestic violence for
a group in West Virginia, (then) started here…with a managing attorney,
and Connie Belfiore (as) the executive director." Conway moved up through the
ranks, becoming Executive Director in 2001. "It tells people what we do,"
Conway explains of the organization's change of name. "That's important."
In the beginning the staff would merely screen the clients over the phone
and then find the attorneys to take the case. This changed in 1996. According
What has changed about Legal Services is that, when I came, we did telephone
intact only; we didn't give any advice, we just screened clients and then
we found attorneys to volunteer to take the cases. Then in 1995 or 1996,
Judge Steven Platt of the Prince George's County Circuit Court was on our
board of directors and he said, ‘(W)e have all these people in the
court house wandering around looking for legal advice.' Legal Services
opened an office in the courthouse where the lawyers could come and volunteer
to meet with clients. The idea was…to have someone in the courthouse
to tell people…what they needed to know, how to get a lawyer, things
like that. But when we advertised the job, a lawyer applied for the position.
Given the opportunity to hire a lawyer at the same salary as a paralegal,
it seemed like a good decision, and it was. What changed was that, once
we had hired a lawyer who could then give legal advice, we could never
As is usually the case, the need was bigger than originally thought. "It
started off with a few days a week…and was just overwhelming," notes
Conway. "Gradually it went to five mornings a week, then to full-time, then
we had to hire a legal assistant who was bi-lingual, and it has just continued
Because of their close proximity to the courthouse, Community Legal Services
has been able to unitize almost any level of attorney volunteerism, up to and
including a random spare hour created by a hearing cancellation. "Our attorneys
are free to come and go as a volunteer; whatever help we can get is welcome" explains
Conway. "This is a wonderful arrangement for us because it takes the overflow
and (thus) takes the pressure off the staff."
large or small,
to be effective
it mush be
Anu Kemet, Esq., of Kemet & Hunt, PLLC, of College Park, is one such volunteer. "Mr.
Kemet shows up two or three times a week to volunteer his time" says Earlette
Toomer, the agency's pro bono coordinator. Mr. Kemet was a recipient this year
of a statewide Pro Bono Service Award.
As the organization began to grow it became obvious that the need was outside
the normal central office scenario. The organization began working in Langley
Park with the Latino population, in conjunction with CASA de Maryland. In the
beginning, Community Legal Services went there twice a week to screen clients
and then refer the cases out through their home office. A grant from the Administrative
Office of the Courts expanded that outreach to full-time. Now there is an attorney
in Langley Park three days a week, and two days at the main office, along with
a legal assistant, to serve the Latino community. In addition, there is a pilot
educational program on workers' rights and responsibilities in Langley Park,
currently funded through the Meyer Foundation, to educate the public in that
According to Conway, the need for free legal services is greatest in the
southern part of the county. Problems in service delivery in that area include
lack of public transportation and language barriers. One of the ways Community
Legal Services is working to increase its presence there is the planned expansion
of their Elder Law Outreach.
"The Alliance of Southern Prince George's Counties, Inc. has made office
space available to us, free of charge, in Oxon Hill that will be much more
accessible to clients due to the bus lines that run nearby," says Conway. "The
office will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays and clients will be able to call
and make appointments with the volunteer attorneys."
Community Legal Services also runs a family law clinic for the self-represented.
Every other Wednesday, volunteer attorneys do a presentation in the evening
for people who are seeking non-contested divorces, explaining the process and
taking questions. Very soon, Community Legal Services will be adding a presentation
on Wednesday mornings in the home office for the self-represented who have
child support concerns. An officer from Child Support Enforcement will explain
how the process works, including how child support is determined, the rights
each party retains, and what paperwork needs to be brought into court. A volunteer
attorney will be available after the presentation to give advice and assist
Whether an organization is large or small, to be effective it must be responsive.
The Community Legal Services of Prince George's County has shown, and continues
to demonstrate, their remarkable ability to change with the times and continue
to give their clients the quality legal services they need.
Support the legal service agencies in your community. Add your resources
to the fight. For more information on the Legal Aid Bureau or the other legal
service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact Jon Moseley at the Pro
Bono Resource Center of Maryland at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274.
Jon Moseley is Volunteer
Services Coordinator for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.