Legal service providers know how to make tough decisions. In the regular course of their daily business, they must constantly check to make sure their activities are on task and true to their mission. This is most essential when considering work that will result in systemic change.
of supporting activities which could bring about large-scale change can be seductive, but treacherous.
Agencies are continually being forced to decide where to focus their energies and resources. Frequently that means deciding between direct services to existing clients versus long-term impact work. The allure of supporting activities which could bring about large-scale change can be seductive, but treacherous. That type of work is time-consuming and resource-intensive. In addition, the activity required to bring about large-scale change often must be sustained for years before any return is realized. On the other hand, if systemic change can be achieved, the lives of whole classes of individuals can be improved.
“You have to do both,” says Tracey Brown, Esq., Executive Director of the Women’s Law Center (WLC) in Baltimore County. The WLC developed a process which allows careful examination of any service or activity the agency is considering. Questions such as “Is it within the mission?”, “Does it fill a void?” and “Will it address several issues affecting women at one time?” help WLC make the best choices.
WLC has a history of advocacy that helps protect and preserve the rights of women and children. “We are committed to the work that helps bring about a level playing field for women,” says Brown. “However, with women comprising half the population, theoretically we could take on any issue in the world. This is where one specific question becomes very important: is the outcome commensurate with the resources required?”
Work put forward by the WLC establishing guidelines to be used by judges deciding alimony cases was both successful and commensurate. Research conducted by WLC revealed that women were suffering a financial disparity in alimony cases. It also discovered that judges did not like to deal with alimony issues because it was “all over the place”.
“Work to develop and advocate for the alimony guidelines was begun years ago, but the end result is a tool that judges can use in deciding alimony cases which will result in a more equitable distribution of resources,” says Brown. “It’s a great feeling when it comes together.”
For another legal services provider it means addressing domestic violence in the legislature as well as in the courtroom. “The House of Ruth Maryland has recognized that the only way to eliminate domestic violence in our society is to provide direct assistance to victims and to change the social systems that support, condone or ignore domestic violence,” states Dorothy Lennig, Esq., Director of the Legal Services Clinic. “House of Ruth Maryland has consistently devoted resources to change the laws that excuse domestic violence, to educate every service provider who responds to a victim on the dynamics of domestic violence, and to change attitudes through public media campaigns.”
House of Ruth has been intimately involved over the years in drafting and advocating for the passage of legislation that will improve Maryland’s domestic violence laws, such as the Battered Spouse Syndrome Bill and the Permanent Protective Order law.
In addition to advocating with the legislature, House of Ruth has domestic violence attorneys litigating cases in courts around the state, which help to set case law. Clinic attorneys have helped to create a body of appellate law, such as Katsenelenbogen v. Katsenelenbogen and Coburn v. Coburn, which helps countless victims. The two-prong approach – direct services/systemic change - is essential when trying to efficiently and effectively address the many factors involved in the fight to eliminate domestic violence.
Agencies must adhere to the mission, find the niche, discover what works and weigh the costs, but never forget the ones for whom these deeds are done. Clients count on the very best the agencies have to offer. There is no where else to go. There is no other help.
Agencies need what only you can give. Your time. Your commitment. It is of great value and sorely needed. Support pro bono work in your community. Add your resources to the fight.
For more information on the legal service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact the PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services & Community Outreach for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.