Paul Sugar, pro bono coordinator for Ober Kaler, is seated in the conference room of his firm’s Baltimore office and recounts searching for the firm’s signature project a couple years ago.
“We wanted something we could take pride in,” he says. “Something people would be eager to participate in, that would increase pro bono hours, and that would, of course, do good.”
His conclusion then is the same as it is today: Project HEAL is a natural fit.
HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy and Law) is an eight-year-old program and Maryland’s only medical-legal partnership (MLP). It was conceived by Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service and thrives today on grant money and work.
“They are extremely busy – overwhelmed even,” says Sugar. “We would be their resource.”
The relationship is straightforward. HEAL offers children and parents at Johns Hopkins Children Center and Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) free, legal advocacy in areas like landlord/tenant disputes, guardianship, public benefits, immigration and estate planning. When cases begin to pile up, the staff at HEAL – currently only three full-time attorneys – passes some to Ober Kaler.
There is a decision process behind what cases move and what cases stay, says Hope Tipton, Director of HEAL at Hopkins. Sometimes it has to do with legal knowledge or the location of the family’s home.
“And sometimes,” Tipton admits, “I look at my desk and say, This has got to move.”
HEAL, according to statistics from the program, averages 128 cases a year, with the record being 180 (HEAL has also taken its staff attorneys to every county in the state except Calvert and Allegany).
Prior to Ober Kaler’s partnership, HEAL averaged 15 pro bono referrals a year from fiscal years 2004 through 2010.
“We have not had a case we could not fill,” states Victoria Sulerzyski, HEAL coordinator and attorney at Ober Kaler.
Taking a HEAL case at Ober Kaler is strictly voluntary, Sugar and Sulerzyski agree. The firm says it receives one or two cases a month.
Partners, associates and clerks have all signed up to help out. And their success in filling these cases, Sugar says, at least implicitly signifies that people are happy with this program.
Meanwhile, HEAL can take more cases and offer more consultations to families and doctors, which comprises a majority of their business. They consult health professionals on average 352 times a year and families nearly 230 times.
HEAL also comes to Ober Kaler to train interested volunteers in law areas specific to the program. Tipton and Maureen van Stone, Director of HEAL at KKI, lead the session.
Inside Ober Kaler, Sulerzyski serves as mentor for some volunteers. Attorneys also team together to help complete the case. “I treat this like I would any other billable case,” says Sulerzyski.
“When we started working with Project HEAL I didn’t know what a medical-legal partnership was,” says Alexis Rohde, an associate at Ober Kaler who has taken estate cases for HEAL as well as denial of medcaid benefits. “I discovered an innovative way to get services where they are needed.”