COMMUNITY GEMS: Volunteer lawyers give underserved access to justice system

Volunteer lawyers, paralegals and students work on civil cases pro bono

Attorney Lester Thompson knows that some people will take advantage of others if no one is willing to say no.

“I can say no,” he said.

Thompson is one of about 150 volunteers with the Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project, said Summer Hawks, the organization’s executive director. Hawks nominated as Dayton Daily News Community Gems those volunteer lawyers, paralegals, clerks and students who serve the underserved through the VLP.

“I’m just proud to be a part of it,” Thompson said. “They’re dedicated to helping the least and the lost the best they can.”

The volunteers work on about 600 civil cases each year pro bono, helping in situations like divorce, fraud, sealing criminal records and more, Hawks said. The organization doesn’t handle criminal cases.

Clients come from a seven-county area – Montgomery, Greene, Clark, Darke, Champaign, Miami and Preble – and have a maximum household income of 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or up to 200 percent with certain qualifying expenses. That’s about $30,000 for a household with one individual, she said.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“The court system can be so intimidating,” Hawks said, adding that the volunteers can “break the log jam” and make the process easier and more understandable.

Volunteers average between 10 to 150 hours a year with the organization, beyond their normal jobs. Many say they enjoy giving back, Hawks said, and the work is also good experience for new lawyers.

The Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project is affiliated with Legal Aid of Western Ohio, which has paid attorneys to do legal work, but they are separate organizations, she said. Potential clients first call the Legal Aid Line at 1-888-534-1432 to be screened for eligibility and to determine what organization can best serve them.

“We would be nothing without our volunteers, so I like to make sure they know how appreciated they are,” Hawks said.

Thompson was named the 2023 GDVLP Outstanding Volunteer of the Year after spending multiple years on two different cases in which the senior clients were facing homelessness.

Thompson has been a local attorney for 50 years and retired from active practice at the end of 2015. But he said that as a retired lawyer he has more time – and he gives some of that to the VLP, spending at least 100 hours annually volunteering with the organization.

Thompson, who assists clients with bankruptcy, probate and real estate issues, said it is meaningful to help others over a hump and into a better circumstance. He feels a duty to give back to the community.

“I enjoy it,” Thompson said. “Most of the clients are very thankful, and it’s certainly needed.”

The organization fills a demand, and yet many don’t know about it, both Thompson and Hawks said.

Hawks praised the generosity of the volunteer legal professionals who give of their time and talent. She said it is rewarding to use the skills and abilities that have been garnered from a law degree and to use them to give others access to the justice system.

“I want to make sure they’re recognized for their selflessness in providing these services,” Hawks said.

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