This fall, Jewish Family Service (JFS) is marking the 10-year anniversary of its Legal Referral Service, its highly successful legal program that provides pro bono lawyers to JFS clients and which has now assisted more than 2,000 clients and provided more than $2 million in pro bono services.
“It really has grown into quite an impressive program and a central service of this agency,” says JFS CEO Perry Ohren. “Our volunteer lawyers are top-notch and the work they perform for people in our community, often on an emergency basis, is truly incredible and heart-warming.”
The program was created in 2007, when it became apparent that JFS’ clients were too often in desperate need for legal services which they couldn’t afford. Prior to that time, when a client needed an attorney, the JFS staff would scramble to ask friends and family for a pro bono referral, a haphazard approach that often left clients unrepresented.
JFS established a program to target the problem and identified an initial list of Jewish lawyers who might be willing to help. The “ask” to the attorneys was to assist one client a year, whether it was simply by speaking to them, writing a letter, filing a motion or something more extensive. The result was overwhelming. Hundreds of local lawyers and law firms raised their hands, often willing to handle multiple matters a year. Soon there was a steady and reliable pool of top-notch lawyers available to serve the legal needs of the community.
“If we count all the lawyers and the many firms that now help us, then I believe we’ve assembled the largest Jewish law firm in the entire state of Michigan. Not bad for 10 years, huh?” Ohren says.
The program regularly assists clients with domestic relations matters, bankruptcies, Social Security disability, the elderly dealing with sensitive end-of-life issues and other high-demand legal specialties. In some matters, it partners with other programs sanctioned by the State Bar of Michigan, including HAVEN and Lakeshore Legal Aid.
Earlier this year, the Michigan State Bar named JFS’ Legal Referral Program as an “Access to Justice” partner, thereby allowing it to share in funding through the bar association from donations made by Michigan lawyers.
Primarily funded through the generosity of the Jewish Women’s Foundation, the Legal Referral Service program regularly assists female clients, who make up the majority of its caseload. Often the cases involve emergency petitions for personal protection orders or child support or assisting widows facing eviction or utility shut-off notices.
A number of the lawyers often coordinate with JFS caseworkers to help elderly clients get their affairs in order, particularly when there is an adult child with a disability who will need to be cared for after the loss of a parent.
The outpouring of appreciation from grateful clients is constant. In a recent case involving a particularly vicious attack from a husband, JFS obtained a lawyer who immediately leapt into action, securing a personal protection order, a divorce action, and sole possession of the home for the client and her children. “Without our attorney,” the client says, “my children and I would have had to move out of state. We are so grateful to JFS and our wonderful attorney for giving us our lives back.”
The program has received national acclaim, and often other Jewish Family Services around the country have inquired how they may establish a program as successful as the one here.
“But the key to our success is the dedication and generosity of our volunteer lawyers,” Ohren says. “They really go the extra mile and allow JFS to help fulfill our mission of strengthening lives through compassionate service.”
Mark Jacobs is director of JFS Legal Referral Service. Attorneys interested in volunteering to participate in the Legal Referral Service program are encouraged to contact either Kelly Goldberg or Emily Croitori at JFS at (248) 592-1907.