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Legal Aid Center’s good works challenge lawyer stereotypes

You’ve heard the scores of lawyer jokes. You’ve heard the gamut of horror stories about lawyers, especially incidents of outlandish lawyer avarice. You’ve heard the late-night comedians throw barbs at lawyers, and the midnight talk show hosts who dredge up one insulting story after another about lawyers whenever they run thin on material.

And so it goes when often discussing the men and women who represent our legal profession. Generally, we tend to hear the besmirching remarks only from those on the losing side. Remember, lawyers represent contestants in a legal battle, where there is almost always a winner and a loser. And, of course, it’s the loser who’s inclined to find fault with his lawyer.

But how about the other side of the coin? How about considering less tarnish and more acclaim for a profession without which our society could not function? How about a story that talks about the good things that lawyers do? About how they give of themselves to help others?

Oh? There’s no such thing, you say? Well, this is a story about good things that lawyers do. And more to the point, many of those lawyers and their clients live right here in Summerlin.

"I would say that about half the lawyers in the state have at some time provided free legal work for persons unable to afford their services," said Lynn Etkins, development director for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. The center, at 800 S. Eighth St., is a nonprofit organization that exists largely on grants and contributions, and it carries the imprimatur of the Nevada Supreme Court.

You couldn’t begin to calculate the hundreds of millions and possibly billions of dollars worth of time donated by attorneys since the center was founded 53 years ago as Clark County Legal Services. Approximately half of the nearly 9,000 lawyers in Nevada have provided pro bono work, either in the past or at present, said Etkins, explaining that, in many cases, the same lawyer will provide free legal services to needy clients again and again.

Etkins should know because the Clark County Pro Bono project falls under the purview of the Legal Aid Center. The phrase "pro bono publico" is a Latin expression meaning "for the public good."

Summerlin, like everywhere else in Nevada, has been hit hard in recent times by foreclosures and bankruptcies. And those are just two of the more active areas of legal need by folks who are unable to afford lawyer representation.

"We have no breakdown of where our pro bono clients come from," Etkins said. "Perhaps Summerlin, because of its economic makeup, may not have as many pro bono recipients as other sectors of Clark County. But I can tell you that there are plenty of lawyers who live in Summerlin who do pro bono work."

There also are plenty of foreclosures and bankruptcies in Summerlin, as there are persons who have become suddenly unemployed and find themselves among the neediest candidates for pro bono lawyers. The center employs 27 full-time attorneys, three of whom handle only foreclosure matters due to one of the severest pitfalls in the current economy.

"Right now we have about 1,000 people who are getting various kinds of pro bono aid," Etkins said. "We place about 600 new clients a year with pro bono lawyers."

But the present economic ills aren’t the only areas of activity for the center, which does not accept clients involved in criminal matters. A good percentage of its pro bono involvement involves family law situations, such as divorce, child custody and domestic violence matters.

"In October we celebrated National Pro Bono Week," Etkins said, explaining that it is a project encouraged by the American Bar Association. One day that week was set aside for free advice to senior citizens, in cooperation with the center’s Senior Law Project.

"More than 70 seniors took advantage of the program, requesting legal help."

So think about the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and its full range of pro bono legal services the next time you hear some of those disreputable references about attorneys.

And if you should happen to require the assistance of a pro bono lawyer, call the center at 386-1070.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His newest novel, "All For Nothing," is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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