Week dedicated to free legal help

National Pro Bono Week is held every October as a means to recognize attorneys who have given back to the community by offering free legal services to those who can’t afford a lawyer.

This year, a sense of urgency accompanies the awards luncheon as the economy has forced thousands of Las Vegas residents to venture into a courtroom without an attorney to navigate them through the process.

This year’s Pro Bono Week beginning Oct. 23 will have two components: One involves providing consultations to legions of Nevadans. The other entails an aggressive pro bono lawyer recruitment drive.

To illustrate the need, more than 24,000 people sought free legal help at the civil self-help center since it opened at the downtown courthouse in December, said Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, who has spent her entire 21-year legal career at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit with a staff of 60 and an army of pro bono attorneys.

"With this recession we saw thousands of individuals in need of legal help in foreclosures, garnishment, domestic violence and other help," said Buckley. What the staff attorneys and support personnel can’t handle at the Legal Aid Center, pro bono attorneys "fill the void."

Here in Nevada, where the recession is most acute, the state Supreme Court, through its Access to Justice Commission, has taken several steps designed to assist those who go it alone.

"Families are not only struggling to pay for basic necessities, said Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, "they have additional legal challenges created by unemployment denials, debt collection, bankruptcies, foreclosures and other civil legal issues.

"As a result, the need for pro-bono volunteer attorneys is greater than ever,” Hardesty said. "We are calling upon attorneys throughout the state to do their part in providing critical legal services to help those in need."

The commission will spend the week recruiting attorneys and assisting those in need. The group will also honor attorneys who "provided significant pro bono legal services" over the past 12 months. The top awards will go to the Lewis & Roca law firm, which picked up more than 50 pro bono cases in 2009. Dan Waite was named Attorney of the Year.

The Legal Aid Center is the largest pro bono program in Southern Nevada, according to the Access to Justice Commission. In the past decade, nearly 4,000 residents have been assigned an attorney there for free. Not surprisingly, 2009 was one of the busiest and 2010 numbers will probably eclipse those posted a year ago.

The program, according to the Access to Justice Commission, placed 559 clients in 2009, and more could have been helped.

Nevada Legal Services of Northern Nevada is also involved, having recruited 13 new attorneys. The issues in the north are similar to those in the south: Family court cases where the economy has parties seeking child or spousal support modifications, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

Evictions and other landlord-tenant actions are also on the increase.

Other groups that provide assistance include the Senior Citizens Law Project, Volunteer Attorneys for Rural Nevada and Washoe Legal Services.

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.

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