By Matthew Sorensen, Garrison Law Group and YLS Futures Committee member
It is no secret that the economy in Oregon is poor. Even with trickles of good news coming in from most of the country, the "good" news in Oregon is that we have finally hit bottom. What the slow economy has meant for this state is that many Oregonians are facing legal difficulties without the means to pay for it. Having spent a year volunteering for Legal Aid Services of Oregon's (LASO) Multnomah County office in the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, I have seen this firsthand.
In the tax clinic, we work to resolve debt issues through settlement offers and installment agreements, assist with audits and help with other tax issues. The staff attorneys and volunteers work very hard to accommodate those who qualified for LASO's services. However, in the year I spent as a volunteer, I encountered numerous potential clients LASO was unable to help because of lack of resources. This is where LASO depends on the assistance of outside attorneys who are willing to take on pro bono cases. If LASO did not have the resources to accept a case in-house, we had a roster of attorneys signed up who were willing to take the case pro bono. We were able to place numerous taxpayers with outside referrals, and they received free legal assistance in cases where they otherwise might have foregone representation altogether.
Where LASO struggles on occasion, however, is being able to make a placement. The referral attorneys have regular case loads, are busy, or sometimes the matter simply is outside the areas of expertise. We would have benefited from more attorneys agreeing to accept referrals. This, of course, is not limited to the tax clinic, as LASO takes on cases that get into any number of practice areas. Oregon would be better off if more attorneys would take on at least one pro bono matter each year and expand access to justice in Oregon.
Finally, one other impact of the poor economy is the low rate of employment for newer attorneys. Working as a volunteer with LASO and St. Andrews, in particular, is an excellent way to gain experience and prevent the skills you spent three years and many thousands of dollars obtaining from going stale. LASO and St. Andrew will also provide volunteers with PLF coverage, an expense that many job seekers cannot afford. From personal experience, I urge any new attorneys facing a tight job market to consider taking on pro bono matters while they are conducting their job search. You will have experience to put on your resume, and, more importantly, will help deserving Oregonians.