When Amy Gunn was a law student, she served as a clerk in Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s housing unit. Now an attorney for The Simon Law Firm, Gunn remembers serving on a case involving an elderly woman who faced the threat of being kicked out of her public assistance housing. “You have to go through certain hoops before you can do that legally,” Gunn says. “I looked through the paperwork and noticed that all the hoops hadn’t been gone through and I was able to keep this lady in her apartment.” This is just one small example of the work that is done every day by members of the St. Louis law community, who have a strong tradition of taking on work on a pro bono basis for those who cannot afford to pay.
“If a person has a legal problem, it can turn their life upside down,” says Robert Selsor, an attorney at Polsinelli Shughart. “Their children may not get the appropriate education, they may lose their housing, or what little net worth they have may be taken away from them.” Adds colleague Matt Hans, a board member for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, “Access to quality legal representation does have a direct effect on people’s lives every day. And access shouldn’t depend on whether you’re able to afford it when it comes to issues like education, housing, health and the ability to have an income.”
While many lawyers participate in the pro bono tradition, it takes on different forms for each firm. Kirk Stange, of Stange Law Firm, which focuses on family law, says he takes on many of the firm’s contested cases that go to trial. Meanwhile, his wife, Paola Stange, who co-founded the firm, takes many of the pro bono cases. A native of Guatemala, she speaks Spanish fluently. “There are not that many attorneys in Missouri that speak Spanish fluently, so that’s definitely useful,” Stange says of his wife. “Anyone who knows Paola knows she volunteers her time, she exhausts herself volunteering for all sorts of things at the same time. It’s ingrained in her personality.” She was one of five selected by the St. Louis County Circuit Court Judges in 2011 to receive the Outstanding Volunteer Domestic Violence Guardian ad Litem Award.
Stange says many of the pro bono cases the firm takes involve domestic violence, and all of them involve economic hardship. “You can’t help everybody, so you try to pick the situations where it’s really needed,” he says.
At Polsinelli Shughart, pro bono work is counted toward attorneys’ productivity goals, Selsor says. The firm’s pro bono focus is on cases that benefit children, and when attorneys want to take on a pro bono case, it is approved through a committee of which Selsor is the chair. Many cases also are referred through Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. “Legal Services is experiencing a justice gap,” Hans says. “The demand for its services is increasing as more and more people are suffering economically, and more people of lower incomes have a need for quality, free legal services. At the same time, funding at the federal and state level is being cut, so there’s a gap.”
Private donors often step up to help fill that gap. The Simon Law Firm is among those providing monetary assistance to the respected organization, Gunn says. For the past seven years, she has spearheaded a fundraising seminar that has raised more than $105,000. Each year’s total has grown as more attorneys hear about the seminar, she notes. “We call the best and brightest in the city to come and speak about a topic,” Gunn says. Leading attorneys and area judges speak on a theme, and discussions have included topics such as ethics, cross examination, opening statements, medical malpractice and ‘tips from the bench.’ “Most people enjoy the topics, and because it benefits Legal Services, I get fabulous speakers who give their time and talent selflessly to present.” She adds that since the costs are underwritten by the firm, 100 percent of the admission fees go directly to Legal Services. “It’s just plain easy to be inspired by what they do. We hope to continue this for as long as people show up.”