Lawyers Clearinghouse: Pro Bono Consultation for Those in Need

Adam Sennott

For more than 20 years, one local organization has been ensuring that Boston’s homeless and nonprofits receive fair and adequate representation in the court of law.

Lawyers Clearinghouse is a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to homeless men and women living in shelters, as well as to nonprofit organizations throughout the Boston area. Lawyers offering their services through the Clearinghouse work as volunteers and are matched with clients based on their area of expertise.

According to their website, Lawyers Clearinghouse was founded by the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1988 with the goal of combating homelessness by offering free legal services to organizations and individuals alike.

“We use all volunteer lawyers, so the staff at Lawyers Clearinghouse is just two attorneys,” said Maribeth Perry, Executive Director of Lawyers Clearinghouse. “But the folks who are taking on the legal representation through the legal clinic, or for nonprofits, are all private bar attorneys who volunteer their time.”

More then 300 volunteer lawyers participate in the Lawyers Clearinghouse’s programs. Each attorney is given cases specific to their area of expertise, further differentiated by whether they specialize in representing nonprofit organizations or individuals.

“The legal clinic for the homeless program that we run offers free legal services to people who are using shelter services at Pine Street Inn, St. Francis house, Impact, hopeFound, and the [Cardinal] Medeiros Center,” Perry said. “And that program has pro bono lawyers from some of Boston’s larger law firms.”

Perry continued, “The lawyers go to the shelter, they meet with the guests and they try to take on the matters that are affecting the guests at that particular time.”

While Lawyers Clearinghouse will handle a variety of legal issues involving homeless individuals, most cases involve social security denials, housing evictions, BHA denials, and CORI related matters.

“The most common issues are from people who are facing denial of their social security benefits, those who may have been evicted illegally, and other landlord-tenant matters such as storage issues that come up if someone has been evicted and had their things placed in storage. We also help people with matters relating to their CORI, sometimes to seal a record or fix mistakes that may be on their CORI,” Perry said.

While these issues pertain particularly to homeless individuals, nonprofit organizations also face their share of legal dilemmas, such as issues surrounding real estate, contracts and intellectual property.

“We also provide legal services to nonprofit organizations,” Perry explained. “Just as a lot of people are suffering in the bad economy, nonprofits are also facing challenging economic times. And nonprofits also have legal issues that affect their operations, so we find pro bono lawyers who will assist the nonprofits with their legal matters as well.”

While Lawyers Clearinghouse tries to represent both nonprofits and homeless individuals with a variety of different issues, one area in which they cannot assist is domestic relations.

“We don’t do custody, child support, or divorce, ” Perry said. “First, there is another program that does do that, which is Shelter Legal Services. But secondly, our volunteer lawyers don’t have experience in that area of law. So we’re just not suited to taking on those matters.”

Although there are limits to the types of cases Lawyers Clearinghouse can take, their attorneys are dedicated to providing legal services in a variety of areas.

“I have worked on a variety of cases, I don’t think I have specialized in anything,” said Rachel Brodin, an Attorney for Goulston and Storrs who volunteers her services to Lawyers Clearinghouse. “I have an immigration case; I have done several social security cases, some housing cases, some CORI cases. So it’s a big variety. We do get a lot of social security cases. I would say that’s the majority of what I have seen.”

Brodin also commented on the services that Lawyers Clearinghouse provides to the community.

“I think it’s just a wonderful service that they provide, and something that I think is really needed in the legal community in Massachusetts,” Brodin said. “I just wanted to lend my assistance and use the skills that I acquired in law school and my job to be able to provide those services.”

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