June 3, 2020 – When news began to spread about a new viral outbreak earlier this year, the pandemic seemed very far from Madison. Yet, it didn’t take long before efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 began interfering with the pro bono work of Wisconsin attorneys.
Since starting her pro bono volunteer work this past January, Madison family lawyer Elisabeth Fletcher of Musial & Friedrich S.C. makes a point to volunteer once a month with the Free Family Law Clinic at Vera Court Neighborhood Center in Madison.
Rebecca Rapp and others in the legal department at Ascendium Legal Group launched the clinic several years ago (read more about the clinic in the March 2019 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine). The monthly clinic, which takes place on the second Thursday, serves low-income individuals.
Fletcher joined the clinic to contribute to the community. “Pro bono work is important for the greater good of our society, and should be an important part of all attorneys’ practices,” Fletcher said. “I live in this community and want to give back in a meaningful way. It’s important for all people to have access to legal aid for family law matters,” she said.
Although Fletcher’s focus is on family law, she also helps clients with other issues. The clinic’s prescreening process used means that she usually has some idea of the client’s concerns before she arrives. “If the issue is too far outside my practice area, I make sure to provide referrals for the clients,” Fletcher said.
When the Virus Hit
Fletcher’s volunteer shifts in January, February, and March were unaffected and took place as scheduled. “Unfortunately, April’s clinic was cancelled as part of Safer-at-Home precaution,” Fletcher said.
Jeff Brown, Harvard 1989, is manager of the State Bar Pro Bono Program, liaison to the Legal Assistance Committee, and staff for the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission. He can be reached by org jbrown wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6177.
As May approached, staff at the Vera Court Neighborhood Center reached out to discuss how the clinic might return to serving residents. “Offering remote video legal clinics, such as via Zoom, wouldn’t work, because many clients just don’t have access to technology,” Fletcher said. “And many of our clients speak little or no English and need translators.”
With a few modifications coordinated by the clinic’s receptionist Veronica Vega, Fletcher was able to restart her volunteer work.. As before, Fletcher receives the names of clients in advance so that she can run a conflicts check.
When they meet, “we all wear masks, and sit in our largest room, with at least six feet and a table between us,” Fletcher said.
Communication is more challenging with masks. “Voices are muffled, and it’s hard to read facial expressions to gauge comprehension,” she said. So, Fletcher makes a point of slowing down when she talks, so that the client (and the translator) has adequate time to process her questions and advice.
Keeping the clinics going in the time of pandemic is important. “It’s vital for our clients to learn about the court process changes resulting from the pandemic,” Fletcher said.
With these modifications, the rest of the clinic runs normally. Clients are scheduled for appointments that last for up to an hour. “Even with the changes in place, I can still help the same number of clients,” she said.
“I’m really happy that these changes are working – that we can meet in safety and comply with social distancing requirements, and still be able to help our clients,” Fletcher said.
Know a Member We Should Highlight for Pro Bono Service? Tell Us!
The State Bar of Wisconsin is proud to salute members who make a personal commitment to providing access to justice for low-income Wisconsin residents.
Do you know a member who should be highlighted for pro bono service? Contact Jeff Brown, State Bar Pro Bono Program Manager, by org jbrown wisbar email or at (608) 250-6177 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6177.