This year, the King County Bar Association Neighborhood Legal Clinics Program (NLC) is celebrating 40 years of service to the King County community. This momentous occasion gives us the opportunity to look back at the last four decades to examine how the program started, how it has grown and how it will move forward.
In the mid-1970s, pro bono legal aid services existed, but were limited to help in only a few areas of law, and available only to the very poor. The services focused on direct representation with no resources for legal advice. This left a large gap in service as many people in our community were not poor enough to receive free services, but also did not have the means to afford an attorney.
Attorneys Joseph Gaffney, Philip Cutler and Joseph Murphy recognized a significant need for legal advice and referral services based on their own pro bono experiences. For a Bar Bulletin article in 1984, Cutler remarked, "We perceived a need for lawyers who would counsel clients as to whether they even had a 'legal' problem, give them some very basic legal advice - and perhaps some general non-legal counseling as well - then steer them to the appropriate agency for additional help if that appeared necessary or desirable."
In 1974, the three attorneys approached the Country Doctor Medical Clinic, a place where people were already going for free or sliding-scale medical care, and Country Doctor agreed to let the attorneys use their space after hours. This was a successful partnership as the people seeking community health care services also were struggling with legal issues; quickly the legal clinic became very popular. Gaffney still volunteers regularly with the Country Doctor Legal Clinic and was honored this year as the recipient of the King County Bar Association's 2014 Pro Bono Award.
Since 1974, NLC has grown to 34 clinics utilizing more than 750 volunteers and serving approximately 8,000 clients each year. Although the program has greatly expanded over the last four decades, the original vision and purpose has remained the same - to offer free legal advice and referrals to individuals who might otherwise have no access to the legal system.
These services are accessible regardless of barriers such as income, education, language or disability. Many people who come to the Neighborhood Legal Clinics are overwhelmed by the complexity of the legal system and feel powerless. The NLC Program provides people with the tools, knowledge and confidence to take control of their legal issues, often resulting in a life-changing outcome.
The Neighborhood Legal Clinics Program not only benefits individuals with legal needs, but also provides a valuable opportunity for attorneys, legal assistants, interpreters and community members. Volunteers are able to expand their knowledge base through seeing a wide variety of legal problems, and familiarizing themselves with social service agencies and resources. NLC provides free continuing legal education training to all volunteers, opportunities to network within the legal profession, experiences to gain interview and issue spotting skills, and the ability to give back to the community in a tangible way.
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