Issue: April, 2008
Author: Janice Baker
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Wyoming Legal Services: A much-needed Wyoming resource
Wyoming Legal Services, Inc (WLS) is a federally funded, non-profit, 501(c) (3) charitable legal firm that provides legal assistance to low income residents living in Wyoming. WLS’s purpose is to provide legal assistance in civil cases to those individuals who would normally not be able to afford legal representation. WLS was established in 1997 as a result of a statewide consolidation of three separate legal service programs in Wyoming: Wind River Legal Services in Lander, Legal Aid Services in Casper, and Legal Services of Southeastern Wyoming in Cheyenne. The three combined offices received 1,500 applications for legal services in 2006, and as of December 2007, WLS has received 1,910 applications for legal assistance and expects an increase in 2008. WLS provides legal services in the areas of housing, income benefits, consumer debt, elder law, family law and disability advocacy statewide as well as criminal and civil representation on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the Shoshone/Arapahoe Tribal Court. Wyoming Legal Services is able to provide legal help for about two-thirds of the Wyoming citizens that apply for services. The remaining third of individuals that apply either do not qualify for our services or have a legal problem that we are unable to litigate. These individuals are typically referred to the Wyoming State Bar or their local bar for help.
WLS provides free legal assistance in civil cases for Wyoming residents who live at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guideline. In Wyoming, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one out of six residents lives at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. Wyoming currently has a population of about 500,000 individuals; therefore, about 75,000 Wyoming residents live below the federal poverty level. With only six staff attorneys throughout Wyoming, WLS must rely on attorney volunteers to provide pro bono support.
WLS operates on a budget of $655,493 with six attorneys, one tribal advocate, one PAI coordinator, and several office staff personnel. Eighty-five percent of our funding comes from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), “a private, non-profit corporation established by Congress to seek to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it.” LSC funding is used primarily to provide general civil legal services to low-income individuals. Other funding sources include: a grant under the Older Americans Act, administered by the Wyoming Department of Health, Aging Division, to provide limited legal services for persons age 60 and older; and a 2007 IOLTA grant from the Wyoming State Bar Foundation.
Wyoming Legal Services hosts a website for pro bono attorneys in Wyoming - www.WyomingAdvocate.org. WyomingAdvocate.org is an online resource containing documents, pleadings, and legal briefs, current legal news relating to poverty law, upcoming training events for attorneys, a monthly newsletter, and listing of pro bono cases available for volunteer attorneys. Membership is required to keep materials private from the general public. WyomingAdvocate.org was developed to provide a means of communication with members of the Wyoming State Bar for outreach of pro bono cases. Most of the pro bono cases are simple wills, landlord tenant disputes, credit issues, and guardianships. Occasionally, there are cases that involve child custody modification and establishment of paternity. WLS will provide as much support as an attorney may need for any pro bono case taken. In April of 2007, WyomingAdvocate.org only had 20 mostly inactive members. Through various outreach activities, we have been able to raise the membership to over 120 members. The benefits of taking a case through Wyoming Legal Services includes malpractice insurance, CLE credit, and reimbursement of non-staff expenses incurred during representation of a pro bono client.
In order to do pro bono outreach face-to-face with Wyoming attorneys, extensive travel is required. Since Wyoming is a frontier state with a small population spread across a vast amount of land, travel must be done by car and during the warm summer months. In June 2007, Wyoming Legal Services in collaboration with the Wyoming State Bar Foundation conducted a CLE Road Show covering ethics and pro bono issues. The Road Show covered 13 cities and gave Wyoming State Bar members the opportunity to learn about Wyoming’s pro bono requirements and WyomingAdvocate.org. It took three weeks to complete the Road Show. The Road Show was very successful, with over 70 new members joining WyomingAdvocate.org as a direct result of the information they were given during the CLE. In addition, the number of pro bono cases that were placed through WyomingAdvocate.org began to increase; more cases were placed in the latter half of 2007 than in all previous years combined.
As part of WLS’s annual fundraiser in July 2007, 15 attorneys recommitted to taking a pro bono case and 30 new members joined WyomingAdvocate.org. In September 2007, Wyoming Legal Services was an exhibitor at the Wyoming State Bar Annual Meeting and we were able to inform over 70 attorneys about pro bono work and received 20 new members to WyomingAdvocate.org, as well as added four members of the judiciary to our membership.
Two specific pro bono outreach activities WLS currently has planned for 2008 are the Wyoming State Bar Annual Meeting in September and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Annual Conference in June at which we will be exhibitors. These conferences provide a wonderful opportunity to reach members of the Wyoming State Bar.
Since we can only assist two-thirds of the individuals who come to us for assistance, this is where you, the members of the Bar, can help those clients in need of assistance. By becoming a member of WyomingAdvocate.org, you can find a listing of pro bono cases, library materials, newsletters, upcoming CLEs, and poverty law news. To become a member, please go to www.WyomingAdvocate.org or you can contact me at (307) 634-1566 or WLSvista@gmail.com. I will be happy to assist you and answer any questions you may have about WyomingAdvocate.org.
Janice Baker is the PAI Coordinator for Wyoming Legal Services and the program manager for WyomingAdvocate.org.
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