Winter 2016: Pro Bono Spotlight - Middlesex Lawyer for the Day Program

The Middlesex Lawyer for the Day Program is a Court-Sponsored Pro Bono program, where private attorneys volunteer to give limited legal advice to income-qualified pro se litigants. The lawyer for the day program is operated out of the Middlesex Probate and Family Court Family Service Office located at 208 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

According to the American Bar Association: “When society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and to make justice equally accessible to all people. Thus, all lawyers should aspire to render some legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public.1” The access to justice issue confronting the Massachusetts Court system is large, multi-layered, and totally beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say, IOTA balances are exceptionally low, the Family Court system is dealing with a huge case load, and to make matters worse, most of the litigants don’t have an attorney. This has all put tremendous strain on the court system. To that end, I would urge everyone to volunteer at the program. However, this article is not a jeremiad, and I wanted to cut straight through the ethical and moral proscriptions to move to what in my mind is more compelling (especially for younger practitioners): the practical and pragmatic reasons for participating in the program.

Participating in the lawyer for the day program will simply make you a better lawyer. You will become very comfortable issue spotting in a fast paced environment with minimal preparation. You also will extensively develop your motion practice, from run of the mill motions for temporary orders and child support guidelines, to potential parental kidnappings that require a writ ne exeat to be granted on an emergency basis. All of this, while occasionally stressful, will make you much better at your job. Because Middlesex Probate Court offers its 1A uncontested divorce hearings on the same day the divorce packet is filed, you should expect at least once per volunteer session to be reviewing an erroneous separation agreement. This agreement is usually going to be back up that day on second call, so it’s important to accurately identify what the problems are and fix them in short order. As the vast majority of family law cases end in stipulated agreements of some form, it’s very important to develop a facility troubleshooting problematic agreements and identifying potential issues (Holiday visitations for children etc.) that the litigants themselves may not have anticipated.

Another great reason to become involved in the lawyer for the day program is that becoming a known quantity in the Court systems you work in is advantageous for any lawyer. The judges are very cognizant of who is the Lawyer for the Day and they appreciate it tremendously. Every problematic agreement you clear up has just saved the Court another hearing date, every pro se you explained the process to is far less likely to harangue either the judge or the judge’s clerk for legal advice. Overall, the court staff becoming familiar with your face will simply increase your day to day quality of life as you work in the court system.

If you would like to participate in the program, but are unsure you are ready, MCLE offers a training for the Probate and Family Court Lawyer for the Day Program. If you are a new practitioner, I would highly recommend the training: while the duties of the lawyer for the day are inherently fluid and require flexibility, developing a basic fluency with the more common legal issues you will be dealing with is critical. If you would like to volunteer, please call the Middlesex Probate and Family Court family services office for more information.