Lauren Gilbride, managing attorney of The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s Intake Department and Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP), had a lightbulb moment while interning during high school and college for the Visiting Nurse Association. Her beloved aunt headed the mental health unit at the association and connected Gilbride with a job there.
“It gave me firsthand exposure to people with low-income who were suffering from mental health issues, and to some of the legal challenges they were facing,” Gilbride said. “I thought, these are people who really need help but have almost no financial means to hire an attorney.”
That experience stuck in Gilbride’s mind when she headed to law school and informed her decision to work at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, where she has been part of the Intake and the VLP team her entire career. After her mentor and the former Managing Attorney of Intake and VLP, Ann Porath, retired at the end of 2020, Gilbride stepped into the role, right in the middle of a pandemic.
Fortunately, the VLP leveraged technology to continue to serve clients and volunteers. The VLP’s online portal dubbed “Take a Case” updates in real-time with available volunteer opportunities. The one-stop-shop allows potential volunteers to review options by areas of law, geographic area, and client needs and makes it easy for Gilbride to identify where the highest demand is so that she can target outreach to volunteers.
The VLP also deployed technology to respond to the overwhelming need for employment-related legal help during the pandemic. When unemployment applications skyrocketed in April 2020, the VLP quickly developed a new system that allows pro bono attorneys to access shared forms as well as view and securely share client documents.
“We recognized that we wouldn’t be face-to-face for a long time, so we had to figure out how to get the information to them,” Gilbride said. “The fact that we’ve had so many attorneys do this for the last 19 months, I think that’s a testament to the dedication of our volunteers and hopefully, we’ve made it as easy as we can to volunteer.”
Now, Gilbride is helping to sort out what the pro bono world looks like post-COVID. While the virtual model has helped the VLP engage new volunteers and has largely been convenient for clients, some clinics are better in person.
“Some particularly vulnerable clients are waiting for us to be at a location where they feel really comfortable,” Gilbride said. “We are doing some in-person brief advice clinics now, and we’re trying to identify, where is this working? Where is it not? And is there an opportunity for a hybrid model?”
While Gilbride loves working with the volunteers, it’s the clients that remain her and Legal Aid’s number one priority.
“The clients are always at the forefront,” she said. “Getting to think about serving clients in creative ways and being lucky enough to have the ability to get other people engaged and excited about that has been life-changing for me.”
Are you an attorney interested in volunteering with The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland? Visit https://lasclev.org/volunteer/attorneys/
October is Pro Bono Month and the Foundation is celebrating by highlighting the pro bono coordinators at each Ohio legal aid. Read the profiles.