By the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program Staff
Like many who become Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program clients, Vickie Smith didn’t know where to turn to get legal help when she and her son were in the middle of complicated custody proceedings that spanned two countries and layers of international custody laws. She searched pro bono lawyers online and came across the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program (IVLP). Smith remembers finding the IVLP website and thinking, “Why not give it a go?” After submitting her case information online, Smith was contacted by IVLP staff and completed the application process.
A few weeks later, someone who would later be part of what Smith calls “a fantastic team” contacted her by phone. This person was attorney Wendy Olsen of Stoel Rives. ILVP Director, Susan Pierson, had initially reached out to Olsen about Smith’s case because she knew that Olson had a wealth of experience working in federal courts, something that would be necessary if Smith were to get the legal help she needed.
IVLP’s mission is connecting low-income clients in need of legal representation with licensed attorneys around Idaho who are willing to volunteer and make a difference. IVLP volunteer attorneys change the lives of people who would otherwise trudge through difficult legal territory alone as pro se litigants. The role of pro bono attorneys is unique; when someone needs financial help, anyone can donate money, but when someone needs legal help, only an attorney can provide that service. IVLP loves finding lawyers who are willing to devote some time to helping someone in a way nobody else can.
Upon hearing about the uphill battle Smith was facing in her custody case, Olson agreed to take her case and she brought on another attorney from her firm, Elijah Watkins. Watkins also had extensive experience in federal courts and was committed to serving those who could not afford representation. In the end, the support that Smith received from her two volunteer attorneys and their paralegal staff far exceeded her expectations.
Smith and her teenage son were trying to sort through international law regarding which country her son was required to reside after she separated from his father. Smith spoke highly of the help the IVLP attorneys gave her, saying, “They make every client feel like they are the only client. I know they had a lot on their plates, but they made me feel like I was their equal. They valued my opinion and my son’s opinion.”
Olson and Watkins went far beyond filing paperwork or standing up in court. They stayed with their IVLP clients every step of the case, at one point even accompanying Smith’s teenage son to the airport and providing moral support through a difficult and complicated situation. Watkins explains that sometimes providing legal counsel to IVLP clients provides an excellent opportunity to focus as much on the “counseling” aspect as the “legal” aspect.
Although the case has been settled for many months now, Olson continues to show compassion and care for Smith, still checking in with her on occasion. Smith gives Olsen updates on how her son is doing these days and what’s going on in her life. It’s clear that the relationship that was built through Olson and Watkins’ pro bono work went far beyond a simple legal transaction to become a meaningful interpersonal connection.
For any attorney on the fence about taking a pro bono case through IVLP, Watkins and Olson encourage you to “Just do it! You’re helping someone.” Their firm, Stoel Rives, also encourages their attorneys to give back to the community through their pro bono work.
If you or your firm is interested in making a pro bono pledge, please consider activating your account on the Idaho Pro Bono Opportunities website at www.idahoprobono.org or email IVLP Director Susan Pierson at firstname.lastname@example.org.