Charlotte faces a legal aid crisis. Housing evictions are up, workers with criminal records and their families can be shut out of today’s strong economy, and many Charlotte citizens struggle with healthcare enrollment forms or are denied coverage arbitrarily.
On Sept. 5, McGuireWoods launched Charlotte Triage by hosting a CLE event attended by more than 300 Charlotte legal and other professionals with the goal of combating these issues. The initiative expands the Triage Project, a first-of-its-kind pro bono initiative developed by McGuireWoods’ Scott Oostdyk that began in 2017 in Richmond, Virginia. The Triage Project made Richmond the first U.S. city to outsource legal aid matters in 12 practices to private practice and in-house lawyers, thereby allowing legal aid groups to focus their scarce resources on three core areas.
Charlotte Triage brings the same novel approach to North Carolina by working with Legal Aid of North Carolina and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to focus on three legal areas most needed by low-income individuals in the Queen City: evictions, expunctions and health care benefits.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, Bank of America global general counsel David Leitch, Duke Energy vice president and chief litigation officer Vijay Bondada and Legal Services Corp. president Jim Sandman spoke at the kickoff event, where attendees received training on how to handle housing cases and criminal expunctions and complete complicated health benefits forms. The Charlotte Triage leadership team includes McGuireWoods, Bank of America, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, Husqvarna, and Moore & Van Allen.
Oostdyk, McGuireWoods’ partner in charge of pro bono, recently discussed Charlotte Triage and the partnerships McGuireWoods has created to ensure its success.
How did the expansion of the Triage Project to North Carolina come about?
I recently reviewed “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” a book by Princeton professor Matthew Desmond that describes how American families’ struggle to pay rent after the 2008 financial crisis led to an increase in homelessness in cities like Charlotte. It confirmed the approach to housing we were taking in Richmond, that clients have to be defended vigorously against unwarranted eviction. So shortly after the Triage Project began in Richmond, I spoke with David Leitch, Bank of America’s global general counsel, about an expansion to Charlotte with the specific aim to fight homelessness. We worked with McGuireWoods senior counsel Angie Zimmern and Carter Arey, who coordinate the Charlotte office’s pro bono efforts, and representatives from Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to introduce the prospect of Triage to Charlotte’s legal aid needs. They are great leaders, and they took it from there.
What is the focus of the Charlotte program and how does it work?
Charlotte Triage builds a coordinated case referral system allowing legal aid organizations to outsource three areas of law to private practice lawyers who are pre-trained to efficiently handle matters involving evictions, expunctions and healthcare benefits.
The Eviction Project, spearheaded by McGuireWoods, Bank of America, and Moore & Van Allen, is a core focus of Charlotte Triage. In Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, more than 28,000 eviction petitions are filed each year, yet Legal Aid can only take on 400 housing cases annually. We’re seeking to increase intake of housing law matters by raising awareness of legal aid services among impoverished persons. To that end, the program will explore placing a “lawyer of the day” at Charlotte’s district courthouse to engage individuals facing eviction. Under the program, pro bono counsel also identify cases where tenants’ residences are in violation of their rental agreements and leverage a “conditions” or “inhabitable” defense to fight unnecessary evictions in court.
For an initiative like this, what are the benefits of partnering with legal aid organizations and companies like Bank of America, Duke Energy and Wells Fargo?
Partnering with these groups and companies brings more resources and points of view to the project, resulting in the ability to help a greater number of people. But it also gives us an opportunity to build trust and form better relationships with our clients and potential clients. One way to get to know someone is to roll up your sleeves, get out in the community and do some good with them.
We want to ensure McGuireWoods is prepared to partner with our clients on pro bono services. Many clients now want that option. Angie Zimmern leads that partnership coordination for our firm, and with great energy.
How does this program align with the firm’s pro bono philosophy?
McGuireWoods’ pro bono program focuses on meeting the legal needs of marginalized people and leveraging our lawyers’ talents to improve legal services. The Charlotte Triage initiative allows us to better realize both of these goals.
After I made partner in 1995, I was asked to serve as deputy secretary of Health and Human Resources in Virginia. One of my chief assignments was welfare reform. We established a board of corporate leaders to address the issue. From this experience, we learned about the many obstacles impoverished people face in securing assistance in civil matters and about the power of teamwork across the whole caring community. Although individuals have a right to legal counsel in criminal matters, the same is not true for civil matters. So, too often, people who cannot afford legal counsel are left to represent themselves in court or in evaluating contracts or seeking public benefits.
How has the firm’s pro bono program evolved over the past 20 years?
One, our clients have invested in pro bono in big ways. Our lawyers are teaming up with clients more than ever before. Today we have more than two dozen pro bono partnerships with clients firmwide, formal and less formal. Two, we’re better organized at the office level and this local leadership has escalated our investment to over 30,000 hours annually. Three, our efforts are now global, both in terms of lawyers in international offices doing more pro bono work and the types of matters we take on.
What kind of pro bono matters do McGuireWoods lawyers handle?
We perform a range of pro bono services, but our focus is helping clients in matters that have the biggest impact on their lives, including housing, domestic violence, the death penalty, juvenile justice, immigration, the legal needs of nonprofits, and veterans’ issues.