As an intern for Metro Volunteer Lawyers (MVL), I can confirm that when clients show up for an MVL legal aid clinic, they are visibly distressed — their heads down and shoulders hunched. They take a seat and wait patiently for their turn. The tense silence fills the room with palpable anxiety.
During the hour-long session with a volunteer attorney, a dramatic shift occurs. The stress starts to melt away. Relief washes over these individuals as they come to the realization that they are in good hands. Every once in a while, a smile slips out — maybe even a chuckle. In more rare occasions, some clients will reward their attorneys with a surprise hug or a kiss on the cheek at the end of their session. The metamorphosis can be so striking that it’s enough to move even the most cynical among us.
MVL Director Toni-Anne Dasent says seeing the positive impact that pro bono work can have on clients’ lives is what drives her every day, and she wishes more attorneys could experience the inspiration she feels.
“I don’t know if you can teach someone to have a calling. I think it’s born into you. Even in law school, I was involved with legal aid and donated my time there. My staff shares my passion, and they are the reason MVL is successful,” said Dasent. “We have the chance every day to serve a need, but this need will never be completely served.”
Dasent took over the leadership role for the Denver Bar’s flagship pro bono program last August, and since then, her and her staff’s mission has been to increase the number of clients that MVL serves. Hard work and determination are already paying off.
“Last year MVL helped about 1,300 clients. This year, we are on pace to help 1,600 clients or more,” said Dasent. “An example of this can be seen in Adams County, where last year, we helped 269 people, and this year we have already helped 207. So we could double our outreach in some of the five counties we service.”
This positive growth comes as an existential threat looms over legal aid programs nationwide. The fear lies in whether the new administration will make substantial funding cuts to programs that help people in need gain access to the judicial system. Those cuts could severely impact MVL and Colorado Legal Services (CLS).
“President Trump has made it clear he wants to cut all funding for legal aid,” said Dasent. “However, I am an optimistic person. I have seen more attention and more support for legal aid across the country. I will say the positive side of all this is that people are realizing the importance of programs like MVL and CLS.”
Despite the possible funding cuts, Dasent is focused on MVL’s clients and getting more Denver area attorneys involved in pro bono work. In her view, the biggest obstacle for most attorneys seems to be the belief that they don’t have the skills to help MVL, which offers free and low-cost civil legal services to eligible individuals in need in the Denver area.
“I think people are busy, but the excuse that ‘this is not really an area I practice in’ is really not an excuse. We provide training and mentoring, and it’s a great learning opportunity for young attorneys,” said Dasent, who added that malpractice insurance is also provided. “The big firms can also help us with promotion, fundraising and some of our clinics. Firms like Faegre Baker Daniels have set up pro bono coordinators and they conduct seminars and training to get their attorneys involved.”
If you are interested in getting involved in MVL as an attorney, it’s as easy as visiting denbar.org/mvl. “If you see me or anyone else from the program in public, please come up to us and let us know,” said Dasent. “We are beyond grateful for the hundreds of volunteers who consistently provide pro bono services to this community on our behalf.”
Graham Winch is a legal intern for MVL. He is a former CNN network producer, as well as a writer for CNN.com. He is currently looking for opportunities to practice law in Denver and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.