Herding cats. That's the unwritten job description for soft-spoken Shirley Williams, executive director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. Formed in 1982, the MVLP is one of a handful of organizations providing pro bono legal services for Mississippians with low incomes and limited means. MVLP assists clients with non-criminal cases such as divorce, bankruptcy and adoptions, and is currently handling a number of FEMA cases, representing clients with insurance issues, contractor fraud and appeals.
Since taking the position in January 2004, Williams' passion has brought many projects to fruition, including increasing the number of cases closed from 256 in 2003, to more than 3000 in 2006. Williams is also responsible for legal clinics for lawyers and clients, recruiting, initiating a manual for volunteer lawyers and writing grants.
An energetic wife and mother of 10-year-old twins—Pablo Jr. and Victoria—40-year-old Williams puts in a lot of hours. "My children were saying to me, 'Oh, we're going home early,' because it was daylight," at 7:30 p.m., she said. But she feels she hasn't yet reached her goals with the project. "It's been a journey," Williams said.
Tell me about the MVLP.
Our mission is to recruit and retain lawyers to help out with doing pro bono cases for the indigent. … (Rule 6.1) asks 20 hours of their professional time; in lieu of that there's been a recent change that asks lawyers to give $200 instead of their time. … It makes it better for a busy attorney to just pay their money, but I think if I had a choice I'd rather have their time. … Two-hundred dollars' worth of a lawyer's time is not a lot of time. When you get a lawyer that will participate, they see the need and they feel the pain.
Is eligibility economic?
Yes. Financial—how many folks in a household, and what the income is in the household, that type of thing. … (The income levels are less than) $30,000 for a family of four. … Some things are simple, but you need legal representation to do them. And we do several things: full representation work, legal clinics (and) hotlines.
How do you get cases?
Our cases are screened by the Legal Services Program. They determine the (client's) eligibility. ... (and) they determine if there's merit to the case. Once they do all of that initial prep, we call on a lawyer to take (the case).
What are the benefits to lawyers who take MVLP cases?
MVLP lawyers are eligible for (continuing legal education) seminars and courses that we offer at greatly reduced rates. We have a comprehensive Pro Bono Manual compiled by 13 leading law firms to guide lawyers through processes that they may not be familiar with. MVLP clients and cases are pre-screened. We've determined the merits of the case. … If they need a pleading done, we're willing to do that. We can provide mentors for lawyers working in areas other than the ones they usually work in, expanding their legal expertise. … We can give you all the time in court that you want. … With the MVLP, you have the opportunity to look at the case (before you accept it). We provide professional liability insurance on those lawyers who take cases through the project.
For more information on the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, go to mvlp.net or call 601-960-9577.