Q&A: How Law Firm Ober|Kaler Takes Pro Bono Support to the Next Level

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We spoke recently with Ober|Kaler pro bono coordinator Paul Sugar about the law firm's long-running partnership with Maryland's community-based program Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law) and the wide range of assistance that Ober|Kaler gives to the program:

Q: For someone who's not familiar with Project HEAL, how would you describe it?

A: It comes from the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. That's who we partner with. It's a community-based program and a medical-legal partnership, which means that a health care provider and a law firm work together to attack more than just one aspect of an issue that an individual may have. So, if a patient at Kennedy Krieger's Center for Developmental Disabilities has legal issues, in addition to medical issues, we can do a more holistic approach to improving the life of that patient.

...if a patient has legal issues, in addition to medical issues, we can do a more holistic approach to improving the life of that patient.

A typical example with respect to Kennedy Krieger is the need of many of their patients for special education. Maureen van Stone, who is the associate director of that program at Kennedy Krieger, and our firm, as pro bono volunteers, will, when requested, assess the process with the client on a pro bono basis and meet with appropriate people in the school system to discuss what the educational needs are. We're trying to get the best possible outcome. Hopefully, that's what the school system wants, too, but often there is a debate, because special education can be extremely expensive.

Do you have a sense of how unusual this concept of a medical-legal partnership is?

There is a national medical-legal partnership society, which holds conferences and lobbies Washington for resources and favorable legislation to enhance the advantages that can come through medical-legal partnerships. I'm not aware of any other models that are quite like Ober|Kaler's and Kennedy Krieger's. As far as I know, we're the only ones in Maryland to provide a comprehensive medical-legal partnership.

We go beyond case support -- and this is what, in my view, makes our program out of the ordinary...

We go beyond case support -- and this is what, in my view, makes our program out of the ordinary. Because we consider this a signature pro bono program by our firm, we also do some things that aren't typically done by a lawyer. For example, we'll provide financial support -- such as writing letters of support for grant proposals, or sponsoring an exhibitor booth at a medical-legal partnership program, or soliciting donations directly, if that will help. I remember last year attending a fundraiser by a REMAX realtor here in town. It was a great program. We tried to help fill the place with not only our lawyers, but with our spouses and friends as well.

In addition to the financial help, we try to provide what I'd call informational support. We'll attend federal legislative meetings on relevant subject matters, we will draft informational brochures for Kennedy Krieger that they can use to hand out to their patients and the parents of their patients, we'll participate in webinars on topical subject matters, we've been to national conferences where we'll present, and we'll give and receive trainings. It's primarily the financial support and informational support, in addition to the traditional pro bono case support, that makes our participation unique.

How did the firm decide to take the Project HEAL partnership so far and in so many directions, and what was the challenge in getting that level of commitment for the project?

Kennedy Krieger is a valued client of the firm and a very important member of the Maryland nonprofit community, so anything that we can do to help, we're more than happy to do so. I'm the firm's pro bono coordinator, and, in addition, I've served on the board of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service for about 10 years. When I went on the board, they had just gotten into helping to write grant proposals and obtain grants for Kennedy Krieger for what was then the relatively new HEAL partnership. We provided volunteer lawyers through our volunteer panel, and this was a way to assist Kennedy Krieger and, at the time, Johns Hopkins' Harriet Lane Clinic, with getting the financial resources necessary to support not only obtaining volunteer lawyers but also to pay for an in-house staff of attorneys dedicated to the Project HEAL program. So I became familiar with them through that mechanism.

MVLS went in a different direction a couple of years later, and the participation between MVLS and Project HEAL ended -- but by that time, Ober|Kaler was heavily involved with providing volunteer services. I brought them back to our firm and said: "This is a great thing to do. Let's take it a step beyond what just MVLS did." So, for a while there, it was the three of us: Kennedy Krieger, MVLS, and Ober|Kaler. When MVLS left, we continued to participate with Kennedy Krieger and expand it to what we're doing now.

Are you the sole firm involved in the project, or have other firms followed your lead?

I think we're the only firm that provides support beyond just pro bono legal services -- for example, through the more formalized financial and informational support and sponsorships and other forms I mentioned. I believe that there are other firms that provide lawyers to work on particular cases pro bono. That's a wonderful thing that Maureen has been able to develop so that she and Project HEAL have all the legal resources necessary, should the need arise. The difference is that we take it a step further.

In addition to the special education cases... we do estate planning, Social Security cases, lien enforcement cases, and we even do some immigration-related work. It's fairly extensive, and that's just the case support side...

How would you quantify the scale of Ober|Kaler's involvement?

We've been heavily involved now for half a dozen years or so. We take on probably two or three cases a year on a pro bono basis. In addition to the special education cases, which is where we spend slightly more than half our time, we do estate planning, Social Security cases, lien enforcement cases, and we even do some immigration-related work. It's fairly extensive, and that's just the case support side. Financial information support that we've done would include participating in federal legislative meetings, hosting networking events, drafting letters of support for grant proposals, assisting in nominating Project HEAL for local, state, and national awards, preparing estate planning brochures and sessions, and so on. That gives you some flavor of the depth of involvement.

Can you tell me about other pro bono projects the firm is doing? I'm always curious what goes into choosing and vetting a particular pro bono project, and how a firm gets on board with that.

The firm and its management are very committed to pro bono. That's reflected in the fact that the value of donated pro bono legal time is probably in the neighborhood of more than $2 million a year, which is, in my view, significant for a firm of our size. It's very important that the commitment to pro bono starts from the top and works its way down. Our management has always felt that way.

It's very important that the commitment to pro bono starts from the top and works its way down.

We get pro bono work in a variety of ways. One is through pro bono volunteer or pro bono service organizations, such as Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. They'll send you a list of matters, and I will poll my assembled masses of lawyers and see who wants to take a case.

Of course, our lawyers themselves will become involved with various nonprofit organizations around the state and the markets we serve, and often a pro bono matter will arise from that representation or from that volunteering.

So, it comes from a variety of different sources. And we're happy to look at them all. We obviously can't do them all -- but we'll look at them.

As pro bono coordinator, what are your major functions in that regard?

Mine is to make sure that the requests that come in get a fair hearing and an opportunity to find representation if there's merit to them, either through the firm itself or through referrals to pro bono service organizations. I think that's Job One. Equal to that is to maintain within the firm a commitment to doing pro bono service -- and, quite honestly, that's not a hard thing to do at Ober|Kaler.

*

[Paul S. Sugar's practice is devoted to construction industry counseling and dispute avoidance and resolution. He represents institutional owners, including colleges and universities, hospitals and other health care providers. He is a principal with the Ober|Kaler Construction Group.]

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