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Pro Bono Need Keeps Growing

Patrick Sullivan - June 18th, 2012  

Attorney John Racine recognized for helping clients who can’t pay

Over the years, Legal Services of Northern Michigan has tried to plug holes when they’ve spotted them.

Take divorce cases. Some less well-off people found themselves going through that ordeal without a lawyer at their side.

“One of the judges was concerned that so many people were showing up without representation,” said Mary Kavanaugh- Gahn, LSNM’s deputy director. “He noticed that most of the people who showed up unrepresented for their final hearing were women.”

So, a few years ago, with the help of Jo Bullis, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, they started a monthly legal aid clinic for divorce cases, open to men and women regardless of income.

That’s in addition to the weekly Free Legal Aid Clinic in TC held at Third Level and funded by LSNM and the Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim Bar Association, the monthly Women Lawyers Association Clinic held at the WRC shelter and Conflict Resolution Services which offers low cost or pro bono mediation for civil disputes.


Around 2005, Bullis, Kavanaugh-Gahn and others realized they should recognize lawyers who give their time, as a way to reward them and to encourage others to donate more.

“About eight years ago we saw that there is a lot of pro bono work going on in the community, but it’s not recognized by anybody,” Kavanaugh-Gahn said. Law Enhanced Access Project, a partnership of area legal and public service organizations, gives out the award. LEAP receives its funding from the Three Generations Circle of Women Givers, a local philanthropic group.

This year, attorney John Racine was recognized for the time he has donated, in particular for pro bono work he’s done for low-cost or free mediation for civil cases.

Racine was also recognized because his pro bono work has gone back decades, Kavanaugh-Gahn said.

“He’s very humble, he was very surprised,” she said. “Everybody in the audience certainly agreed” he deserved the award.

Kavanaugh-Gahn said pro bono work is an important tradition in the legal community.

“When I went through law school, it was really pounded into you, you know, this is what you do,” she said. “I’m not so sure if that same message is coming out of law schools today.”

Since 2005, the bar association has given out the pro bono award to one attorney each year. Past recipients include David Becker, Paul Bare, Michael Stepka, Frederick Bimber, James Saffell, Matthew Classens and Jennifer Berry.

The Express sat down with this year’s recipient to talk about his work.

NORTHERN EXPRESS: You mentioned you were surprised to receive this award from the bar association.

JOHN RACINE: I’m not sure why I personally received it, but the bar likes to recognize that lawyers are trying to provide some no-charge services for the public good, and so as a part of that, the bar annually recognizes somebody and gives out this award. They’re trying to encourage the rest of us, I guess, to continue to be willing to give of our time and talents to those that can use those things but can’t afford them.

I know I was sort of dumbfounded when I figured out I would receive the award, when they were reading off who was going to be the nominee. They usually save the name for last but they talk about some other things at first and early on (Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn) said a couple of things that made it clear it had to be me. I was stunned and probably didn’t hear much of the rest of her words, so I’m not sure what she said as to why I got it.

NE: Is it important for lawyers to donate their time?

RACINE: “It’s very important. There’s a lot of people that have needs and there’s just no way they can afford what it costs. Whether it’s lawyers or doctors or dentists, those other professionals are also obviously needed to donate some services, because there’s more need than there is money to pay for them.

NE: Are law offices besieged with requests for pro bono work, and how do you decide which cases you are going to take?

RACINE: I can’t speak for other offices.

Ours isn’t, really, I would say besieged. We get calls and frankly we don’t really have an office-wide policy, I think it’s up to each of the lawyers. We’re all pretty mature individuals and each one of us is going to do what we think is appropriate. So there’s not really a lot of forethought about what to do. We take it as it comes and if a call comes in and it’s something that we think we can help and we have the ability and the time to do it at that point, we’ll do it, and if it’s something that’s out of our area, usually I’ll at least try to send them to someone who might know the area that they need help in.

NE: What should a person who has a problem and needs pro bono help do to find a lawyer?

RACINE: I think the best way is to talk to others who have already dealt with a lawyer in that area of the law, if possible. A lot of the pro bono cases come through the legal aid clinics held at Third Level or the Women’s Resource Center. The lawyers at those places can direct people to other professionals that might be able to service the particular issue or need that the person has.

NE: What kind of pro bono cases have you handled?

RACINE: The pro bono cases that I’ve tended to do tend to be domestic relations cases. But frankly, I think that the pro bono work that I was recognized for was more in the mediation area. But over the years, I’d say historically it’s been more divorce cases. It isn’t an area that I specialize in, but most of us have enough experience and knowledge about the area to at least take care of the problem for somebody.

NE: You’ve been practicing law for 37 years. Have the needs of people who need help changed much over those years?

RACINE: I don’t know that they’ve changed in substance but they’ve only just continued to grow. There’s just more and more people that have needs. Society is not as equitably distributed financially as it used to be, and there’s more people, I think, on the margins that can’t really afford the help, but they need the help, so the problem is only getting larger.

NE: What is it like for someone with no experience to get involved with the legal system?

RACINE: I’m sure it’s scary and intimidating. The system is complicated. The lawyers are perhaps challenging to deal with. So I’d say intimidating is probably the best descriptive word of what most lay people feel when they encounter legal problems. They’ve got a problem in their life and they want to and need to do something about it, and sometimes they just don’t know what to do or where to turn.

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