Southeast Michigan's auto-dependent economy has suffered devastating blows during the recent recession. The attorneys who work at Ford Motor Co.'s headquarters are acutely aware of the pain many of their neighbors have endured.
"People in this office feel fortunate to be working at Ford Motor Co.," says David Leitch, Ford's general counsel. "So there is a real spirit of giving back, particularly at this time and in this community. I've been very proud of the professionals for stepping up and pitching in."
Companywide Accelerated Action Days sponsored quarterly by the Ford Volunteer Corps provide a focus for the pro bono efforts. The Office of the General Counsel's pro bono committee organizes legal clinics on the action days. The clinics, run in conjunction with the non-profit Legal Aid and Defender Association (LADA) and Community Legal Resources organizations, include an expungement clinic and a clinic to assist non-profit organizations with issues arising from the recession.
In a pilot program initiated by LADA and supported by the Ford Fund, this year Ford attorneys are also helping low income families determine their eligibility for food stamps. A skyrocketing caseload of food stamp applicants in the past two years and the learning curve for a new online application system have contributed to a high negative error rate in Michigan that hurts people whose benefits are unfairly terminated or denied, according to Julie Nuse, a staff attorney at LADA.
The Ford attorneys work one-on-one with the clients to confirm they are eligible for food stamps and calculate the amount they should be receiving, using an online calculator developed by the Center for Civil Justice in Saginaw, Mich. In some cases, people who haven't been receiving benefits learn they qualify. In others, people find they are entitled to more benefits than they've been getting, and in others, the clients learn that they are receiving the correct amount. If time permits, the attorneys will also help eligible clients with the lengthy online application process.
"Some people get a significant change in benefits," says Rob Mossel, a Ford Credit attorney who chairs the pro bono committee. Mossel has volunteered at the food stamp clinics held at a Detroit elementary school in March, May and September. "Even a small change [in the number of food stamps received] is a significant benefit to the participants because it allows them to shift resources to other needs and increase the stability of the family."
Nuse says LADA hopes to expand the concept to other areas. The next clinic is scheduled for Pontiac, Mich., and LADA is looking into another Detroit site.
For in-house attorneys, the clinic model of providing pro bono service is very useful, Leitch says.
"The clinic model works well because you are able to work in more discrete and manageable time frames," he says. "It's a nice, scalable way to become involved in pro bono for people whose schedules may be difficult."