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Giving a helping handbook

Starbucks, Baker & McKenzie and Columbia Legal Services team up to help Washington’s homeless youth.

Getting legal counsel isn’t always easy for homeless youths, who often don’t have the resources to seek out their own attorneys. But children in Washington now have a new resource to turn to in the form of the Homeless Youth Handbook. The handbook started with Columbia Legal Services, a non-profit law firm that provides aid to low-income people. Last year, overwhelmed by a constant stream of practical questions from individual homeless children, the organization joined forces with Baker & McKenzie and Starbucks to provide kids with valuable legal advice.

“This project aligns so well with our company efforts to help and empower youth, that when they called us about it initially it didn’t take very long to see that this was an incredible project to be involved in,” says Alex Torres, corporate counsel at Starbucks.

The trio pooled their resources to create teams comprising attorneys from all three companies. Lawyers who had expertise in a relevant subject area leveraged that knowledge—real estate lawyers, for instance, wrote some sections on housing issues—and the teams also devoted hours of legal research to the effort.

The finished product is a 282-page handbook that covers questions on domestic violence, substance abuse, housing arrangements, educational options and more—everything ranging from “How long can I stay at a shelter?” to “What happens if I am involuntarily committed [to a mental facility]?” It also provides an extensive list of additional resources and organizations available to help kids in need.

The handbook is full of valuable legal information, but it’s not written in legalese. “We had a hard rule that no answer could ever start with what lawyers always say: ‘It depends,’” says Angela Vigil, a Baker & McKenzie partner who helped spearhead the project. “No homeless kid wants to hear [that]. They need an answer, and they need an answer quickly.”

To help homeless children get those answers as quickly as possible, the team also created a mobile version of the handbook. The easily searchable online format was designed to make life easier for homeless youths—whose cell phones are often the only permanent link they have with the larger world—and for case workers who are constantly on the move at work.

Since the handbook’s rollout, it has already gotten a positive response from shelters, youth organizations, police forces and others who help the homeless youth community. And organizations across the country are now asking how they can replicate the handbook in their own states.

Dieter Schmitz, a Baker & McKenzie partner who co-led the firm’s team, says that the project is ideal for corporate legal departments because it can be broken up into smaller sections or chapters. “It’s something that you can do at your desk,” he says. “It’s something that you can do on a virtual basis. … So it’s a perfect collaboration-type project for both small and large in-house legal departments.”

Torres also encourages lawyers nationwide to get involved in creating their own versions of the manual. “We hope that this is inspiring others to do a similar thing in their states because youth homelessness is really a national issue,” he says.

Editor’s Note: In late October, Baker & McKenzie, alongside colleagues from Starbucks Coffee Company, was honored by Columbia Legal Services (CLS) for its efforts to create The Homeless Youth Handbook -Legal Issues and Options. Baker & McKenzie and the other award recipients were honored at the organization's Second Annual Pro Bono Reception & Awards event in Seattle, Wash., on Oct. 23, 2013.

Alanna Byrne

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