Koley Jessen Reflects on Involvement with Tenant Assistance Project During Pro Bono Week
Every year, during the final week of October, legal organizations across the country participate in the celebration of National Pro Bono Week. The week provides an opportunity to educate about the need for pro bono participation while also thanking those who have given their time to help individuals with their legal needs. This year’s theme for Pro Bono Week is “law in everyday life.”
Considering the theme for 2022, we found it a fitting time to reflect on and share our firm’s involvement with the local Douglas County Tenant Assistance Project — with the hopes of helping shed light on the availability of the legal services the Program offers, highlighting the impact that providing legal assistance in this area can have on low income and other marginalized individuals with regard to a critical need in their everyday life, as well as encouraging others to get involved.
Initially launched in Lancaster County during the height of the pandemic in April 2020, the Tenant Assistance Project (“TAP” or the “Program”) aims to help tenants avoid immediate eviction from their homes by providing free assistance from a team of volunteer attorneys.
Litigation Associate, Taylor Hayes, was a student when the TAP program launched and became involved through the Nebraska College of Law’s Civil Clinic. Reflecting on his first involvement with the Program, Hayes said, “I was assisting Professor Ryan Sullivan with the groundwork and some of the forms and resources he had put together before the program officially started.” After Hayes recalled helping a couple of tenants through the Program, he saw firsthand just how significant of an impact one could have on the tenants’ next step in their housing journey, an integral part of their future.
By the fall of 2021, the Program had expanded into Omaha’s Douglas County and in December of 2021, Koley Jessen’s first group of attorneys participated in the Program. Shareholder and Data Privacy Practice Chair, Maureen Fulton had been following live tweets from eviction court for months. After reading an article in the Nebraska Lawyer Magazine recognizing Hayes and six other law students with an award for their contributions to the TAP Program, she contacted him to get the firm involved.
For nearly a year now, members of our team have gone to court to represent tenants at least once a month. In total, 40 Koley Jessen employees have participated in the Program, including 17 attorneys spanning Litigation; Corporate; and Employment, as well as all 23 members of our 2022 Summer Associate Program, who had the opportunity to shadow licensed attorneys volunteering for the Program. “On busy days with a high caseload, TAP needs up to 10 volunteers,” said Fulton, “so sending five or six attorneys down to the courthouse provides a big help and makes a huge impact.”
Hayes explained, “it’s one of those things where once you got involved, you could see some of the problems with the way the system worked before TAP, where landlords could get away with quite a bit more because tenants in a majority of cases were unrepresented. Many defendants have never been through a proceeding before. When they show up to court, they often don’t know the seriousness of what they’re facing.”
Fulton shared that “often, there seems to simply be miscommunication or small things that have set tenants back.” She said that, in one instance, she had a tenant who had not transferred the utilities to their name, and as a result, had been sent an eviction notice. A big misconception, she went on to explain, is that the Program is helping to dismiss these lawsuits. In actuality, a lot of what volunteers are doing is facilitating rental assistance available in the community, working to partner with the landlord, and helping attain that assistance for the tenant so they can get their bills paid. A volunteer attorney’s presence and representation are powerful for members of our community. In just a couple of hours, one can singlehandedly help a landlord and tenant communicate, figure out a plan of action, and prevent somebody from being evicted that day.
For Hayes, TAP has been the perfect opportunity to engage in a program that is within his scope of work. While litigation attorneys may have more experience in the courtroom, many of our attorneys agreed that anyone from any legal background can get involved. Josh Norton, Shareholder and Corporate Department Chair, said, “The TAP program is a volunteer opportunity that all attorneys are uniquely qualified for. Every time I have participated, there has been someone with courtroom experience present who is really knowledgeable about the process and really gracious in providing guidance.”
Jackie Ryan, a transactional employment attorney, who does not go to court, litigate, or participate in many adversarial proceedings in her practice, is an active volunteer with the Program. She stated that “the opportunity to go to court for a couple of hours was appealing because having extensive knowledge about procedural measures at trial or how the court system works is not required to volunteer for TAP. I was excited to enter and appear before a judge,” she continued. “You’re there to be an advocate for someone. As long as you can communicate effectively and empathize with the tenant, you can make an impact.”
With how easy it is for new volunteers to participate and shadow experienced volunteers, the firm also saw TAP as a valuable learning experience and exposure to pro bono work for our Summer Associates. Tim Hutchinson, a JD candidate at Notre Dame Law School, expressed that “shadowing volunteer attorneys through the Program was one of the best experiences I have had in two summers at Koley Jessen. As a Summer Associate, you often don’t get to see the cases and projects you helped with reach the finish line. But with TAP, it is different. Before lunch, you can witness litigation in action and the entire life of a case unfold,” Hutchinson continued. “I think TAP reminds all of us why we got into the legal profession in the first place: to help, to serve, and to ensure the scales of justice remain balanced and not tipped in favor of only those who can afford it. I’m thankful Koley Jessen got us involved.”
Marin Coughlin, a law student at Creighton University, added, “It was really inspiring to see Koley Jessen so involved in this Program and was a great experience to witness the positive impact attorneys can make by volunteering for a few hours. The TAP shadowing experience this summer made me interested in getting involved with TAP during the school year.”
As a firm, we are proud to routinely give our time to the Douglas County TAP program each month. It is life-changing moments like those happening during these small claims cases, that continue to inspire our attorneys to volunteer with TAP. Out of care for our neighbors and community, we are committed to supporting and encouraging our team to give back in a big way. While wrapping up his interview, Hayes said, “The resources Koley Jessen has are great and can help a lot of people, so now it’s about getting them into the hands of people that wouldn’t otherwise have them.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Want to learn more about the Tenant Assistance Project or interested in volunteering?
The Nebraska College of Law’s website offers a great library of news articles here.
If you’re interested in volunteering at Lancaster TAP, click here
If you are interested in volunteering at Douglas TAP, click here