Anatomy of a Pro Bono Case


LSNC - Portraits - 06262013
Vicki Jacobs is the Managing Attorney of the Voluntary Legal Services Program. She can be contacted at

by Vicki Jacobs

“Betty” age 62, has called several agencies looking for help in raising two of her grandchildren who were left with her last month while her daughter, “Melanie,” left town for the weekend.  Much like before, Melanie disappeared without a trace and has not called to check on her children. Betty is increasingly concerned about the effect that Melanie’s frequent disappearances are having on the children. The children are now school-age, and one has behavioral problems that need to be addressed. Betty searches on line for information about her options.

Betty decides that it would be best for the children if she raises them until Melanie is living a more stable life with a job and no more substance abuse problems. Betty thinks that, if her daughter does not have the stress of caring for her children, she can focus her attention on successfully completing rehab and her education. The children’s father is in prison in Nevada and will not be out to raise his children any time soon. He has been a largely absent figure in the children’s lives. Betty’s sole income is from a small pension and a part-time job.

Betty is referred to the Voluntary Legal Services Program (VLSP) by Child Protective Services (CPS) to get help in becoming the guardian of her grandchildren. CPS tells Betty that, if she does not become the guardian of her grandchildren, they will likely end up in foster care.

Betty is advised that she may be financially better off if she becomes her grandchildren’s foster mother, but she does not want to have any connection to the foster care system and wants to proceed with guardianship. Betty calls VLSP, and our legal assistant does an intake by phone to determine whether Betty is qualified for our services and has the type of case that we can assist with.

Fortunately, Betty qualifies for our services, but her income is slightly above the guidelines for obtaining a fee waiver with the court. We reassure Betty that we will not let that prevent her from petitioning the court to become the guardian of her grandchildren. If necessary, VLSP will pay for the court costs, including the investigator’s fee, as well as the service of process costs.  We do not have a grant for those expenses, but consider it a necessary part of our work as a pro bono organization.

Betty speaks with a VLSP staff attorney about her case before we attempt to refer her to a volunteer. We try to help her obtain addresses of all the parties who must be served in the guardianship case, including the location of the incarcerated father. We obtain her written agreement to abide by certain rules of conduct during her case and her confirmation of her status as a citizen or legal resident of the United States, as required by our funding.

We then email a volunteer from our list of guardianship volunteers and ask whether that volunteer is available to handle the case. If not, we move on to the next volunteer. Fortunately, it does not take us too long to refer out most cases, thanks to the wonderful volunteers we have. The volunteer takes the case to handle in his/her office until it concludes. If the volunteer has questions, including how to get out-of-pocket expenses paid for or how to serve a party in prison, we are always available to talk. We have a small topical library that is available to our volunteers. Volunteers can use our office to meet with our mutual clients if it is more convenient or if the volunteer does not have a private office.

When the case concludes, we ask for the total hours the volunteer and his/her staff have spent on the case, as that information is requested by our funders. Our goal is to leverage our staff hours with a greater amount of volunteer legal services. That is one way we know that we are successful as a pro bono organization. Another way is to get positive client survey responses from our clients who are grateful for the free service they receive from dedicated volunteer attorneys.

Since 2007, VLSP has been fortunate to have volunteers from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe assist clients seeking guardianship of minor children who need stability in their lives. With the encouragement of the Sacramento Superior Court Probate Department and Probate Judge Steven Gevercer in particular, and with the support of the Sacramento County Bar Association’s Probate and Estate Planning Law Section, VLSP has been able to increase our volunteer base and the amount of services provided to the indigent in our community.

Although VLSP is a volunteer-based agency, legal staff makes it work. Our attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants must publicize their services to the public, recruit, screen, and train volunteers, screen and refer cases to the volunteers, hold clinics where volunteers provide legal services to the indigent, and raise funds and report on how they are spent to government grantors.  Some of the non-personnel costs of running a pro bono nonprofit include rent, utilities, malpractice, and general liability insurance, parking, computers, and programs. This year we have to purchase cybersecurity insurance to satisfy the demand of one of our grantors. We were able to negotiate out of purchasing sexual misconduct liability insurance a few years ago.

VLSP does its work with 2.3 attorneys, 2.2 paralegals and one legal assistant and with a budget of less than a half-million dollars. VLSP is the primary pro bono program in Sacramento County, a county of over 1.4 million people. With our small infrastructure, we are able to assist over 2000 clients each year, but client need for free legal services exceeds our resources. We have been doing this work for 36 years, thanks to your help and the support of the Sacramento County Bar Association. We hope that the Sacramento legal community continues to support the work of VLSP in the years to come through donations of their time, talents, and resources.

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