In the heart of Park Heights, an experiment has begun to divert lawyers from courtrooms and boardrooms and into communities that surveys show rarely turn to the legal profession for help with their everyday problems.
Using a $350,000 grant from the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, billionaire financier George Soros' philanthropic organization, the University of Maryland Law School's clinical program has launched a nonprofit "demonstration office" to funnel the needs of regular folks -- from the development of special-education plans for children to zoning disputes and employment litigation -- to lawyers who need the work.
The attorneys who have started the project, called Civil Justice Inc., hope it some day can serve as the model for a "residency" program for lawyers -- not unlike programs that bring doctors to communities where health care is scarce.
In the process, the program also hopes to shore up support for lawyers who join small, community-oriented practices -- whose work has not historically been a focus of law-school training.
"Law schools have been structured to educate students to go with large firms or into the public sector," said Michael A. Millemann, a UM law professor who helped start the project. "There's been this gap between the law and the people."
In addition to the University of Maryland grant, similar grants were issued by the Open Society Institute's U.S. headquarters in New York to the City University of New York School of Law at Queens College, Northeastern Law School in Boston and St. Mary's University of San Antonio School of Law.
The money is for projects serving a variety of clients, but the grants have in common the mission of encouraging the development of small firms to assist populations that have been under- served.
Catherine Samuels, director of the Open Society Institute's Program on Law and Society, said she hoped the models being developed at the four schools will be replicated throughout the country.
Ann M. Lembo, an attorney who practices alone from a Govans-town office in Baltimore and graduated from the law school in 1995, said the Civil Justice network has brought her cases and support.
"One of the hardest things about being on your own is not having those resources," she said.
Said Denis J. Murphy, Civil Justice's executive director, "Part of the theory here is that the law schools do have a role to play, to transition graduates into private practice."
The Civil Justice office opened in the fall in a restored building at 3901 Park Heights Ave. But its 10 "network" lawyers who handle cases are scattered around the state. Those lawyers sometimes discount their fees or try to recover them from other parties in the course of representing clients.
In some cases, services are free. For example, Civil Justice will help residents fill out applications for city loans to repair the facades of their homes without charge.
Anna B. Hughley, who has lived in Park Heights for 30 of her 69 years, is applying for a loan to repair the front porch of her home on Reisterstown Road. Her visit to Civil Justice was her first to a law office.
"After they were talking about giving people money to fix the front, I decided I would get it fixed," Hughley said of her porch. "It's not in bad shape, but it's bad enough."
But Hughley said that without the project's help, she probably wouldn't have been able to get together what she needed for the application, a process that seemed overwhelming.
"I couldn't do it, not that good," Hughley said.
"A lot of people need help, but they don't know where to go."
Pub Date: 2/12/99