LDS attorneys enriching ‘storehouse’

Law society provides pro bono work to those in need of legal representation

"And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not,… that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.

"Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council" (Doctrine and Covenants 42:33-34).

There was a time when the bishop's storehouse inventory was largely limited to eggs, bushels of wheat and produce and maybe a live chicken or two — those essential provisions that sustained life in times of need.

The sacred, divinely built bishop's storehouse remains a repository for foodstuffs, and much, much more. Listen to the words of President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency: "The Lord's storehouse includes the time, talents, skills, compassion, consecrated material and financial means of faithful Church members. These resources are available to the bishop in assisting those in need." (Ensign, September 1986.)

Many faithful Church members still wage daily battles to feed and shelter themselves and their families. But in an increasingly complex world, the struggles of members sometimes stretch beyond finding a good meal or a decent job. A poor family might be exploited by an unethical landlord. An immigrant auto mechanic with limited English skills might be fired without cause, then not paid a dime for his month of labor. A single mother may worry how she will care for her infant child abandoned by its father.

Any of the above problems can be remedied with the help of a skilled attorney. But legal representation typically eludes the poor and other disenfranchised folks of the community. In an effort to stock an essential "shelf" at the bishop's storehouse, dozens of LDS attorneys have provided free or reduced-cost legal representation to help those in need. Organized in 2005 as a by-product of the Church's Inner-City Mission in Salt Lake City, the Pro Bono Legal Services Program of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society provides participating priesthood leaders with legal resources to assist those with little money. The program is not administered by the Church, but by volunteer attorneys hoping to bless others.

Lawyers are a busy lot. Most work long hours to meet their obligations to their respective firms and paying clients. "But as lawyers, and as members of the Church, we have an obligation to serve our fellow men with the skills the Lord has blessed us with," said Craig D. Galli, a Salt Lake City attorney who serves as a JRCLS pro bono program administrator.

Many young LDS lawyers enter the law profession fueled by idealism. Eager to better their world, some become disillusioned and unsatisfied. The law business can be a daily grind of paper shuffling performed in the company of fellow lawyers. Many are anxious to use their skills to help others.

Commercial real estate attorney Matthew Wirthlin recently participated in the pro bono program, assisting an LDS woman who was being hastily evicted from her apartment. It was not the sort of work Brother Wirthlin typically performs, but he experienced joy using his talents to help another. "This is the kind of stuff I went to law school for."

Brother Galli and Brother Wirthlin are counted among some 50 attorneys participating in the JRCLS pro bono program in Utah's Salt Lake County. Sister programs operate in Utah County, Ogden, Phoenix and Denver. Members of the non-denominational law society — made up larglely of LDS attorneys — have high hopes for the future of the pro bono program.

The goal of the law society is to have this program all over the world, said William Atkin, associate general counsel for the Church. JRCLS chapters operate in Lima, Mexico City and Sao Paulo — evidence of the Church's growing presence in the global law community.

Participating lawyers typically assist with matters common to socially and economically disadvantaged members: immigration issues, family and employment law, and disputes between landlords and tenants. The pro bono program generally eschews civil matters such as personal injury and business formations. Meanwhile, indigent members involved in criminal cases are generally ensured legal representation via a public defender.

Brother Galli said the pro bono program follows a process consistent with Church welfare principles. First, priesthood leaders wishing to participate in the program are given proper training. Then, say, if an indigent member is not being paid by his employer, his bishop may decide the member needs a lawyer. If the bishop lives in an area where the JRCLS pro bono program is operating, he, or a member of the ward welfare committee, contacts a program coordinator. The coordinator then reviews the matter and determines if it is a case properly covered by the pro bono program. If so, the coordinator refers the matter to a volunteer attorney, who begins working with the qualified member.

A potential pro bono client works first with a priesthood leader — he or she can't simply contact a participating attorney and request services.

Occasionally, a case will result in extended litigation and time in a courtroom. Other matters "will usually takes just one letter," Brother Galli said. A missive from a licensed law office is often all the encouragement a slippery employer or landlord needs to pay up or make things right.

The JRCLS program doesn't undermine self-reliance. A bishop may determine a needy individual can pay for a portion of his or her legal services.

Spiritual motivations prompt many LDS lawyers to share their expertise, said Brother Galli, citing the words of President Boyd K. Packer in a 2004 JRCLS devotional: "Be willing to give of your time and your means and (of) your experience to the building up of the Church and the kingdom of God and the establishment of Zion, which we are under covenant to do — not just to the Church as an institution, but to members and ordinary people who need your professional protection."

While offering pro bono work is considered a professional obligation, many lawyers simply struggle to find the time to offer such a gift. But labor in the Lord's storehouse seems to defy the clock, said Brother Atkin. Time is simply found to serve.

LDS lawyers interested in learning more about the JRCLS and its pro bono program may visit the society's web site: www.jrcls.org. The JRCLS is not limited to graduates of BYU's law school. Any lawyer can join, Brother Galli said.

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