VOL. 131 | NO. 160 | Thursday, August 11, 2016
Roen Takes Helm of MALS Pro Bono Services
By Michael Waddell
Leah Roen is in her first week as the new director of pro bono services for Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), and she’s already forging new partnerships that will bring legal advice and support to those who need it most.
Attorneys doing pro bono work for Memphis Area Legal Services meet with walk-ins during a free clinic held recently on the ground floor at the Shelby County Courthouse.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
One of the primary responsibilities of her new role is to run the new MALS pro bono clinics, which are designed for destitute people who need legal advice for civil matters.
“I’ve practiced law for a very long time, and I like the idea of community work,” Roen said. “I do a lot of volunteer work, and I serve on various boards. I just think it’s important to provide these legal services.”
Roen sees many people who have lost their jobs, cannot pay their rent and then subsequently cannot afford a lawyer for legal matters.
“It’s just tragic, and you see this downward slide. So that’s what we try to help with,” said Roen, who currently sits on the Disciplinary Panel for the Board of Professional Responsibility and has served on boards for the Cooper-Young Business Association, Central Gardens and the Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County.
She hopes to see more Memphis attorneys volunteering to help out at the quarterly pro bono sessions.
“We have a big need for lawyers in the domestic field. We get a lot of questions about divorce, custody and child support, so we could use help in those areas,” said Roen, who is encouraged by the positive feedback and commitments she’s gotten so far in her first week on the job.
In most cases, the lawyers are not taking on the cases or the clients, they are simply providing advice during the clinics and making referrals if needed, she said.
Idlewild Presbyterian Church will host a MALS pro bono clinic in October, and MALS is looking to partner with other local agencies and churches for hosting future clinics.
Shelby County Juvenile Court has agreed to host another upcoming clinic, and Roen has calls out to the Jewish Community Center and other local organizations.
Born and raised in Orlando, Fla., Roen attended the University of Florida, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in epidemiology. She worked for the Centers for Disease Control as an epidemiologist and then moved to Memphis to work for the Veterans Administration Hospital as a medical researcher.
After graduating from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 1990, she opened her own practice in 1991. Since then, she has worked at Shelby County Juvenile Court and at Thorp, Fones and Frulla. That firm dissolved and she reopened her own practice before making the decision to join MALS this month.
“Leah is uniquely qualified to lead our pro bono/volunteer program,” said MALS Executive Director and CEO Harrison McIver. “Her legal background and wealth of experience, bar involvement, reputation, and commitment to the mission of providing access to the system of justice for those in need made it a very easy decision to bring her onboard.”
She leaves behind 26 years of law in private practice.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing to leave it,” she said. “I loved my office, I loved my practice, I loved my clients. I just wanted to try something new. There are a lot of opportunities to do volunteer work for the indigent, and after all these years it’s more satisfying in some ways to serve someone who is desperately in need.”
MALS’ Pro Bono Program has made tremendous contributions over the years. In response to a significant justice gap and need, MALS created a menu of opportunities for the legal community to choose from, including two legal clinics. The Courthouse Advice and Counsel Clinic meets each Thursday afternoon near the General Sessions Court at the Bailey Courthouse, and the Saturday Legal Clinic meets each month on the second Saturday at the Benjamin Hooks Library from 10 a.m. to noon.
Additionally, the University of Memphis Law School Clinic Program serves eligible clients referred by MALS, and the Pillars’ Law Firm Project is designed to have firms agree to accept cases and assist clients falling within a specific practice area, such as landlord-tenant, health, consumer, and family/domestic violence.
“We offer the opportunity through pro bono counsel for business and transactional counsel working through the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellent to assist other nonprofits and community organizations on their legal problems,” said McIver, who recently celebrated 18 years as executive director and CEO at MALS. “We have special volunteer panels that include conservator, veterans and mediation. With Leah leading, we expect to expand those while developing others.”