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Extablishing a Clinic

Extablishing a Clinic

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I. Introduction
II. The Bishop and the Vicar General
III. The Clinic's Mission
IV. Referrals
V. Staffing
VI. Malpractice Insurance
VII. Office Space and Administrative Support
VIII. Publicizing the Clinic
IX. Staff Attorney Guidelines
X. Final Thoughts

A Guide to Establishing a Diocesan Legal Clinic



In June of 2016 in the Diocese of Oakland, California, Bishop Michael C. Barber, S.J., established the Pope Francis Legal Clinic (hereinafter sometimes “Clinic”).  The Clinic’s mission is to provide free legal consultation to individuals who would not otherwise have access to legal counsel.  Since its establishment, the Pope Francis Legal Clinic has been fulfilling this mission successfully. The purpose of this guide is to provide a road map for any diocese interested in establishing a legal clinic.  We have tried to keep this guide as concise as possible and have erred on the side of brevity.  If you have any questions or would like a more detailed explanation of any of the points presented, we have provided contact information in the guide’s final section.

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The threshold requirement for the successful creation and operation of a diocesan legal clinic is the full support and encouragement of the Bishop and his Vicar General.  This point may seem obvious but its importance cannot be overemphasized.  The Bishop’s support and encouragement enhances a legal clinic’s credibility within the diocese and also with the general public.  Further, as will be discussed below, a legal clinic needs logistical support from the diocese which only the Bishop and the Vicar General can provide.  One of the main reasons for the success of the Pope Francis Legal Clinic has been the enthusiastic and continuing support of Bishop Barber and Vicar General Reverend George Mockel.

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When a proposal for a legal clinic is submitted to the Bishop, the legal clinic’s mission must be carefully and precisely defined.  This definition should detail not only what the mission includes, but also what it does not include.

The Pope Francis Legal Clinic has strictly defined its mission as consultative only.  As was noted above, that mission is to provide free legal consultation to individuals who would not otherwise have access to legal counsel.  At the outset of the consultation process, individuals are informed that the Clinic offers only consultation services, that these services are free, and that the Clinic will not undertake any legal action on behalf of the individual.  These ground rules are set forth in the “Pope Francis Legal Clinic Consultation Agreement” which the individual is required to sign before the consultation begins. Often the consultation process involves multiple visits.

There are sound legal and practical reasons for this consultation only mission.  Under California Bar rules, the Pope Francis Legal Clinic does the following: 1) not take any money for its services; 2) receive no referral fees; and 3) recommend that any attorney to whom it refers a case provides a free initial consultation and reduced fees.  Thus, you must research and assure compliance with the relevant state bar rules in defining your clinic’s mission. The practical reason for the consultation only mission is that the Clinic does not have the resources to act, in effect, as a law firm.

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A “consultation only” policy begs the question of how the legal clinic handles an individual who has a legal problem which requires some type of legal action beyond consultation.  This situation has occurred a number of times.  The Pope Francis Legal Clinic refers work only to outside counsel who provide an initial free consultation and reduced rates.  To that end, the Clinic has identified attorneys with various expertises who have agreed to this referral arrangement.  Assembling such a roster of attorneys who are members of the Oakland Diocese has not been difficult.  These attorneys are happy to support the clinic’s mission.  It is the Clinic’s practice to provide two or more attorneys to those clients who need a referral.

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Ideally there are three groups of attorneys which a legal clinic needs.  The first is comprised of attorneys who handle the individual consultations.  The second is comprised of attorneys who have specific expertises with whom attorneys handling the consultations can consult by phone or in person.  And the third is comprised of those attorneys who are willing to accept referrals with an initial free consultation and thereafter at a reduced fee.

Our staffing experience for the Pope Francis Legal Clinic has been very positive.  There has been no shortage of attorneys who are willing to staff the Clinic.  The staffing group that deals directly with individuals seeking assistance has been filled by retired attorneys.  The other two groups, not surprisingly, have been filled by practicing attorneys.  Once a diocese decides to form a legal clinic, it is important to publicize the need for attorneys and to begin the staffing process.

An important part of the staffing process is to achieve as broad a range of legal expertise as possible.   A legal clinic will be called upon to consult on a very wide range of legal issues.  The Pope Francis Legal Clinic has handled a wide range of legal issues including, but not limited to, real estate, employment, immigration, trusts and estates, personal injury, social security and criminal law.  When an attorney is handling a legal issue with which he is not familiar, it has been very helpful to consult with a practicing attorney who has the necessary expertise.  This is the value that the second staffing group adds to a Legal Clinic.

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Attorneys who provide services for the legal clinic will need malpractice insurance if they do not already have it.  Most, if not all, the retired attorneys who volunteer will need this coverage.  The provision of malpractice insurance should be neither difficult nor costly.  For the Pope Francis Legal Clinic, malpractice insurance was provided by purchasing a separate policy.  The additional cost for this policy was not expensive.

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A legal clinic’s office space needs will be modest.  One or two small conference or meeting rooms will be sufficient when the legal clinic begins operations.  More office space can be added as necessary.  A phone line for individuals to make appointments is also necessary.

The most important consideration in securing office space is location.  We strongly recommend that the legal clinic’s office space be located on or as near as possible to the grounds of the Cathedral and/or Chancery.  In Oakland, the office space of the Pope Francis Legal Clinic is located in the Chancery.  There are two reasons for this recommendation.  First, a legal clinic’s credibility and bona fides will be enhanced if it is located where the diocese operates.  And second, by being located on the Cathedral and Chancery grounds, the legal clinic will attract individuals to the Cathedral which is a positive in and of itself. 

Initially, the only administrative support that will be needed is someone to answer calls from individuals seeking legal help, and the scheduling of appointments for these individuals.  This is not a burdensome task and in Oakland it has been ably performed by the Chancery receptionists.  If typing or other administrative support is needed, arrangements can be made to utilize support staff at the Chancery.

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The general public needs to be informed of the legal clinic and its mission.  This publicity function is an ongoing task.

When the Pope Francis Legal Clinic was ready to open, Bishop Barber celebrated a Mass at the Cathedral to commemorate the Clinic’s opening.  He also blessed the Clinic’s offices.  This was a very meaningful statement by the Bishop of his support for the Clinic.  The diocesan newspaper reported on this celebration as well.  Since then, the Clinic has continued in a number of different ways to inform the Diocese of its existence and mission.  The Bishop has sent a communication to parish priests within the Oakland diocese informing them of the services offered by the Clinic and encouraging them to inform their parishioners about the Clinic.  We have also sought to have parishes include an announcement about the Clinic in the Sunday bulletin.  Also, after the first six months of the Clinic’s operation, we published in the diocesan newspaper, a progress report on the Clinic which included details on how an individual could utilize the Clinic’s services.  We continue to search for new ways to publicize the Clinic.

The foregoing are merely examples which you may find useful to publicize the legal clinic in your diocese.  The important point is that, one way or another, the diocese and general public need to be informed of the existence and mission of the legal clinic. 

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We recommend that attorneys who staff the legal clinic be provided with certain guidelines.  This will assure that the legal clinic’s attorneys will provide their services consistent with the legal clinic’s mission.  Rather than detail all possible guidelines, we have attached a copy of the staff attorney guidelines which are utilized at the Pope Francis Legal Clinic.  We hope that you will find them helpful in guiding the staff attorneys at your clinic.

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We have truly been blessed by God to work at the Pope Francis Legal Clinic.  It is a joy and gift to be able to use our legal skills to help those in need of those skills.  A legal clinic is a wonderful addition to a diocese.  We hope and pray that the steps detailed in this Guide will assist you in establishing a diocesan legal clinic.  If you have any questions or would like any further information, please contact us.  We would be delighted to help you.

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