Community Legal Services fills pro bono gap with Cooley Law School


Attorney Joni Michaud, left, attorney Dustie DeVille, Jan Otto, Community Legal Services board member and attorney Liz Balck, right, at CLS’ launch event. Courtesy Community Legal Services

Where does someone with little money turn for legal services?

In West Michigan, there are a few places offering no-cost services, but as economic strain and shrinking resources continue, those services are harder to come by.

Attorney Dustie DeVille said that is what started her on the road to creating Community Legal Services. She was witnessing areas where individuals needed pro bono legal services, but couldn’t get them.

“We are not trying to duplicate anything, but trying to fill the gap where people might be falling through who really need legal representation,” DeVille said.

Community Legal Services entered the scene last fall with a mission to supplement legal-services programs in the area.

Community Legal Services has eight open cases right now, being handled by attorneys who have volunteered their time, as well as two other cases that will be matched up with attorneys in the near future.

The organization handles cases in six counties: Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon and Ottawa.

There are three criteria for turning to CLS for help.

  • An individual has to be at or below the 200 percent poverty level
  • A person cannot qualify for an existing legal-service program
  • That person must be participating in some type of community program or agency — such as another nonprofit, social service or church program — or they must be receiving some type of public assistance or government benefits

One of the most unusual aspects about CLS is its partnership with Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s pro bono junior associates program.

Attorneys who take on a pro bono case through CLS are able to request a student, or even multiple students, to assist them with the case. The attorney is able to choose the criteria for the student assistant — anything from types of classes the student has taken to a specific GPA — and the school helps match a law student based on those specifications.

“It’s not only beneficial to the attorney, because they are getting help, but they also are able to mentor a law student and that’s great experience for the law students,” DeVille said.

She said that often the biggest deterrent for an attorney is lack of time to take on pro bono cases, and she expects that the ability to get help will encourage interested attorneys to take on a case.

So far, DeVille is pleased with the level of support the organization is receiving. She said most of the attorneys that have been contacted are receptive to what the organization is doing and want to help it succeed.

Fifteen attorneys are volunteering, a number that DeVille hopes to see grow to 100, with representation in each of the six counties.

She is also hoping that by the end of the year the organization will be able to hire one or two full-time attorneys to provide legal representation, as well as move into an office space, which it currently doesn't have.

To help achieve these goals, CLS is holding a charity open house event on Thursday, Jan. 31, in room 529 at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 111 Commerce Ave. SW, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Attendance is free, but monetary donations of whatever size will be accepted at the reception. There will also be a silent auction to raise money for the CLS.

During the evening there will be three speakers, all of whom are recipients of the State Bar of Michigan’s highest pro bono award: Nelson P. Miller, associate dean of Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus; attorney Steven L. Williams of Kenneth T. Saukas PC; and 17th Circuit Court Judge Daniel V. Zemaitis.

Kelly McGrail of the West Michigan Tourist Association will host the event.

Those who are unable to attend, but would like to make a donation should contact DeVille at or (616) 929-5716.

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