Record Set in 2021 for Donated Legal Time

The nearly $28 million in free legal services provided by attorneys last year is the highest total documented by the Justice Foundation in its annual reports.

Infographic showing 111,855 pro bono hours reported with a cartoon figure wearing a cape and carrying a briefcase alongside $29,963,750 as the value of pro bono services

The nearly $28 million in free legal services provided by attorneys last year is the highest total documented by the Justice Foundation in its annual reports.

Thousands of attorneys across the state volunteered professional time to low-income Ohioans in need of critical legal services, according to the 2021 report by the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation.

The annual pro bono survey of Ohio attorneys asks if they volunteered legal services, how much time was spent, and for what types of cases. Employment, housing, and family law were among the most common areas in which attorneys gave their time. Of the 3,854 Ohio attorneys who responded to the survey, participating lawyers recorded 111,855 hours of pro bono service last year. With the median hourly rate for a state attorney around $250 an hour, those donated hours equal a value of $27,963,750 – a new survey record.

“I applaud the thousands of attorneys who gave their time and experiences to their fellow Ohioans,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. “Access to justice is a right for everyone and should not be an obstacle for those who can’t afford a lawyer.”

The purpose of the survey and the report is to identify areas of need for legal services – both geographically and specific fields of law – for organizations to better allocate resources. Last year, more aid was dedicated to resolving issues that kept people from getting or sustaining jobs. These matters – known as employment to barrier cases – include people with a suspended driver’s license or low-level criminal offense(s) on their record.

Infographic showing a breakdown of civil case practice areas for which Ohio lawyers volunteered in 2021

The graphic displays the wide range of civil cases for which Ohio lawyers volunteered in 2021.

Infographic showing a breakdown of civil case practice areas for which Ohio lawyers volunteered in 2021

The graphic displays the wide range of civil cases for which Ohio lawyers volunteered in 2021.

Retired central Ohio attorney Vivian Opelt volunteers her time to resolve those kinds of problems. The former corporate lawyer works with clients to reinstate their driver’s license by settling outstanding court fees and addressing fines with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. She also works with sealing records for people with misdemeanor convictions, which can prevent them from getting a job.

“So many people end up in bad spots for years because they don’t have legal help at the time when they need it,” said Opelt. “They make mistakes that stick with them after their punishment is served because they don’t have allies in the justice system.”

Image of a women with short, blond hair wearing a blue suit and white shirt

Attorney Vivian Opelt has immersed herself in pro bono work since she retired from corporate law six years ago.

Image of a women with short, blond hair wearing a blue suit and white shirt

Attorney Vivian Opelt has immersed herself in pro bono work since she retired from corporate law six years ago.

Opelt takes part in clinics – in-person or online events where attorneys provide legal assistance to people who need it – held by the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and Southeastern Ohio Legal Services. The subjects can be specific, such as estate planning, drafting wills, establishing powers of attorney, or helping immigrants begin the naturalization process. She’s also participated in family law clinics that address a variety of issues regarding divorces and child custody matters.

“The wide range of pro bono opportunities allow me to keep learning about the law and stay familiar with topics I was unaware of before,” said Opelt, who is considering adding tenant advocacy and eviction cases to her expanding expertise.

Doing good for others while growing intellectually are the main reasons she became a lawyer after transitioning from her first career in finance. The impact she can have as a legal professional has grown since she’s been assisting those who rely on her work to overcome financial setbacks and daily struggles.

“You feel empowered when you’re able to help people, especially when you see how it can change their lives by helping them get jobs and creating better opportunities for themselves and their families,” said Opelt.

https://www.courtnewsohio.gov/happening/2022/proBonoRecord_082222.asp