The Paralegal Role in Disaster Legal Services

By Rachel Royal, NCCP

Looking Back
As we get settled into the new Bar year, the Paralegal Division is burrowing deep into project planning. One of those projects is its Pro Bono Committee’s endeavors to promote even more paralegal involvement in legal volunteering across the state. In the past year, the Paralegal Division has been very active in the pro bono world, including post-Florence Disaster Legal Services Hotlines, Disaster Recovery Centers, and FEMA Appeals Clinics. Additionally, we volunteered as notaries for clinics for Wills for Heroes, Driver’s License Restoration, and Durham Expunction and Restoration (D.E.A.R.). Some of our members served as Site Coordinators, Scoring Directors, and general volunteers for multiple High School Mock Trials, as well as the Middle School Mock Trials. Additionally, Immediate Past Chair, Leslie Pegram, initiated a Hurricane Florence Clothing Drive that has assisted multiple legal professionals and students who lost clothing in the hurricane. 

Ongoing Project: Need Volunteers for Legal on the Line
One particular pro bono project that the Paralegal Division considers its own is Legal on the Line Paralegal Partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina. This project was initiated by past Pro Bono Chair and past Division Chair, Annette Phelps, about three (3) years ago. Since Annette stepped down as Chair of the Pro Bono Committee last year, I took over coordinating this project with Legal Aid with the help of my co-chair, S.M. Kernodle-Hodges. While we officially launched the project last October, Hurricane Florence recovery efforts halted progress, and the project did not really get off the ground until around February of 2019. While we initially had more paralegals than supervising attorneys sign on, we currently have eleven (11) attorneys and nine (9) paralegals, and multiple cases have already been completed by these teams. After several months in the pilot phase, Legal Aid is confident that this will be a successful project and is ready to move into a more permanent process. An overview of the new process, as well as the purpose and highlights of the project can be found in the short presentation linked here.  

While the project to date has been referred to paralegals and their supervising attorneys directly by Legal Aid, the batch referral process (sending to a group leader for distribution) described in the presentation linked above, is successfully used by Legal Aid in other projects. We have currently identified two paralegal group leaders — Mollie Schwamm, one of the first paralegal volunteers for this project, and I will also be a group leader, having completed two referrals in the project myself. 

This project provides a way for both attorneys and paralegals to provide a legal service to clients who might not otherwise be able to afford a consultation or representation. Even if they do not ultimately qualify financially for free assistance from Legal Aid, they will have already had their situation evaluated by a licensed attorney and received sound legal advice based on their set of facts and circumstances. For volunteer peace of mind, Legal Aid assigns each paralegal/attorney team with a Legal Aid staff attorney who can answer questions. Each team also receives documents that provide pertinent information as a starting point for researching the client’s potential issues. Together, these resources are very helpful, particularly for volunteers who may not have as much experience in an area of law. Volunteers can also be confident that they (both paralegals and attorneys) are completely covered by Legal Aid’s malpractice insurance through the duration of their time working with the client.

Legal on the Line Feedback from Volunteers
I am a Certified Paralegal with the City of Wilmington with experience in Civil Litigation, Family Law, First Amendment law and Public Safety. I have personally found the project process very seamless and rewarding, as well as a convenient way to utilize my limited time to volunteer. Even though my cases were a Landlord/Tenant issue and bankruptcy, with which I’m not as familiar, the documents provided by Legal Aid and my supervisor’s experience gave me the confidence to communicate with the client.

Mollie Schwamm, a Certified Paralegal who specializes in Business Law, landlord/tenant issues, and expunctions, shares about the program, “Everyone I have worked with has been extremely helpful and accommodating in taking after-hour phone calls and responding to questions via email.”

Katherine Asaro, Staff Attorney with the NC Pro Bono Resource Center, has volunteered with this project since April. She shares, “This is an amazing program. The paralegals I’ve worked with are smart, industrious, and dedicated. It’s an honor to guide them through working with clients directly.”

A New Bern attorney with White and Allen, P.A., Chris Waivers, specializes in Civil Litigation, Bankruptcy, and Real Property, and has volunteered for the project since June. He shares about his experience, “I really enjoyed the experience; it gave me the opportunity to give an objective take on a legal question while also working with a motivated paralegal on the best way for her to communicate the analysis to the pro bono client.”

At this point, we do need additional paralegal volunteers. As the project grows and more paralegals gain confidence in the process, we will also need to identify additional Paralegal Group Leaders. We will also continue recruiting attorney volunteers, as the project cannot be run by paralegals alone. To volunteer as a paralegal, please fill out the form found here. Attorneys can volunteer by completing the form here

Looking Forward
On August 6, 2019, the North Carolina Bar Foundation and the NC Pro Bono Resource Center partnered to host an inaugural Disaster Legal Services Summit. Over 40 individuals who make pro bono volunteering a priority, including my co-chair and I, were in attendance. The purpose of the summit was to discuss the timeline of events after Hurricane Florence, the pro bono activities that followed, and the challenges that had to be overcome to assist the individuals who needed legal help after the storm. Additionally, future plans for disaster response by legal professionals in the state were discussed and will be collaborated on an ongoing basis. This video was created by the NC Bar Foundation and the NC Pro Bono Resource Center to provide an overview of why pro bono is so important following a natural disaster and how it made a difference after this particular storm. Being a part of this summit was educational, rewarding, and solidified the knowledge that paralegals can be invaluable support to attorneys to help make a difference in our communities, particularly after a disaster. 

Other Volunteer Opportunities
In looking ahead to the coming months, there will be several volunteer opportunities for paralegals, legal assistants, and paralegal students. 

  • Wills for Heroes Clinic at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of LawSeptember 11, 2019 – Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, 225 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, NC 27603 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Need (8) notary volunteers and (2) general volunteers. Sign up here.
  • Wills for Heroes Clinic at Duke University School of LawOctober 5, 2019 – Duke University School of Law, 210 Science Drive, Durham, NC 27514 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Need (8) notary volunteers and (2) general volunteers. Sign up here.
  • Mecklenburg County Social Justice Expunction ClinicOctober 12, 2019 – Mecklenburg County Courthouse, 832 E. 4th Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. Three, two-hour shifts at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m. will need attorney, paralegal, and notary volunteers. Sign up here. Email Sylvia Novinsky, Director of the NC Pro Bono Resource Center at sylvia@ncprobono.org with any questions.
  • Wills for Heroes Clinic at UNC School of LawOctober 12, 2019 – UNC School of Law Office of Admissions, 160 Ridge Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27514 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Need (5) notary volunteers and (2) general volunteers. Sign up here
  • Wills for Heroes Clinic with Wake County Bar AssociationNovember 2, 2019 – Raleigh, NC. 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Need (8) notary volunteers and (2) general volunteers. Sign up by contacting Nihad Mansour at nmansour@ncbar.org
  • D.E.A.R. (Durham Expunction & Restoration Program) – Looking for ongoing paralegal, legal assistant, and law student volunteers from 9:30-3:00 Monday-Thursday and 9:30-12:00 on Friday to assist with admin duties such as filing clerical work such as copying, filing and intake, as well as someone to assist with legal work such as drafting advice letters, expunction petitions, and running criminal records. Location would be at Durham County Courthouse, 6th floor suite 6400 and would include attorney supervision. **This would be a wonderful opportunity for a paralegal student internship.** Contact Lauren Robbins at lauren.robbins@durhamnc.gov or Dear@durhamnc.gov for more information. 
  • High School Mock Trial Site Volunteers (on Feb 1, 2020 at courthouses in Fayetteville, Gastonia, Greenville, Hendersonville, Hickory, High Point, Hillsborough, Raleigh, Salisbury and Wilmington) – specific time slots are listed on the application form here:  https://ncmocktrial.org/get-involved/volunteer/register/ (see site volunteer section). You can also email Liz Avery-Jones at liz@mocktrial.org with any questions.

If you would like to be notified personally by email when volunteer opportunities are available for paralegals, legal assistants, or paralegal students, please fill out the form found here.

Rachel Royal is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal for the Wilmington City Attorney’s office. She supports  two attorneys who handle city Police, Fire, Litigation, and Employment and is currently a UNCP student. She lives in Hampstead with her husband, Reuben, and their children, Phoenix and Christian. Mrs. Royal grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and enjoys reading, writing, cooking, music, weightlifting, and outdoor activities. She graduated with honors from Carteret Community College in May 2017 as the recipient of the Paralegal Technology Graduate of the Year Award. She has been involved with the Paralegal Division since 2015 as a student member, won the NCBA Paralegal Student scholarship in 2016, and has been a Council Member and Pro Bono Co-Chair since May 2018. Mrs. Royal’s goal as a division member is to inspire paralegals to feel pride in their career and promote involvement in pro bono services across the state.