Justice For All

Local lawyers donate their evenings and weekends to ensure all of Hawaii has access to legal services and resources.

photo by Rae Huo

Ellen Politano and Moya Gray hold out a legal safety net for clients who’ve run out of options.

When I asked Ellen Politano to describe a basic day in her life, she threw her head back and laughed. In the two days since we had met over the phone, Politano had kept up with the workload at her private practice family law firm, flown to Kauai for a deposition, attended a court hearing, fielded daily phone calls from her eldest son, away at his first year of college, and continued her daily morning routine of prepping her 16-year-old autistic son for school. Apparently, the idea of a “basic” day to this single mother begged for a laugh.

Although Politano’s super-mom schedule would make the heads of many spin, she has also committed herself to a hefty pro bono workload with Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii (VLSH) for more than seven years. “No matter where you are as an attorney—big firm, government office, solo practitioner—there’s always a reason not to do pro bono work,” Politano says of the busy schedule of many lawyers. “But once you start, it’s impossible to ignore the need.” Since 1981, VLSH has provided legal advice to Hawaii’s low- income population through programs and legal clinics held throughout Hawaii.

One of the organization’s largest programs is Project Visitation. In partnership with the department of human services and the family court, VLSH “recruits volunteers throughout the community to help provide visits for siblings who have been separated in the foster care system,” says VLSH executive director Moya Gray. Historically, separated siblings may not see each other for up to several years. “It’s not a traditional legal service,” says Gray. “But kids have a legal right to be with their families.” The project’s monthly family reunions are supported by donated funds and volunteer facilitators. “These children need to be heard, but there are few people who speak for them,” Gray says, noting the program’s need for volunteers in the legal field.

While tending to these big-picture issues takes a lot of time and resources, VLSH also has to keep up with more than 8,000 legal calls each year. Although some cases end up going to court, most are resolved through neighborhood legal clinics, held during the evenings at locations around the state. The legal clinics reach a broad base of low-income clients in their communities. There, a homeless youth can speak freely and get legal advice, or an abused woman can seek help. Clinics also reach out to pregnant and parenting teens, teaching them their parental responsibilities and rights and provide legal and accounting services during tax season.

“It’s a very discrete opportunity to help somebody,” Gray says of the clinics. “We’re the last resort. We’re the safety net.” The clinic staff, volunteer legal aids and law students create a file for each client, conducting the preliminary research before the lawyer arrives. All a lawyer has to do is show up, with the expertise and desire to help somebody in need. At the end of the assessment, if a case remains unresolved, the staff refers the client to its roster of pro bono lawyers.

Currently, just 3 percent of the Hawaii bar actively volunteers, Gray says. “I need to grow my pool of lawyers tremendously.

“If [our lawyers] really got together they could solve a lot of problems. I’m not talking about a utopia, I’m talking about people rolling up their sleeves and doing the work. We can’t live on an island and ignore it.”

This year VLSH will honor Politano for her years of service with the Kahiau Award. “The spirit of Kahiau,” Gray explains, “is when a person gives without any expectation of return. That is Ellen.” While many lawyers are generous enough to give 10 to 20 hours each year to pro bono work, Politano gives upward of 100. “She is an unsung hero,” says Gray.

So the next time you’re in a room and the lawyer jokes start flowing, ask if anyone’s heard the one about the lawyer who donates her time to the community.

Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii is looking for lawyers in any specialty, researchers and law students to volunteer. For more information,
call 528-7051 or visit www.vlsh.org.

UPDATE: Cooking Up Success

Since we profiled Spirit of Aloha Outreaches, an alternative learning program that uses cooking as a vehicle to attract and teach at-risk students at Farrington High School, it has grown in size and support.

What was once a two-hour daily cooking class has expanded over the past year to a four-hour period. “The focus is more quality time with the kids,” says program leader Paul Onishi. “We’re giving them a bigger block of time where they can be successful.” By adding SmartKids, a computer-based tutoring program, to the daily schedule, Onishi has expanded the program’s academic value as well.

For more information, or to learn about starting a program at your local high school, contact Paul Onishi at 722-9782.