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Day of Service taps into attorneys’ non-legal skills

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From her summer as an associate at a large Chicago law firm, Candace Armstrong remembers the social activities, the fancy lunches and outings to Cubs games.

Mostly she recalls trying to balance a drink, a tiny hors d’oeuvre and talking about nothing. However, the social activity that still resonates with her is the Saturday she joined law partners and corporate executives to paint an inner-city school gymnasium.

Helping the community alongside attorneys dressed in shorts and baseball caps made the Saturday task her favorite social activity, the Newton County solo practitioner said.

Armstrong and her colleagues from the Indiana State Bar Association’s inaugural Leadership Development Academy class are hoping to create that sense of volunteerism and camaraderie through the ISBA Day of Service. On one day each year, the class envisions lawyers from around the state doing nonlegal charitable work in their own communities.

This year, that day will be Sept. 21.

Activities could include preparing a meal in a soup kitchen, building a house for Habitat for Humanity, shelving books at the local library, clearing weeds in a city park, and working at a local nursing home to paint a couple of outdoor benches as well as help with an afternoon bingo game.

“We want lawyers and judges to get out there and kind of get their hands dirty,” said LDA graduate Jaime Oss.

The idea originated from a free-thinking exercise where the class members wrote down what they loved about Indiana and what they could do to make the Hoosier state better. Those lists evolved into the service committee, now a permanent standing committee of the ISBA.

Oss, partner at Huelat Mack & Kreppein P.C., is the chair of the service committee and David Lynch, attorney with Amy Noe Law in Richmond, is the vice-chair.

“I think it’s really important that people see that lawyers are not afraid to get dirty and are not afraid to be real people,” Lynch said.

Early exuberance has met reality as the class has reached out to local bar associations and tried to enlist attorneys. Getting the buy-in has been more difficult than expected, but committee members attribute the hesitancy to this being the first year for the Day of Service. They are optimistic the program will grow in the coming years to involve thousands of bar members volunteering across the state on a single day.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Alan Miller, president of the Dearborn and Ohio counties bar associations. “I’m sort of surprised this wasn’t done before.”

Getting out of the courtroom and working together on a project with opposing counsel will help build civility within the bar, Miller, partner at Zerbe Garner Miller & Blondell LLP, said. Having a group of attorneys giving up part of Saturday may motivate people outside the legal community to give back as well.

To be successful, Lynch believes the bar associations should pair with other local service organizations to work on a project. These groups will have a volunteer base and projects in progress that attorneys could help with rather than trying to start from scratch.

Pairing will also enable attorneys to develop connections with people who serve the local needs.

“I personally get a lot of benefit from dealing with people who are dedicated servant leaders,” Lynch said. “I just personally find myself more comfortable with folks who are dedicated volunteers to whatever local service agency they’re passionate about.”

When Tim Baker, magistrate judge for the Southern District of Indiana, first learned of the Day of Service, he quickly asked for more information. Like Armstrong, he was partly inspired by the fun of volunteering with other attorneys several years ago to paint a woman’s house.

Lawyers do many good things already, Baker said, but the Day of Service will allow a larger portion of the public all across the state to see these good works.

Moreover, the event will allow the bench to get involved. Baker said while they are always calling upon lawyers to do pro bono, the judges are limited in the kinds of charitable help they can do. The Day of Service will give judges the opportunity to volunteer like they have asked many attorneys to do.

From the house painting effort, Baker remembered the homeowner being surprised that a bunch of attorneys had come to do the work and that she was smiling broadly when the job was done.

“I remember I had a sore back,” Baker said of his experience, “but it was a good kind of sore.”•
 

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