When a poor person is charged with a crime, he likely will be appointed an attorney from the public defender’s office.
But if that same person needs to fight an eviction order, seek a divorce or obtain government benefits, he may turn instead to Boulder County Legal Services.
Boulder County Legal Services, located on 30th Street in Boulder, is celebrating its 30th year of helping low-income people with legal services in civil court.
One of 17 legal clinics operated by Colorado Legal Services, Boulder County Legal Services serves Boulder County residents whose incomes are lower than 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline, or about $24,000 for a family of four.
“Preventing homelessness is one of our focus areas,” said Sue Parenteau, volunteer coordinator for the service. Twenty percent of the service’s cases involve evictions, foreclosures and the like, she said.
To provide free or low-cost legal services to its clients, Boulder County Legal Services relies on a volunteer panel of 375 attorneys, Parenteau said.
One of those attorneys, John Gaddis, has his own private practice in Longmont. But he’s been volunteering for Boulder County Legal Services for 30 years, since he was licensed to practice law.
“I jumped at the chance” to volunteer with the service, Gaddis said. “It is truly a wonderful program.”
“This program began with a number of attorneys who were committed to it,” Parenteau said.
Ironically, the woman considered to be the founder of Boulder County Legal Services is not an attorney.
Jane Gill-Kellenberger volunteered with the University of Colorado’s Legal Aid and Defender program from 1969 to 1975. The Boulder County Bar Association asked her to write a grant proposal seeking $125,000 to open a legal-services office.
The state legislature awarded $21,750 instead. She set up operations in a Boulder County garage at 28th and Spruce streets, with 60 attorneys donating their services, she said.
“We had very modest beginnings,” Gill-Kellenberger said.
Beginning in law school, lawyers are encouraged to take pro bono cases, or work for free, explained Christine Hylbert, executive director of the Boulder County Bar Association.
While it’s difficult for some, such as tax attorneys, many attorneys in Boulder County are enthusiastic about such volunteer work.
“There’s a great deal of willingness to take pro bono cases,” Hylbert said.
Parenteau said a higher percentage of attorneys participate in the legal services than in other Colorado counties. In 2004, attorneys donated more than 4,500 hours to 700 clients, she said.
That amount of legal services would have cost nearly $1 million, Parenteau said.
“We have the best and the brightest attorneys on our volunteer panel, and people want to be part of that,” Parenteau said. Other volunteers, such as paralegals and other office workers, donated 2,500 hours to Boulder County Legal Services, she said.
Once a Boulder County attorney begins volunteering for the organization, he or she tends to stay with it.
“I really don’t have a lot of turnover,” Parenteau said. “For the most part, attorneys stay on the panel.”
“It’s a pretty dedicated group of people,” said Gill-Kellenberger.
In his volunteer work, Gaddis focuses on estate issues, domestic relations, employment law, and landlord/tenant disputes, he said.
“Some of my most interesting cases have been BCLS cases,” Gaddis said, explaining they often involve unique situations. He declined to elaborate, citing attorney-client privilege, however.
Although he donates between 30 and 60 hours per year to Boulder County Legal Services, Gaddis said there is no “average” amount of time a case will demand.
“Usually, BCLS cases are complicated and take a significant amount of time,” Gaddis said.
Hylbert agreed, explaining, “Some cases go on for quite some time, much longer than you want them to.” She knows of Boulder County Legal Services cases that have taken as long as three or four years, she said.
Because the services’ clients are likely less sophisticated than those who pay for legal advice, Gaddis said he often has to spend more time explaining the process and what the client needs to do.
The clients in general are not good problem-solvers, said Gill-Kellenberger. “They really need someone to help them,” she said.
Also, because the clients are not paying for the legal services, they are more likely to spend time with their lawyer. They have no financial incentive to curtail that time, Gaddis said.
Despite the large number of participating attorneys and the seeming affluence of Boulder County, Boulder County Legal Services cannot meet the need of all its potential clients.
“There is a very large case load,” Gaddis said.
Currently, funding comes from the city of Longmont, Boulder County, federal funds, the United Way and the Boulder County Bar Association, Parenteau said.
One-third of Boulder County Bar Association dues, or about $7 per attorney, goes to Boulder County Legal Services, Hylbert said. In addition, the association holds fundraisers such as “Rock Around the Block” and a wine-tasting for the legal-aid office.
The Boulder County Bar Foundation, a charitable arm of the bar association, also provides a grant “almost annually” to Boulder County Legal Services, Hylbert said.
More funding would allow the organization to hire more volunteer coordinators and staff attorneys, said Gill-Kellenberger.
Staff attorneys are likely to be more familiar with benefits law, such as Medicaid and disability issues, than general practice attorneys, and handle the more difficult cases, Gill-Kellenberger said.
While the office once had a staff director, five attorneys and a volunteer coordinator, it now operates with three employees, including one staff attorney.
“That’s quite a cut and the need has not changed. In fact, the need has increased,” Parenteau said. “Each year, we try to come as close as we can” to filling the need.
Potential clients with “run of the mill” divorces, for example, are referred to the Web site of Colorado Legal Services.
“There’s a lot of people we can’t help,” Gill-Kellenberger said. “We don’t begin to meet the need.”
Victoria Camron can be reached at
303-684-5226, or by e-mail at