Cascio on volunteer lawyers project
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project is a 35-year organization that strives to pair lawyers throughout the state with clients that are in need of legal assistance but do not qualify for government-provided legal assistance. Attorney Tammra Cascio has recently been named chair of MVLP. Cascio is a graduate of Murray State University in Kentucky with a double-major in English and political science. She earned her juris doctorate from the University of Mississippi. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips spoke with Cascio about MVLP, its services, role in the community, qualifying, and how attorneys from across the state can get involved.
Tell me about Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.
“The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer’s Project was started in 1982 through some members of the Mississippi BAR who were just very interested in the project. MVLP takes volunteer attorneys from the Mississippi BAR from, ideally, every county in Mississippi. We have a good, broad span of lawyers from north Mississippi, the Jackson area, south Mississippi and the coastal area. MVLP takes clients who qualify and partners them with volunteer attorneys who are willing to assist. Mississippi was one of the first to establish it. And this year’s our 35th anniversary.”
How does someone qualify to be a client of an MVLP attorney?
“MVLP gives families an avenue for seeking legal assistance when they may not qualify for actual government legal services, government-funded legal services, but still are not in a position to go out and hire attorneys. One of the really important things I see about MVLP is that it really fills a gap. There is just a gap between folks who qualify for legal services and folks who don’t qualify for legal services but may still be under the poverty line. Those types of things can help stabilize families, help families move forward. I think these are very critical services to giving families avenues to just basic legal assistance.”
What types of matters do MLVP attorneys handle?
“A lot of it is family law or chancery court matters — contested divorces, emancipations, guardianships, conservatorships, adoptions, name changes. They can take on child support modifications, child support contempt matters and visitation matters. It’s a lot of different areas of the law that really focus on families and children. We also help with wills and estate planning. We feel like those are issues that can be handled by volunteer attorneys with some training by MVLP.”
Why are the training services necessary for the MVLP attorneys?
“For instance, I’ve always been a civil litigation attorney, and now I do a lot of government agency work and administrative law. I’ve never really done family law as part of my practice. But I am a licensed attorney, I have access to the court, I’m an officer of the court and I can represent folks as long as I have basic training on how to handle these cases, and MVLP provides me with the appropriate paperwork. It’s to help attorneys who may or may not have worked in these types of family law areas still be able to offer their assistance as licensed attorneys.”
Does MVLP provide any other services?
“In addition to providing lawyers, where they match you up for direct legal assistance, they also host clinics. So the MVLP staff, along with volunteer lawyers in different areas of the state, will host clinics on various matters. It can be a specific clinic about guardianship, divorce, estate, or just a general family law clinic. We will partner up with local county BAR associations to do that. We also work with the chancery court judges when there are pro se litigates who file papers and are trying to represent themselves. A chancellor can get in touch with MVLP and say, ‘There’s someone in my court system who needs assistance and may qualify for MVLP,’ and we can try to match them.”
How did you start being part of MVLP?
“Prior to what I do now, I was general counsel for a company. In that role, I felt it was kind of isolated, and I felt MVLP was something I could do to give back to the profession, give back to the community. I’m very privileged to be able to do what I do for a living, and I thought I could take those skills and put those to work. MVLP serves a critical need. It is a way for attorneys to contribute to the community without having to give up their practice. It’s a way for attorneys in all different walks of the profession to get involved. That was something that drew me to it. I feel like I have an avenue of handling (family law) by having the resources that MVLP has.”
What year did you get involved?
“I initially got involved in 2014.”
How did you come into your new position as chair of MVLP?
“When I started with MVLP, I first volunteered at some clinics. I then became fund-raising co-chair. So, for two years, I was fund-raising co-chair because of some federal funding cuts. I did that for two years. After I did that, I was asked by the current board to fill the seat of a board member that was rolling off. After I served on the board, they asked me to step into the vice chair position. After that, they nominated me to fill the chair position, and I took that over in August.”
What are your responsibilities as chair?
“We have quarterly board meetings and I preside over those. I remain in close contact with the executive director, Gayla Carpenter-Sanders, concerning events, recruiting volunteer attorneys or letting people know about our services. I still will be involved in assisting with fund-raising efforts. As far as carrying out the plan of operation for MVLP, myself along with the entire board work with the executive director to make sure we are staying on the right path. We work closely with the staff to make sure they have the assistance and resources they need to the best we can do that. I also feel like it’s my job to raise awareness and interest to the fact that this is such a critical need and that MVLP is a state-wide organization. We are trying to help folks from one end of Mississippi to the other.”
How many hours a week do you spend working with MVLP?
“I would say between two to three hours a week on average working with something related to MVLP. Certainly it is a commitment for time, showing up in court, assisting these folks with their issues, but it’s not something that causes you to have to shut down your private practice to do it.”
Are there any important annual MVLP events?
“Each year in September — we just had it on September 14, and it was very successful — we have a pro bono awards dinner, where we recognize those who have just given up their time and talents to offer pro bono services as well as any law firms or organizations that have given money, resources, time. We try recognize, thank and show our appreciation for people who have donated those things. That is the culmination of our fund-raising drive that we have every year.”
How many cases does MLVP handle each year statewide?
“MVLP opens approximately 1,200 cases each year.”
How many lawyers does MLVP currently have volunteering to handle those cases statewide?
“On average, we have approximately 100 attorneys who we recruit each year. However, on a yearly basis, we may have approximately 125 attorneys assisting clients on a yearly basis whether it is for extended representation (attorney representation in court) or limited representation (attorney assistance to pro se litigants).”
What is the cutoff for families that receive government assistance and therefore qualify for MLVP’s services?
“Families must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. The income is based on the monthly income of every adult living in the home.”
What is the organization’s yearly budget?
“MVLP’s yearly budget is between $400,000 to $500,000 each year. MVLP does get some federal funding and work with those agencies to get certain things. It also is funded in part by grants. The staff and members of the board at MVLP are always looking for grants and different ways we can apply for funding. We are always looking for grants and programs to broaden our scope of what MVLP is trying to accomplish. We have in some years raised $80,000 or $90,000 in private fund-raising.”
Are there ways for people who aren’t lawyers to get involved?
“Fund-raising for sure, and there may be some way to put you to work at a clinic or something like that. Non-lawyers and non-lawfirms can definitely be sponsors of our pro bono dinner and certainly make contributions, and we welcome those.”