Howard University

Lawyer Makes House Calls - Professor Andrews

Lawyer Makes House Calls

Brian Katkin
August 04, 2008
This article from Legal Times
Legal Times

John Graves is waiting by the door of his studio apartment when attorney Vanessa NesSmith arrives.

NesSmith sits down on the bed, the best place from which to share documents with Graves. NesSmith is there to help Graves, 88, prepare a power of attorney and a will. But first she has to get him to sign the authorization for representation.

“The reason for this form is that we’d like to make it real clear that what we’re helping you with is your will and powers of attorney because we could get in trouble … ,” NesSmith starts. Graves interrupts—loudly.

“PYA, it’s called—protecting your ass!” he says.

“Right,” she answers. Then she goes back to her explanation.

But it isn’t long before Graves, a World War II veteran wearing a worn-out infantry division hat, changes the topic. He starts telling stories about a reunion with a German POW he met during the war, the time he dated a general’s daughter, and his famous rum cakes. (He says there’s roughly a pint of rum in them.)

Nonetheless, by the time she leaves nearly three hours later, NesSmith has managed to draft a power of attorney to send to his nephew and gathered information to write up his will.

The length of the visit wasn’t surprising. She says her clients are often lonely and eager to talk to someone.

NesSmith is the sole full-time attorney for Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s Homebound Elderly Project, otherwise known as Project HELP. The program reaches out to homebound senior citizens in the District who can’t afford lawyers and advises them on wills, powers of attorney, and other legal matters.

LONG-TERM NEEDS

Project HELP, which began in April 2007, is an extension of Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s basic work. The group offers a range of legal services to seniors age 60 and over who have an income of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. It has 16 lawyers on staff, including NesSmith, and works with private practitioners doing pro bono.

Rawle Andrews, the group’s managing attorney, says that before Project HELP, it was not uncommon for the group to make house calls. But those efforts weren’t always very effective, says Andrews, because the rotating roster of pro bono lawyers had trouble forming lasting attorney-client relationships.

Adding NesSmith makes the approach more consistent, he says, though the program is still looking for lawyers willing to make a long-term pro bono commitment. So far, law firms have been slow to volunteer, though NesSmith says she thinks there’s interest and notes the program is still new.

Project HELP is funded by a D.C. Council grant of about $80,000, made through the D.C. Bar Foundation. So far, the program has handled more than 120 house visits for more than 100 clients. Andrews says the project receives leads on those who need services from the courts, hospitals and other health care providers, and churches.

Jan May, the executive officer of Legal Counsel for the Elderly, says he’s pleased with the program, but wants to make sure it is indeed serving the right people. “We’re still feeling our way as to what kind of outreach we are looking to do,” he says.

The group has been trying to hold informational meetings with other organizations that deal with the elderly and to reach out through hospitals and doctors, but sometimes the people referred are actually able to leave the house for appointments or have incomes that are too high. As May notes: “If we get referrals from medical offices about people who are able to come into the office, then we waste precious resources going to visit their homes.”

NesSmith says she hasn’t yet visited a client who could have come into the group’s office, though she says she shares May’s concern.

GRATEFUL AND CRANKY

For now, NesSmith, who left Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as an associate to join Project HELP this past April, makes all of the house visits and directs outreach. Without much help from pro bono lawyers, she relies heavily on Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s interns to serve as witnesses to legal documents and assist her on the visits.

That’s not to say that no one has volunteered. NesSmith has been joined by a Chadbourne & Parke associate and by Monica Gibson-Moore, a paralegal with Venable.

Gibson-Moore says the project “provides exactly what the city so desperately needs”—a need, she notes, she has also observed in visiting nursing homes through her church. She has notarized a will and a power of attorney for a Project HELP client.

Certainly, NesSmith’s clients are grateful for help with legal matters that have weighed on their minds.

Take Betsy Stanford, 104, who lives in a row house with a grandnephew in Northeast Washington. She ran the lost-and-found at the Madison Hotel before retiring more than 30 years ago. Now, she is bedridden and suffers from high blood pressure. She admits to being cranky.

“I don’t know why my children put up with me,” she says, referring to her five grandnieces and grandnephews.

Stanford says she needed her will updated but had mixed feelings about the pro bono attorneys who worked on it in the past. One wouldn’t do what she asked, she recalls, adding that it had something to do with her house.

“I want my lawyer to make my will the way I want it,” she insists. “It’s my property. I’ll do with it what I want to do with it.”

Like so many of NesSmith’s other clients, Stanford obviously enjoys speaking her mind. “I can talk and defend myself. I just can’t walk around anywhere I want to go,” she says.