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Legal Aid of Nebraska

Amy Van Horne - Legal Aid of Nebraska 

Q. Can you tell me about Legal Aid of Nebraska? How did you get involved?

A. Initially, I was part of Legal Aid’s fundraising group. The late David Jacobson (Jake), former Chair of Kutak Rock, asked me to join, and obviously when Jake asks you to do something, you do it! After a couple years, I was asked to join the board after someone stepped down. Then I was elected to my first three-year term. That term expired and I’m now on my second full three-year term. I’m head of the planning and priorities committee and helped them draft their strategic plan. I’ve also been on the search committee, and chaired the search committee that found the current executive director. I’m also on the executive committee. I keep getting appointed to committees and positions, I think, because of the Kutak Rock connection more than anything else—although I’m slightly outspoken, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone. It was explained to me by Jake that Legal Aid is Bob Kutak and Harold Rock’s legacy, and it’s important for somebody from Kutak Rock to be involved because we need to shepherd Bob and Harold’s legacy into the future.

Q. Can you expand on how Bob and Harold’s legacies are being carried forward?

For the past few years, I have been privileged to assist with the selection of the recipients of the Kutak-Dodds Prize, jointly sponsored by the Robert J. Kutak Foundation and NLADA and bestowed in memory of Robert J. Kutak and Kenneth R. Dodds. Both men were partners in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Kutak Rock and practitioners and advocates of public service, legal education, and high ethical standards throughout their lives. In addition to legal services for the poor, the Kutak Foundation supports education in professional ethics, minority scholarships, and a variety of other public interest projects. The Kutak-Dodds prizes include two awards of $10,000 each, and the nominees for the prizes come in from across the county. One award goes to a civil legal services attorney—it can be a legal aid attorney or a civil attorney in a more specialized practice, such as services directed at children, for example. The other award goes to a public defender. Submissions come in to the national committee and I get to read these amazing submissions.

Bob and Harold were both involved in Legal Aid of Nebraska. When Harold passed away in 2018, one of his designated memorials was Legal Aid of Nebraska. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. Bob served on the board from 1975 to 1982. LSC promotes equal access to justice by providing funding to non-profit legal aid programs across the United States, including here in Nebraska. Nebraska originally had several groups doing this kind of work across the state, and they combined to form Legal Aid of Nebraska, which is a statewide provider of legal services for the poor. They have some different funding buckets, through grants, funding from the LSC and also from private donations.

There’s one program that’s not dependent on income at all, which is in the area of elder law. Anybody in Nebraska can call the elder access hotline and get help for things relating to legal problems for elderly people. They can help draft a power of attorney for healthcare, for example. There’s a separate program for farm and ranch issues. There’s one for medical issues, so if you go into the hospital and all of a sudden you’re faced with either unexpected medical expenses or related things like getting ill and then getting fired, the medical-legal partnership then jumps in and helps with that. Part of being on the board is figuring out how to take not-enough-money and fund all these wonderful things going on.

Q. Besides all your community service, what pro bono activities have you been involved in?

A. Several of us at Kutak Rock do work for the Volunteer Lawyers Project’s self-help desk. We also take pro bono cases through that program. I’ve also done pro bono mediations in the past, and will presumably do them in the future. Sometimes attorneys are involved around the edges of things. For instance, I’ve handled cases where an attorney is doing paperwork for a business dissolution, but can’t represent either side. The attorney was hired to do the paperwork, and then a dispute arose between the two parties as to what should happen. I’ve mediated those kinds of cases pro bono. I’ve done financial mediations for divorcing parties, family parenting plans, etc.

Q. What’s been most satisfying?

A. The case that sticks in my mind was one that came in through the Volunteer Lawyers Project self-help desk. Lawyers staff a “come-in-and-ask-questions” clinic, so you’re not representing the parties necessarily—in fact, you can’t—but you’re helping them navigate the system. A woman was seeking help finding the proper forms for a divorce, and she happened to mention that she was afraid to go to the courthouse to file the paperwork because there was a protection order with her spouse, but it was in a different state. She said he’d threatened to harm or kill her if she filed the paperwork. They had a hearing coming up on an unrelated matter, and she was afraid if she showed up at the hearing, he would hurt her before they even got into the courtroom.

Because I knew the judge and his bailiff, I called the bailiff and gave him a heads up. He suggested I call the Victims’ Advocacy Group of Douglas County, and the woman and I did that together right then. We also called the sheriff’s department, and as a result of all that we were able to get a victim advocate to meet her at a nearby location, along with the sheriff’s deputies. Instead of this women walking into the courthouse alone and potentially being accosted by her significant other, she walked into her hearing with an advocate and police presence. The person who was planning to assault her before she even walked in the doors was not able to do that.

I came to the help desk expecting to help people locate forms, which is what the self-help desk is for, and ended up helping somebody from being assaulted. That was definitely outside my normal work day as a lawyer!

Q. Wow, were you there when the woman walked into the courthouse?

A. No, and as a self-help volunteer I wasn’t able to follow up with her, but the woman did call the Volunteer Lawyers Project coordinator to thank us and let us know she was able to walk into her hearing, but her spouse at the time was waiting for her outside the courthouse and walked in behind her. I don’t know how much he could have done at the courthouse door like that, but she was justified in her fear.

Q. Sounds like you really made a difference in her life. Any other high-impact projects you’re involved in?

A. Some of us, especially many associates, have been trained by Legal Aid of Nebraska to be Disaster Services First Responders. If there’s a natural disaster, an email will go out to the volunteers on the list, and legal assistance will be provided to individuals impacted by the disaster, including directing them to available resources or helping them determine where to go to get a new Social Security card or driver’s license, for instance. Legal Aid of Iowa has a similar program that I was a part of that helped people after the flooding there a few years ago.