Michael Brown – Adopt-A-Neighborhood
Q. Can you tell me about the neighborhood legal project you’re involved in and what it does?
A. It’s called Adopt-A-Neighborhood, and it’s a collaboration among Legal Aid of Western Missouri, private firms like Kutak Rock, and a bunch of neighborhood associations and communities on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri. These are generally neighborhoods that are in the early stages of revitalization and don’t have access to legal services. They may not have transportation available on a regular basis. Many of the neighborhoods have out-of-state property owners—landlords.
Legal Aid approached us and asked if Kutak Rock would like to adopt a neighborhood. They came to us with a short list of neighborhoods they identified and recommended that we consider adopting. One had a lot of personal ties. My grandmother grew up just a few blocks away, my mother is buried just across the street from the boundary of the neighborhood, and another partner who’s no longer with the firm has grandparents who still live in the neighborhood. So it made a lot of sense both geographically and personally to choose Neighbors United for Action—NUFA.
It’s personal satisfaction. It’s rewarding. You have clients who are in need and literally have no place to go. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer. They don’t know what to do on their own, so it gives us an opportunity to provide legal services to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Q. What were your first steps?
A. We adopted NUFA, attended their board meetings and got to know the community’s leaders. We started off with a beneficiary deed program. If residents owned their home and didn’t have any other estate plan, we would draft a beneficiary deed for them so if they passed away, the house would pass out of probate to a child or other family member.
Q. And now?
A. Now we’re focused primarily on Abandoned Housing Act cases where out-of-town landlords aren’t maintaining property and there are a lot of code violations and deterioration. We go through the legal proceedings with the courts to get a court-approved developer on board to rehabilitate the property. If they do so according to a plan that is submitted and approved by the court up front, they get the title to the property for a nominal payment after renovations are complete. The developer then resells the property and we put an owner-occupant into the neighborhood, which tends to help revitalize the community.
Q. Is the program catching on?
A. Yes, there are about a half-dozen firms participating and I think Kutak Rock was the second. It’s expanding.
Q. How many attorneys in the Kansas City office participate?
A. I have a solid group of about eight. We’ve had more. Jay Selanders took one on before he became chair of the firm.
Q. And how many projects have you overseen? What do you mainly do with the program?
A. I attend most of the Legal Aid functions. I sort of oversee the program. I’ve handled several cases, but now I tend to get others involved in the day-to-day legal work. I supervise and manage the program for the firm, sort of as the pro bono coordinator.
Q. Do you work with any other pro bono clients?
A. Kansas City does work with the Metropolitan Bar Association and they have a Military Matters program that caters to veterans. Right now I’m focusing on NUFA, but I’ve done some work for Military Matters.
Q. What’s the benefit to the average attorney of getting involved in pro bono work?
A. It’s personal satisfaction. It’s rewarding. You have clients who are in need and literally have no place to go. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer. They don’t know what to do on their own, so it gives us an opportunity to provide legal services to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Q. What’s your biggest pro bono success?
A. There was a period of about a year and a half that we partnered with Nazarene Theological Seminary whose campus is just outside the boundaries of our neighborhood. They had a student housing problem, namely, they didn’t have enough housing available for their student population. So they became the developer on close to half a dozen Abandoned Housing Act cases, and when they rehabilitated them, they kept them and used them for student housing.
I was also recently interviewed by a University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Business professor and student who’re conducting a study that will showcase how successful Adopt-A-Neighborhood has been. There are efforts to replicate it across the country. One attorney moved from Kansas City to St. Louis and he’s trying to get a similar program started in that city.
Q. Has there been any certain moment that was really satisfying for you?
A. There’s not one in particular, but the lawyers we deal with who work for Legal Aid show such appreciation, such genuine gratitude that our firm is involved. Some of the biggest firms in Kansas City are involved in the program and there’s no end to their appreciation. They don’t have a lot they can offer a firm like Kutak Rock except sincere gratitude. We’re building good relationships and good communities.