How Priscilla Cortez and VLS Are Shrinking the Justice Gap

Priscilla Cortez of VLS

Citizenry isn’t always free.

In civil matters—divorces, consumer fraud, child support, foreclosures, etc. — your legal recourse usually extends only as far as your checkbook. And for Central Texans who live below the poverty line, seeking justice in a civil court is as cost-prohibitive as it is daunting.

But Priscilla Cortez hopes to change that.

A few months ago, Cortez took the helm as Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas (VLS)—a nonprofit agency founded in 1981 on the premise that financial cost shouldn’t prevent low-income people from seeking justice.

In the 36 years since it was established, VLS and its network of volunteer attorneys have helped tens of thousands of the most in-need individuals across Central Texas. And in 2015 alone, VLS volunteers donated 18,700 hours of pro bono expertise—enough hours to fly around the world 400 times. Most of the hours come from attorneys, but VLS also recruits the services of judges, paralegals, and clerks.

“Our services are more important than ever,” explains Cortez. “The ‘justice gap’ is already wide, and it’s only going to get wider.”

The cornerstones of VLS are its legal clinics—held at night twice a week and open to the public—at which VLS helps match clients with volunteer attorneys who can help them see their case through to conclusion. VLS casts a wide net, offering legal advice, filing assistance, and even court appearances (when necessary) on a range of civil matters—including all areas of family law, property disputes, and consumer fraud. (VLS doesn’t take immigration, criminal, and pending probate cases.)

“This an uncertain time for our work,” says Cortez. “There may be significant cuts to social services in the future. VLS is paying close attention to any shifts in public policy and funding—at federal and state levels—that would dramatically impact the low-income individuals we serve.”

Although VLS is a registered 501(c)(3) and receives no federal funding, as the overflow resource for the federally-funded Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, VLS will directly feel the sting of any cuts to social services coming out of D.C. There could be hundreds, maybe thousands, of new people who have to turn to VLS for help. “At our Legal Clinics each week, there’s always a line out the door,” Cortez points out.

But uncertainty can breed innovation. And if VLS will have more people to serve, they’ll get creative.

“Consider our ‘Attorney-on-Call’ program,” Cortez offers, proof of VLS’ nonstop search for workable solutions. “We have volunteers who agree to donate an hour or two during their workday to take calls from VLS clients and answer any and all questions they have. It is a simple but powerful way for our volunteers to offer their expertise and serve people who need it most.”

As Central Texas booms, so too do the challenges that Cortez and VLS face.

“Geography can also be a barrier for our clients,” continues Cortez. “As our community has grown, so have property values, which pushes low-income and minority communities outward—to Hays county, to Bastrop county. Getting to them is a challenge.”

To tackle that challenge, Cortez and VLS have been forging relationships with lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals across all of Central Texas, often through the local Bar Association. In fact, VLS now offers Legal Clinics in both Hays and Bastrop counties. (View the schedule here.)

The impact of VLS extends beyond its clients. For the lawyers and judges who offer their time, the work can be transformative.

“In Travis County, we enjoy a strong pro bono culture,” Cortez explains. “Our attorneys see it as a benefit to the community—and to themselves as a professional. They gain experience in areas of law they may not practice in. So we offer our volunteers as much training as we can, often pairing less experienced attorneys with seasoned leaders in the legal field. And it gives our attorneys the chance to see how their efforts immediately impact the lives of individuals and families.”

Cortez, who comes to VLS after directing fundraising efforts at UT-Austin, knows that relationships will be critical to the future of VLS. Despite its 35-year presence in Central Texas, VLS still has new opportunities to expand its network. That’s why Cortez has the habit of repeatedly mentioning the other nonprofits, social service agencies, and community leaders who are trying to help low-income and minority communities.

“When we work with a client, we try to take in the whole person—and direct them to other resources they may need outside of their current legal matter,” Cortez points out. “Our clients are hard-working, productive citizens who are faced with pressing challenges such as ending an abusive relationship, keeping their home, and stopping predatory debt collectors. I want them to know we’re here for them. We’ve got their backs.”

How can you help?

“Anyone with legal credentials is welcome to help us serve,” Cortez says.

Didn’t go to law school? That’s OK!

VLS is a nonprofit organization, which means it needs your financial donations to help ensure it can connect with the communities that need its help across the entire Central Texas region.

Finally, VLS also needs multilingual volunteers to attend their Legal Clinics and offer translation services between volunteer attorneys and the public—especially anyone who speaks Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

Learn more: Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas

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