Lansing attorney Alecia M. Ruswinckel goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to pro bono legal work. That's why teaming up with Thomas M. Cooley's Service to Soldiers (STS) program made perfect sense.
The program pairs pro bono lawyers with military service members who need help but cannot afford it. Some cases are more complicated than others, including Ruswinckel's latest case involving a soldier who returned from overseas to a difficult divorce and custody action.
After looking at the facts and circumstances, Ruswinckel knew it was going to be a complicated. But with the full support of her employer, Anderson Stull & Associates in Lansing, she was able to take the case and give it as much attention as any paying client would get. In this case, it was more than 130 hours of her time, far more than the 30 hours per year expected under the State Bar of Michigan's Voluntary Pro Bono Standard.
Cooley's Service to Soldiers offers free legal assistance to Michigan military personnel who are deploying to, are serving in, or have recently returned from deployment and are experiencing civilian legal concerns. This program is offered state-wide to servicemembers of E5 rank or below and works cooperatively with other veteran and military assistance programs throughout Michigan. The program has allowed Cooley students, alumni, staff, and Michigan attorneys the opportunity to give back to those who have sacrificed so much for our country.
A Lawyer Helps
A State Bar of Michigan program that honors lawyers that make a difference for people and for society. They solve legal problems, provide free legal help to the poor, and give time to many other community efforts.
Ruswinckel said her client was a good father who wanted the best for his children, but who was also put at a significant disadvantage by being out of the country and away from his family.
"One of the most difficult aspects was attempting to discern what actually took place while the soldier was deployed," she said. "Generally, in custody disputes, one parent can testify as to the actions of the other parent, but with young children who could not testify, and the soldier being overseas during the previous year, we had to rely on other evidence."
To make matters more difficult, while the solider was deployed, certain financial transactions took place that required extensive investigation, Ruswinckel explained.
"When you are not at home to receive bank statements every month, see what is happening with your children, see what your spouse is doing with their free time, and generally experience life at home, it is difficult to know what evidence is required and how to investigate what might have happened," she said.
Despite all the obstacles, Ruswinckel's incredible donation of time and effort allowed the truth to come out, and allowed her client to get a positive result. "We were able to obtain full physical and legal custody and reach an appropriate property settlement," she explained.
Heather Spielmaker, director of Cooley's Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism, praised Ruswinckel's effort and dedication to pro bono work. "Alecia's diligence in working with the client, judge, and therapists really paid off," she said. "The returning service member now has the opportunity to make up for lost time with his children."
In addition to the substantive pro bono efforts Ruswinckel undertakes, she also believes such work is necessary for the betterment of the profession. As such, she engages law students in all of her cases, giving them valuable legal experience and developing important skills. "I believe that working with student assistants does improve the next generation of lawyers and also passes on the idea of pro bono and mentoring," she said. "If the student has a positive experience, they are more likely to do the same for pro bono clients and students when they become established."
The bottom line, Ruswinckel said, is that every lawyer should experience pro bono work, not just for the client, but for the good of the community at large and for their own professional development.
"It builds good will," she said, adding that, from a personal standpoint, it gives her a positive feeling about her education and the work she does.
"Overall good karma," she noted.
—Michelle Erskine and Lynn Ingram