It’s often the case that business attorneys shy away from justice-related pro bono work that requires appearing in court. Yet tax attorney Gwen Griffith has learned that stepping out of her lane returns value beyond measure.
In 2009, Youth, Rights & Justice (YRJ), a nonprofit law firm dedicated to children and families, asked Gwen to help an indigent client apply to the juvenile court for removal from Oregon’s sex-offender registry for a past juvenile offense. The judge granted her client relief from registration, which opened the door to so many opportunities for the deserving young man and brought closure for his family. Gwen and former Tonkon Torp lawyer Vicki Ballou were inspired to continue the work with additional clients. Gwen and Vicki soon recognized that with approximately 3,000 juvenile offenders who are eligible for relief from registration, they needed more lawyers to help with the work. A number of Tonkon Torp lawyers stepped up to take on cases and soon lawyers from the broader community joined in the effort. Today, the CLiF Project provides pro bono legal services to deserving individuals who were placed on Oregon’s sex offender registry for juvenile offenses but who can’t afford a lawyer to help them navigate the complex process. Removal from the registry takes roughly seven months and, when successful, brings clients access to housing, jobs, military service, and so much more.
“YRJ has deep expertise in juvenile law issues, but its client bandwidth is fully taken up helping its current clients. We rely on YRJ’s brain, and we bring the brawn of volunteer lawyers to help deserving candidates throughout the State,” explained Gwen. “When a client is granted relief, it makes a difference to them overnight, giving them the opportunity to fully live a normal life without the scarlet letter of sex offender registration”
The CLiF Project is a model for expanding capacity to provide pro bono services. The Project provides education, forms, and advice to any lawyer who takes a CLiF client. Tonkon Torp attorney Jon Stride has helped many CLiF clients and provides advice to CLiF volunteer lawyers on litigation techniques and strategy. This addresses the persistent challenge with pro bono work: attorneys often have to start from scratch if they want to pursue projects outside of their primary practice. Volunteer attorneys with the CLiF Project have access to forms, research, sample briefs, training, and networking with attorneys who have completed a CLiF case. Gwen hopes that the CLiF Project framework can be used for other areas of justice-related pro bono work. “This is a transferable model for building a cohort of lawyers who can leverage a narrow but vital category of expertise, and I’m always happy to share it. If a tax lawyer like me can do this, anyone can!”
Associate attorney Sadie Concepción confirms that having a resource-heavy model is very helpful for a new lawyer. Within a month of starting at Tonkon Torp, she had reached out to Gwen and was working on her first CLiF case. “For attorneys who are new to simply practicing law, let alone this area of law, it’s critical to have support from experienced attorneys, like Gwen and Jon, who can provide instruction and oversight to make sure you’re on track. Moreover, the partnership with YRJ provides volunteer attorneys with valuable insights into juvenile law, an area of practice that many of us are comparatively less immersed in—this increases our success and ability to advocate for clients. “
Since its inception The CLiF Project has worked with dozens of lawyers at Tonkon Torp and throughout the Portland legal community to secure a 47-0 record of wins. Most volunteer lawyers find their work on these cases to be uniquely rewarding. Feedback from CLiF clients affirms the impact that the program has had on their lives. One client shared:
As a father, a husband, and an active business partner in my community, the fear of my past no longer resides in the back of my mind. The CLiF Project's dedication allows those of us who made mistakes as children to remove the finality of those decisions and gives us hope for the future. I feel I was completely reborn this past year with the label of ’sex offender’ removed from my name. Words can’t express the gratitude I feel towards the CLiF Project.
The CLiF Project and YRJ have partnered to bring systemic change to the law affecting juveniles who commit sex offenses. The Oregon registry was originally designed to be a risk management tool, yet social science research clearly shows that juvenile offenders are at an extremely low risk of reoffending. YRJ and The CLiF Project have persuaded legislators to support change in the law based on this research and a more compassionate approach to offending juveniles. Today, juveniles are entitled to a hearing (with court-appointed counsel) at the end of their supervision period to determine if they must register. However, this new law did not change the lifetime registration status for juveniles adjudicated prior to its implementation. CLiF will continue to work to obtain relief for these individuals as well as those placed on the registry at the end of supervision.
The CLiF Project is not the first time that Tonkon Torp has partnered with YRJ. The firm’s ties to YRJ date back to the early 1990s, when the nonprofit firm engaged Tonkon Torp attorneys Don Marmaduke and Jon Stride to help sue the State of Oregon in a challenge to the State’s juvenile foster system. The case led to a settlement in which the State agreed to begin reforming the foster care system and increase the rights and care for juveniles within it. The need for this kind of reform continues as evidenced by recent challenges to the Oregon foster care system in the courts.
Jon Stride sees the relationship with YRJ as a good example of how the pursuit of justice can be applied systemically or individually. “We can use our resources broadly to support YRJ’s efforts to promote change for an entire system, and at the same time, help people pursue their individual rights.”