July 20, 2019

Metro Volunteer Lawyers at 45: The Thursday Night Bar – A Journey Through the Past

Editor’s Note: Pro Bono Week is October 24-28, 2011. In anticipation, CBA-CLE Legal Connection will run weekly articles this month to highlight local pro bono efforts and opportunities. At the end of the month, the Denver Bar Association has put together several days of events and parties for Pro Bono week, to recognize and celebrate the commitment to pro bono client services. Click here for more information.

By Howard Rosenberg, Jon Nicholls, and Jerry Conover

1966—it was the year that the Office of Economic Opportunity and its Office of Legal Services were in bloom. Enter the Denver Bar Association with its Thursday Night Bar. What was it, and why was it so called? No, it was not a “bar” open on Thursday nights—it was an experiment designed or if one prefers, “dreamed up” by prominent members of Denver’s legal community who believed that lawyers were willing and able to provide pro bono volunteer legal services to the low-income community. The idea also was that volunteer lawyers could at least make a small dent in serving the legal needs of the poor in Denver, while the OEO Office of Legal Services was pondering whether to fund a legal services program for Denver.

The program that was designed by its founders assigned volunteer lawyers to a neighborhood office of the Denver Housing Authority, set up through the assistance of Dick Peterson (at that time a Denver minister), where on Thursday nights at 5 p.m. clients with legal problems would come in on a first-come, first-served basis. The volunteer lawyers would interview each client, give advice when feasible (if the lawyer was knowledgeable enough to give the advice), and make notes regarding the client’s problems. Files would then be  transferred to the DBA office for the Friday morning review.

Jerry Conover, left, and Howard Rosenberg, center, were founding volunteers of the Thursday Night Bar. Jon Nicholls was also a TNB volunteer. Rosenberg and Nicholls each served as executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver. Photo by Jamie Cotten.

On Friday mornings, the Thursday night volunteers would meet with a panel of volunteer lawyers, a staff attorney from the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver, and a bar association coordinating lawyer.  In the first year of operation, a lawyer from the neighborhood law center, a representative of DU Law-Denver Legal Aid combined model effort funded by OEO for one year, also was present. The Thursday night cases would be presented by the lawyers who interviewed clients the night before, and the Friday morning panel would discuss how to resolve the cases. Referrals would be made to the Legal Aid Society, to the DU Neighborhood Law Office and law school clinic, and to volunteer lawyers. When the Friday morning panel completed its review of the cases, the DBA coordinator would begin calling lawyers to assign cases. The assignment to the volunteer lawyer would be noted. The client would receive either a phone call or a letter advising the client that the case was assigned to a particular volunteer attorney. He or she would then be directed to contact the attorney.

The Thursday Night Bar program prospered and grew under the auspices of the DBA, continuing to mature into the current iteration—Metro Volunteer Lawyers. For many years the name and nostalgia for the Thursday Night Bar remained, even as the Thursday night client interviews were abandoned and clients were seen by appointment during the day at what eventually became the MVL offices and later became modern distant communication—telephones, cell phones, and computers.

A Glance at Metro Volunteer Lawyers
The mission of Metro Volunteer Lawyers is “to bridge the gap in access to justice by coordinating the provision of pro bono legal services by volunteer lawyers within the Denver metro area to people who could not otherwise afford legal services for their civil legal issues.”Volunteer attorneys founded the Thursday Night Bar in 1966; in that first year there were 20 volunteers. Today, TNB is MVL, and is a staffed department of the Denver Bar Association. MVL serves indigent clients in Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Elbert, Gilpin, and Jefferson counties through its Family Law Court Program, post-decree clinics, and direct representation by volunteer attorneys. As of Sept. 1, MVL has accepted 1,061 cases, 303 attorneys have taken cases, and 105 attorneys have been added to its panel.

In the past year, MVL’s successes include $94,000 raised at the sold-out Barristers Benefit Ball, which benefits MVL; a redesigned website; and participation in Colorado Gives Day, which benefits nonprofits. However, as more families face poverty and funding for legal aid continues to be cut, MVL needs support more than ever. For more information or to volunteer, visit metrovolunteerlawyers.org.

Indeed, at some point, members of the Denver Bar Legal Services Committee, which oversaw the TNB, believed the program should have a new, more relevant and creative name. The DBA Legal Aid Committee struggled with various new names for the TNB without success. A creative member of the committee then suggested that it conduct a contest to pick the best new name for the Thursday Night Bar program.  Entries were solicited from far flung places and sources, including the Colorado State Prison (and indeed several entries were received from that institution; residents of the prison were offered a certain number of hours of free legal advice if they won the contest).

Ballots poured in with all kinds of names suggested by folks from all over the country.  The winning name unanimously chosen by the judges was, yes, “The Thursday Night Bar,” submitted by none other than Jerry Conover!  The second, or runner-up, prize was submitted by a resident of the Colorado prison network and because Conover did not want (or hopefully need) free legal advice, the prison resident was provided free legal advice.

Later, however, the creative juices of the Legal Services Committee members regenerated and the committee came through with the new name, Metro Volunteer Lawyers.

A few of us had a hard time remembering the new name and kept reverting to TNB! For a while, Legal Services Committee meetings were held on Thursday in honor of the TNB.  The new name made sense, as MVL now encompasses the bar associations of metropolitan Denver.

The evolution of the TNB into MVL was not only a new designation, but a greatly expanded volunteer program  that would largely be financed through the annual Barristers Benefit Ball.  The proceeds from the ball enabled the DBA to partner with other contributing local bar associations, including those in Arapahoe, Jefferson, and Adams counties, and to fund a full-time lawyer volunteer program, staffed with a director, legal services coordinators, and a legal assistant.

Unfortunately, many of the original founders of the Thursday Night Bar are deceased, but most of these founders did live to see how their idea has become perhaps the longest continuous running lawyer volunteer program that continues to be a valuable and essential supplement to providing legal services to low-income and underserved persons. Yes, the TNB name has changed, but the idea hatched by those forward-thinking Denver lawyers in 1966 has persisted and continues to be a landmark for the bar associations in metropolitan Denver. It continues to be a necessary benefit for the many low-income clients served by the old TNB and its successor, MVL.

Howard Rosenberg is a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a past president of the Denver Bar Association. Jon Nicholls is a partner at Nicholls & Associates. Jerry Conover is of counsel at Moye White and a past president of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.

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