OBA’s Robert M. Spire Service Award Goes to Public Advocate Jean McNeil 05/02/16 10:13:47 PM
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Jean McNeil has devoted her legal career to helping others achieve social justice. Her efforts have earned her the OBA Robert M. Spire Public Service Award.
OBA’s Robert M. Spire Service Award
Goes to Public Advocate Jean McNeil
By John Benson
The Daily Record
For Jean McNeil, serving the public has been a calling. From Scottsbluff to South Omaha, McNeil has helped Nebraskans gain access to justice for more than 20 years. In recognition of her dedication and hard work, McNeil will be honored with the Robert M. Spire Public Service Award, given annually on Law Day by the Omaha Bar Association to individuals and organizations that enhance the public’s understanding of the law.
McNeil, a South Omaha native, has been involved in public advocacy ever since she participated in a Civil Clinic at the University of Nebraska College of Law in the early ’90s.
After graduating, McNeil took a position with Western Nebraska Legal Services, which brought her time and talents to 56 counties in central and western Nebraska. In her role with the organization, McNeil dealt with a wide range of legal issues that affected small communities and poverty stricken areas. Whether it was working towards improving working conditions for clients, dealing with landlord-tenant issues, or helping establish a telephone access line, the central thrust behind McNeil’s work was providing those who are less fortunate with access to the courts and the tools necessary to effectively seek justice.
In recalling a saying borrowed from a fellow attorney, McNeil emphasized “keeping the doors to justice open, because but for the grace of God it could be me,” referring to those among us who may need a helping hand from lawyers and other professionals.
In 2001, McNeil took on a new challenge as the Nebraska State Bar Association’s legal services director. In her new role, McNeil ran the Volunteer Lawyers Project, utilizing a panel of over 1,000 volunteer attorneys to match clients and provide legal services in 400-500 cases annually. Seeing a need for additional legal services in the South Omaha area where she was born, in 2003 McNeil worked to establish and expand community clinics that helped Spanish speakers navigate the often-complicated legal landscape.
In 2004, McNeil teamed up with the Nebraska Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition to obtain a federal grant to provide legal services to victims of domestic violence in what came to be known as the Nebraska LAPTOP program. The program and its volunteer lawyers have handled over 150 cases a year for clients who did not qualify for services at Legal Aid of Nebraska and would likely not pursue their cases but for the program.
Another program in whose formation McNeil played an integral role is the Self Help Desk. The program began as a pilot program in Lancaster County in approximately 2005, and became a fixture in six of the larger counties in the state.
Volunteer attorneys at various county courthouses staff the program three days a week for four hours each day, providing walk-ins the opportunity to speak with a lawyer and be steered in the right direction. Legal situations that the Self Help Desk may tackle include domestic legal issues such as divorce, custody, visitation, or landlord-tenant disputes, or name changes. Volunteers can help determine if a lawyer is needed or if a client can handle it pro se.
Currently, there are Self Help Desks in Buffalo, Douglas, Hall, Lancaster, Madison and Scotts Bluff Counties. At its peak, the Self Help Desk was helping over 3,000 clients a year. As the coordinator, McNeil worked with volunteers and court personnel to staff the help desks and develop program policies and procedures.
The Douglas County Self Help Desk received the Omaha Bar Association’s Robert M. Spire Public Service Award in 2011. Retired Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Richard Sievers chaired the Court’s Pro Se Committee in 2011. In a story written about the Self Help Desk, he said, “Especially in today’s budget challenges, any member of the bar should be involved in things like the Help Desk. And Jean [McNeil] does an excellent job of managing this program.”
In 2015, McNeil got a taste of private practice when she joined friend and former VLP Committee Member Vanessa Gorgen in her family law practice. While she enjoyed the work, the stay would be short-lived as a new opportunity in the public sector again came calling in early 2016 – this time in the form of a position with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. As a hearing officer in the legal services division, McNeil now reviews DHHS decisions to ensure that the regulations promulgated by the department are followed, an essential role in the department’s mission of “helping people live better lives.”
“I just like working in the public sector,” McNeil said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about providing a service. It’s part of social justice and giving back.”
While McNeil has personally dedicated her professional life to helping others, she is quick to give credit to those who have helped make the many programs with which she has been involved a success. She credits the late former NSBA executive director Jane Schoenike with having the leadership and vision to make many of the volunteer programs successful during her time with the NSBA, as well as former VLP director Kathryn Bellman “who helped make the program an overwhelming success.”
McNeil also always wants all of the volunteer lawyers around the state to know that they are the ones that make everything possible. “Programs aren’t successful without the bar and their commitment,” she said. “There are a lot of great volunteers out there in the legal community.”
When she is not working, McNeil enjoys spending time with her 13-year-old daughter, Mazie, and has recently been spending a considerable amount of time cheering on the seventh-grader as she plays select softball.