Nebraska Law Professor ‘Humbled’ by Spire Award


University of Nebraska College of Law professor Ryan Sullivan accepts the Robert M. Spire Pro Bono Award during the 2021 Barristers’ Ball at the La Vista Conference Center, Aug. 7, 2021. (NSBA)
By 
David Golbitz
The Daily Record

The Nebraska State Bar Association presented its Robert M. Spire Pro Bono Award to University of Nebraska College of Law Professor Ryan Sullivan for his tireless dedication to providing legal assistance to renters who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When he found out that he was being awarded the Spire Award Sullivan said he felt “immensely humbled.”

“There’s a lot of fantastic attorneys in Nebraska doing amazing work and to be categorized among them, and to receive that award this year, this early in my career, particularly, I was honored,” Sullivan told The Daily Record.

Sullivan, who had been working on a Tenant Assistance Program for a couple of years prior to the onset of COVID-19, knew that renters rarely had legal counsel when faced with eviction. During their hearings, landlords almost always had legal representation.

“I had been supervising the Tenants’ Rights Project at the College of Law for a couple years and as part of that we were monitoring the laws in this area and also monitoring how things were being applied in the courtroom,” Sullivan said. “We recognized that in almost every case, the landlord had representation and the tenant did not have representation, and it was not a very balanced approach.”

These unequal deliberations led to a nearly 100% eviction rate in favor of landlords.

“The court was almost never provided with all of the facts and law in order to make a fair decision,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan was quick to point out he wasn’t accusing landlords or their attorneys of doing anything nefarious, “but it’s an adversarial process and for an adversarial process to work, you have to have adversaries, and so anytime you have representation only on one side, the outcome is almost never in line with the law.”

Sullivan was ready to launch the TAP in early spring 2020 when COVID-19 took the world by storm, closing offices and removing teachers and students from classrooms. While he was busy preparing his curriculum for online classes, he realized that this was both the worst and best time to start the TAP.

“It was untimely and at the same time timely,” he said. “We weren’t able to launch (the program) because we had to switch our education program to online, but at the same time we were that prepared to launch it, so I just decided to just go down (to the courthouse) myself and do a lot of the things that we were planning to do if we were ever to launch the program.”

At the courthouse, Sullivan quickly understood the immensity of the situation the Tenant Assistance Program was facing.

“I would say at the beginning it was chaos,” Sullivan said. “Because even though we had kind of an idea of a system in place, we were dealing with a court and a landlord bar who had never encountered legal representation for tenants. And so, they had a system in place where they could knock out 20 evictions in 15 minutes and this ‘bringing-a-representation’ component really threw a wrench into that.”

The courthouse was so hectic that oftentimes Sullivan didn’t even know the names of the people he was representing until his clients were asked to state their names for the record.

“That’s when I learned their name,” Sullivan said. “That’s how fast things were going.”

Sullivan soon had help as Mindy Rush Chipman — director of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights and herself a recipient of the 2021 Visionary Award for her work with the TAP — started helping at eviction hearings.

From there, Sullivan contacted the Nebraska State Bar Association and the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and “it just started to snowball from there.”

The TAP soon had a sizable network of lawyers, law students and community members who all volunteered their time and energy to help the hundreds of families facing eviction during the pandemic.

“It’s now one of the more coveted volunteer opportunities for attorneys because it’s such an interesting opportunity, but it’s also very rewarding,” Sullivan said. “Attorneys get to apply, young attorneys particularly, get to apply what they learned in law school and help a family out with just sometimes 20 minutes of their time.”

To assist the volunteer attorneys who are new to this area of law, Sullivan developed a handbook to guide them.

“If they want to read it cover to cover, they can pretty much become a mild expert in that area by the time they’re done, even if they’ve never practiced, even if they’ve never been in a courtroom,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the program is an amazing opportunity for young attorneys.

“They’re gonna get client interaction all the time,” Sullivan said. “They’re gonna get hearings all the time. They’re gonna get trials on occasion, stuff you’d never get as a young attorney in your firm.”

Through July 2021, the TAP has represented 527 tenants who were facing eviction due to the pandemic. The TAP has a 98% success rate in keeping people in their homes, according to Sullivan.

Attorneys who are interested in volunteering for the TAP can sign up for a specific day and time. In Douglas County, sign up at bit.ly/3jifJdI. In Lancaster County, sign up at bit.ly/3yhkqc5.

For more information about volunteer opportunities, attorneys can also contact Volunteer Lawyers Project Director Laurel Heer Dale at lheerdale@nevlp.org.

The award was presented earlier this month at the 2021 Barristers’ Ball in La Vista.

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