Ensuring Equal Access Driver Behind 33-year Board Tenure

This article was written by Megan Moslander, Chief of Development and External Relations. 

Legal Aid of Nebraska recently recognized outgoing board member and Beatrice attorney Michael (Mike) Willet by renaming the Lincoln Legal Aid Office Client Services Center, the Michael Willet Client Services Center.  

“Being a board member gave me a much better understanding of the need for legal services by people across Nebraska,” stated Willet.  

“Being a board member gave me a much better understanding of the need for legal services by people across Nebraska,”   

Willet began his service in 1988 on the Legal Services of Southeast Nebraska board, which eventually consolidated with Western Nebraska Legal Services and The Legal Aid Society of Omaha to become Legal Aid of Nebraska, which has served low-income Nebraskans for nearly 60 years.

“Legal Aid’s board is made up of volunteers, and folks may not understand the time commitment involved. Mike gave hundreds of hours or more over the course of 33 years to ensure that we always kept our mission of “dignity, hope, self-sufficiency, and justice through quality civil legal aid for those who have nowhere else to turn” at the forefront of our work. Dedicating this space was a way to honor his longtime commitment to Legal Aid,” stated Jennifer Gaughan Chief of Legal Strategy and Interim Executive Director.

Throughout his tenure, Willet helped to shepherd the merger and oversee the organization’s financial growth.

“For 33 years, I helped establish the priorities for the work Legal Aid would provide. Unfortunately, we have never had the resources to provide services to all areas we felt were priorities. It is ironic but true that every time the economy hits tough times, the need for Legal Aid increases dramatically. It is also typically much more difficult for the organization to raise money. In the best of times, Legal Aid needs financial support to help it provide equal access to justice to our eligible clients. In the rough spots, the clients we serve, and we need your help even more.”

Acknowledging the immense need for not just free civil legal services but also assistance in navigating the often complex and overwhelming justice and public benefits system was a priority of Willet’s during his board service.

“I think folks don’t realize that there are far more Nebraskans who need access to equal justice than most people can imagine.”

“I think folks don’t realize that there are far more Nebraskans who need access to equal justice than most people can imagine.” Currently, Legal Aid of Nebraska is receiving 1,400 requests for assistance a month and serves an average of 10,000 low-income individuals a year.

Navigating the changing world’s legal needs was also a critical task of board members throughout the years. Willet mentioned the use of technology and the increase in the diversity of the client population as two areas that stood out during this his time as a board member.

“Technology has enabled or perhaps forced the organization to find a way to give access to the legal services and support we have to offer to many more clients. However, it was important to me that we kept a keen eye on the fact that not everyone has access to or an understanding of computers, smartphones, and the internet. I also am constantly amazed at the number of language interpreters we now need so we can provide essential legal services to various communities that now live in Nebraska.”

Despite his steadfast leadership in ensuring equal justice, Willet was always the first to come back to thank the staff that has been part of the organization throughout its nearly 60-year history. His hope for the future remains the same as it began.

“There is no doubt that my greatest hope for the future of Legal Aid is that we can continue to find the quality and kind of people that have chosen to make their careers in helping give people who cannot otherwise afford access to legal services help when they need it. One constant over 33 years has been that the attorneys, management, and support staff of Legal Aid are among the most dedicated and caring people you will ever find. The organization would not be where it is today without those who have been and are doing the work. They are truly the “boots on the ground” of providing legal services and access to equal justice to our clients.”

 

 

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