Pro Bono Impact: Community partners

Jere Sellers, standing at center, speaks with summer associates about pro bono work in the Marlborough neighborhood

Stinson attorneys work for KC’s Marlborough neighborhood

The residents of the Marlborough neighborhood in southeast Kansas City, Missouri are passionate about their home. That passion fuels the work of the Marlborough Community Coalition (MCC), a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining and revitalizing the community. 

Jere Sellers, L’93, and Richard Cook, L’07, hope to “keep a very vibrant community going and actually expanding,” through their pro bono work for the MCC, Sellers said.

Sellers and Cook — who are partners in Stinson’s Kansas City, Missouri, office — lead the law firm’s 13-year pro bono partnership with the Marlborough neighborhood. They see their role as outside general counsel to MCC’s board of directors, providing legal support, advice and guidance on initiatives ranging from housing rehabilitation to economic development to improving access to services.

Stinson has donated over 6,000 hours in pro bono legal services to the project, at a value of over $2 million in free legal work. Sellers and Cook donate hundreds of hours to the project each year, supported by Stinson’s attorneys, paralegals and summer associates.

Revitalizing housing

Jere SellersSellers leads pro bono litigation of Abandoned Housing Act cases for the MCC. The Missouri statute allows not-for-profit groups to file a lawsuit, and with court approval and oversight clean up vacant properties, and ultimately receive an administrator’s deed to sell the houses. That litigation work is part of the MCC’s efforts to save and rehabilitate homes, Sellers said.

“A lot of the people who grew up in the area continue to live in the area, and feel strongly about keeping the diversity in Marlborough and trying to minimize gentrification. We’re trying to help them achieve all those things,” Sellers said.

Stinson partners with the MCC and Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO) as part of Legal Aid’s Adopt-A-Neighborhood Project. Building on the program’s success in the Marlborough neighborhood, LAWMO has expanded Adopt-A-Neighborhood to include seven urban core neighborhoods partnered with private law firms in Kansas City. Stinson’s offices in St. Louis and Minneapolis have started similar pro bono partnerships.

Economic development

In 2020, Cook led Stinson’s pro bono efforts to form an urban renewal area in Marlborough. The firm worked with the MCC, the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City and students from the UMKC School of Law to complete a blight study that was required to form the urban renewal area. Now, Marlborough residents who renovate their homes can have their property taxes frozen for 10 years.

Rich CookPro bono work for the MCC is an extension of the real estate and economic development work that Cook does in his day-to-day practice, he said.

“Through that work, you get to transform a community, revitalize a community, and make a positive impact on the built environment in a way that people can see. We’re trying to do some of those things in Marlborough,” Cook said.

An affiliated group, the Marlborough Community Land Trust (MCLT), recently formed to acquire and redevelop housing in the neighborhood. In 2021, Cook helped the MCLT close on the purchase of the decommissioned Marlborough Elementary School. The MCLT plans to redevelop the long-vacant school building to include housing and community services. 

A group visits the decommissioned Marlborough Elementary School
A group of Stinson attorneys and summer associates visits the decommissioned Marlborough Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Stinson.

“This is a prime economic development opportunity for this area,” Cook said. “It’s important to Marlborough that this former community asset get utilized in a way that’s beneficial to the whole community.”

Neighbors in Kansas City

Sellers and Cook — who live in a nearby community on the Kansas side of the state line — said Marlborough is their neighbor. They see helping the MCC with pro bono legal work as a duty that comes with being an attorney and a good neighbor.

“I think we’d all agree that the practice of law is a privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to help those that are less fortunate or otherwise don’t have the same access to the law,” Sellers said.

Through the long-term partnership, Cook said attorneys across the Stinson law firm — from litigators to transactional attorneys to new associates and even summer associates — can become invested in meaningful pro bono work. 

“A lot of people go to law school wanting to be Atticus Finch and save the world, and you don’t always get that opportunity,” Cook said.

“Through doing pro bono projects and doing a project like this, it gives you a chance to do some positive good in the community.”

This article appeared in print in the 2022 KU Law Magazine.

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