Sue Pontinen, the Executive Director at Volunteer Lawyers Network, has taken on a variety of challenges over her almost 18 years with the organization. They’ve involved things from assisting desperate clients to making tough decisions in order to ensure VLN remains in strong financial health for the future.
Pontinen became VLN’s family law resource attorney in 2000. “The idea of being able to do that for a living and provide a service to people and be paid for it was kind of my dream job. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Some eye-opening experiences led her to a greater appreciation for legal services work. “The first time I went to the Family Law Clinic over at the Family Justice Center, all three clients that came in stymied me. There were fact situations that I had never heard of before and weren't presented by my paying clients. It was a humbling experience,” she said.
Pontinen also realized that it wasn’t just the work that was different, but the nature of the attorney-client relationship as well. On one occasion, a mother called from a payphone with her kids in tow, and she was in the midst of fleeing an abusive relationship.
“I made what I intended to be a comforting comment and I said, ‘I know that must be so hard.’ I'll never forget this, she said to me, ‘You don't know. You have no idea. You have no idea how hard this is for me.’ I was taken aback because at first, I thought I was providing comfort, but she was offended,” said Pontinen. “It was a real learning experience for me because she was so right. I had no idea and never could or would. And that's a common experience for many of our clients.”
That experience helped her realize that while the work was difficult, it was also extremely important. “I'm very admiring of the practitioners that take it upon themselves to really become experts in poverty law,” she said.
Pontinen became VLN’s deputy director in 2003, and the executive director in 2008. While she enjoyed the work, the organization was in “financial dire straits” “The challenges we were facing were so serious at the time,” she said.
Focusing on the organization’s financial health became a priority for Pontinen and the VLN leadership. After making some sacrifices and securing new funding, the organization is in excellent financial shape. “We were able to turn things around to the point today where we are very healthy financially,” she said.
Over her career at VLN, Pontinen noted that she was very lucky to work with such a dedicated staff. “I just feel so fortunate that I have been able to work at this wonderful organization for 18 years and have the satisfaction of serving the community. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I'm probably most grateful for that. But then also to work with a staff that does its job, not for the pay, but because they are really committed to helping others in the community less fortunate than themselves and our volunteers that give of themselves so selflessly,” she said.
She also wanted to thank the numerous volunteers who have donated time and services to help clients. “It's a privilege to meet and work with people like that,” she said.
As she moves into retirement mode in early 2018, she thinks VLN will continue to get better. “I see VLN getting better and continuing to be an innovative and groundbreaking organization. I think that what will be key to its growth is its community partnerships and serving our clients in their neighborhoods,” she said.