A Waco, Texas, attorney long accustomed to taking on long-odds cases is betting that his latest cause — a new nonprofit legal services firm — has a good chance of success.
Kent McKeever said he knows from experience that low-income clients will be plentiful. Now, it’s just a matter of attracting donations and a few attorneys motivated by social justice rather than prestige.
“They’re not knocking down our door, but they are out there,” said McKeever, who launched Greater Waco Legal Services on Feb. 1.
The independent firm — of which McKeever is the only employee at the moment — spun off from Mission Waco Legal Services, which the Baptist minister and attorney started in 2012.
The new organization retains the same goal it had while being incubated at Mission Waco: to offer affordable and compassionate legal services to those living on the margins.
It was the experience at Mission Waco that convinced McKeever there are enough clients and need in the community to support a staffed law firm focused on serving low-income clients.
“During 2016, we served 200 clients and 60 percent of those were immigration clients.”
Other clients faced a mix of housing, landlord-tenant, property title and property tax issues, he said. Some faced criminal history and employment issues.
Many potential clients have been turned away over the years because McKeever could not handle the numbers. The new venture’s potential for growth will be able to take on those additional cases, he said.
The organization is in the fundraising mode, led by a board of directors made up of attorneys.
The idea also is to connect with ongoing social justice efforts like Prosper Waco, which brings together community stakeholders to address issues like health care, education and poverty.
“We want to connect with those broader efforts to make a difference in some of the entrenched, systemic issues our community faces,” McKeever said.
Greater Waco Legal Services seeks also to connect with something even larger: faith.
McKeever, who is a member and former youth minister at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Those educational choices fused passions for ministry and the law, he said, and were driven by a passion for biblical values and social justice.
McKeever’s interests have generated headlines in recent years when he wore an orange prison jumpsuit — to work, court and everywhere — during Lent. The act was to protest mass incarceration and mandatory sentencing systems.
The new legal services effort shares those motivations.
“I absolutely see this as my call to ministry,” he said. “It is me using the gifts I have been given, and the opportunity and privilege I have in our society, to meet the needs of my community and really serve and love my neighbor.”
McKeever said the demand for the service is already apparent. While he brought clients over from Mission Waco, he’s already seen an uptick in immigration cases that he suspects is related to recent decisions in Washington.
“The timing is pretty good on that. It has definitely ramped up in the last couple of months.”
And that gets back to the topic of staff.
The vision is for Greater Waco Legal Services to eventually feature a lineup of partners who specialize in different areas of the law. Those areas will match the greatest needs in the community, including immigration, housing and wills, estate issues and family law, among others.
McKeever said he knows a handful of lawyers who would come to work for him right now if he had the money to pay them. He also plans to draw on law students and younger attorneys.
And yes, he said, some lawyers he knows are willing to practice that kind of law instead of working in high-paying firms.
“Faith … infuses and energizes everything we do.”