Legal aid’s free service in danger
July 28, 2009
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Foreclosure woes? Help is available
The Birmingham News
July 31, 2009
The Alabama State Bar has set up a mortgage foreclosure assistance program to help Alabamians who are facing mortgage payments they can no longer afford.
The program provides free help from a lawyer through Legal Services of Alabama and other forms of assistance. Some services are open to anyone, while others are designed to help low-income homeowners.
The program has set up a toll-free foreclosure hot line at 1-877-393-2333. Homeowners are asked to have the following information when calling: all loan documents, payment records including canceled checks or bank statements, and correspondence with the lender.
The program is sponsored by a grant from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and the Alabama Access to Justice Commission.
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Black professionals, legends honored
By Susan Strickland, The Birmingham News
Friday, July 24, 2009
The Sheena Diane Ayers Humanitarian Award will be presented to Thomas J. Methvin, president of the Alabama State Bar and managing shareholder Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, sponsor of the benefit. Thomas is being honored for his longtime work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
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City to be first in Alabama to proclaim Pro Bono Week
By David Snow, Demopolis Times
July 24, 2009
DEMOPOLIS — On June 25, Gov. Bob Riley signed a proclamation naming the week of Oct. 25-31 as Pro Bono Week for the state of Alabama.
“Pro bono” is Latin for “for the good,” describing legal work done for free or at a lower cost.
On Monday, the City of Demopolis is expected to become the first municipality to issue a similar proclamation at its city council meeting at noon at Rooster Hall. Northport attorney and Demopolis native Alyce Manley Spruell will be on hand for the occasion. Spruell was elected as president-elect of the Alabama Bar Association last month.
“Pro Bono Week is sponsored by the American Bar Association, and our state bar association is emphasizing it,” Spruell said. “Regretfully, we are the state that gives the least to funding to pro bono legal representation. We are actually behind Puerto Rico, so we are trying to emphasize that not only that our membership do more in its volunteering, but also the state citizenry understand and support the need for this.
“I know — living in west Alabama, and I am so proud to be from Marengo County — that there is such a need for it. There are so many people who don’t have access to lawyers or can’t afford a lawyer. Our young lawyers division and leadership project with the state will hopefully run a free legal clinic in Demopolis in November as part of that Pro Bono Week celebration.”
“This is an opportunity to be a part of a worthy program,” said Demopolis mayor Mike Grayson. “Alyce brought it to our attention, and if she thinks that this is something that would be good, then I’m all for it. The fact that citizens can benefit — what could go wrong?”
According to Gov. Riley’s proclamation, more than 940,000 Alabamians live in poverty and one-fourth of those people experience legal problems. There are only 55 legal aid lawyers in Alabama for the more than 422,000 low-income households in the state.
Pro Bono Week will feature legal aid clinics and assistance for Alabamians who need legal assistance but cannot afford it. It will also feature service projects throughout the state that help lawyers and law students make volunteer connections with legal aid organizations.
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Demopolis native set to lead ABA
By David Snow, Demopolis Times
July 24, 2009
DEMOPOLIS — Demopolis native Alyce Manley Spruell was elected president-elect of the Alabama Bar Association. When that term ends next July, she will be come the first female president of the ABA.
“It is an honor to be able to have the opportunity to lead in this type of association,” Spruell said. “It’s something I’ve worked toward for the last six years. I’ve been on the bar commission from Tuscaloosa County for six years.
“One of my role models is Sam Crosby, who is a lawyer down in Bay Minette who served as the bar president two or three years ago,” said Spruell. “He quotes Micah 6:8 from the Bible, that says, ‘Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.’ That’s kind of how I feel. It’s one of those things where you know that you are a servant for others, and you just hope that you can do the best job possible.”
The term of office in the Alabama Bar Association is one year, going from mid-July to the next mid-July. Once elected as the president-elect, a person then becomes the association president at the start of the next term, then the immediate past president for another year, giving an officer a total of three years of service.
Spruell was elected by the membership of the Alabama Bar Association, and the meaning of becoming the first female president of the association is not lost on her.
“There are more than 16,000 lawyers in the state of Alabama,” she said. “There are so many qualified women who have been leaders and role models for me. I happened to be lucky enough to have the opportunity to serve and be the first woman. On a professional level, I am first and foremost a lawyer who happens to be a woman.”
Spruell’s father, city attorney Richard S. Manley, served on the Alabama Bar Association commission for 20 years.
“I learned how to lead from my dad, from his example,” she said. “When I called him and said I would be the president-elect, he came up and saw me, and it was a really neat time.”
Manley, of course, is proud of his daughter’s achievement.
“She has worked hard in the bar for a number of years,” he said. “She ran (for president-elect), and no one opposed her of the lawyers all over the state. You have to qualify by January, and there is a 60-day period for anyone to qualify, and no one qualified against her.”
A 1976 graduate of Demopolis High School, Spruell earned her bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt in political science and English and earned a law degree from Alabama in 1983.
She began practicing law in Tuscaloosa with the firm of Phelps, Owens, Jenkins, Gibson and Fowler and began Spruell and Powell in 1996. She has also served as an assistant dean and director of law enforcement at the university’s law school for six years.
“I’m just so proud to be from Demopolis,” she said. “I just think that Demopolis, to be a small city, has so much to offer, and it’s just a neat place.”
Spruell and her husband, Bruce, have two children, son Taylor, 22, who is a senior at the University of Alabama studying sports management, and daughter Cameron, 19, who will be a sophomore at Alabama who is studying special education.
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Bar Asks for Defense Documents
By Rob Holbert, Laniappe (Mobile, Ala.)
July 28, 2009
The local attorneys making the most money defending the poor from criminal charges have been told by the state bar association to submit the records showing how many hours they worked and how they billed the state for the work.
The Alabama Bar Association has asked about several attorneys for indigent defense documents.
A letter recently sent by the Alabama Bar Association to attorneys who earn more than $100,000 a year doing indigent defense work for the state compels these lawyers to provide the bar with the details of how they arrived at their bill. According to Tony McClain, general counsel for the bar association, the effort is to determine if there is a more efficient and cost-effective way to represent the poor in Alabama. He stressed that none of the approximately 100 attorneys who received letters is in any type of trouble with the bar.
“Because so many things are going on, we’re trying to get good numbers. We want them to show us how they are working. All I’ve got right now is something that tells me (an attorney) represented 73 people last year for x amount of hours,” McClain said. “Nobody’s being accused of anything and nobody’s suspected of anything.”
McClain did say if the bar comes across things that look problematic in examining the numbers, there is a possibility it could take action.
“That’s not the intended focus. But if an item jumps out and needs to be discussed with the board of bar commissioners, we’ll deal with that,” he said.
Although it is not clear which attorneys received letters, a Lagniappe examination of the local indigent defense earnings last year might suggest five attorneys who could have been directed to provide information to the bar. Among those would be Lee Hale, Habib Yazdi, Gregory Reese, Russell Bergstrom and John Thompson. During the period we examined, Oct. 1, 2007 — Sept. 30, 2008, those attorneys earned in excess of $100,000 apiece.
Hale led the way with a total payment from the state of $255,300 for handling 239 cases. He was followed closely by Yazdi, who tallied $247,819 during that period, with 566 cases handled. Reese was paid $148,465 during that time, according to state records, while Bergstrom and Thompson were paid $113,414 and $111,403 respectively.
Hale and Yazdi in particular have seen a large jump in their remuneration from the state. During Lagniappe’s first examination of indigent defense counsel payments, which looked at the time from May 1, 2006 to April 30, 2007, Hale was paid $113,000, and Yazdi made $174,339.
Indigent defense attorneys are paid $60 per hour for in-court time, $40 per hour for out-of-court time and $25 per hour for overhead, which has led some to question the amount of hours being billed by attorneys like Yazdi and Hale, who make far more than any over indigent defense attorneys in this circuit.
For example, in Lagniappe’s first look at indigent defense, we broke down the $174,339 Yazdi made during that time. Dividing Yazdi’s in-court payments of $48,330 by $60 per hour, means he billed for 805.5 hours of in-court time during the year examined. His out-of-court payments of $94,452, divided by the hourly fee of $40, broke down to 2,361.3 hours, for a grand total of 3,166.8 hours billed that year. Divided by 50 weeks, that would mean Yazdi billed 63.3 hours a week on average during that period. As the system is set up, judges must review and approve an attorney’s billed hours and overhead for each case before it is sent up to Montgomery for payment.
We did not have a detailed break-down of the attorney payments in our second review of the system, so it’s not clear how many hours Hale and Yazdi billed when making over $200,000 that year. McClain says it’s important to keep in mind the state had to pay overhead it had withheld, which could explain the massive jump in some attorneys’ indigent defense payments during that time.
“Let’s don’t go crazy because we see a guy who made over $200,000. Some of the numbers jump out because they got paid the indigent defense overhead,” McClain said.
McClain said the main purpose of the bar’s assessment of the indigent defense system is to see if there is a less expensive way to handle them. Statewide, most circuits handle indigent defense much like Mobile does, by assigning them randomly to certain attorneys. A few places in the state have established actual public defenders offices, while still others contract with attorneys at a flat rate.
Hale says he is happy to comply with the bar’s request, and has been busily doing so since receiving the letter. He hopes providing this information will prove to be something that will help the legislature see how valuable indigent defense attorneys actually are.
“People have told me ‘This is your opportunity to show this is what you’re worth,’” Hale said. “This is an opportunity to show them (the legislature) what we do.”
That defending the poor is getting more expensive is without question. In Mobile County, for example, for the fiscal year 2007-2008, it took $3.4 million to defend the poor here according to the Alabama Department of Finance. The previous most expensive year was $2.7 million.
The top 20 indigent defense attorneys were paid $1.13 million for their work in ‘06-’07, but that number shot up to $1.9 million for ‘07-’08, more than $780,000 more — a 69 percent increase. The top 20 averaged $62,915 in our first examination and averaged $91,213 in our second look.
McClain said the bar association has the attorneys who received letters 30 days to respond, but realizes it is unlikely they’ll be able to get that kind of information together in such a short period.
“We’re hopeful we’ll have something in a couple of months. Then we’ll have to put it in a digestible form,” he said.
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EXCLUSIVE: Legal-aid agency hit for wasteful spending
By Amanda Carpenter, The Washington Times
July 28, 2009
During the worst economic downturn in decades, the federal program that provides free legal help to impoverished Americans has spent tax dollars on a decorative natural-stone wall, no-bid contracts for consultants, alcohol for a congressional party and more than 100 casino hotel rooms that were never occupied, government documents show.
The Legal Services Corp. - which stirred national controversy a few years back by paying for limousines, first-class airfare and $14 Death by Chocolate pastries for its executives - has created new symbols of excessive spending in recent months, according to federal audit reports and congressional correspondence obtained by The Washington Times.
And the timing couldn't be worse.
Even as President Obama was calling on government to reduce wasteful spending, his administration was trying to persuade Congress to increase LSC's funding by $45 million to help more Americans who are being evicted from homes or are facing other economic hardships and are in need of subsidized legal help.
But lawmakers are wary, especially after receiving a barrage of recent, critical reports from the program's independent watchdog and the congressional auditing office.
Those reports found that the agency had violated the government's open-meeting law, had opened the door for its own employees to "double-dip" by collecting pay from the program's headquarters and separate programs, had failed to follow its own contracting procedures and had unnecessarily handed out consulting contracts without competitive bidding.
The problems are so widespread that auditors in March questioned more than $80,000 in expenses for a California program that provides legal help to Indians, including payment for 136 hotel rooms at the Pechanga Resort & Casino, in Temecula, Calif., that were never used for a conference on tribal court.
"The failures on the part of the LSC and its management cannot and should not be swept under the rug," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote in a letter earlier this month that urged his colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee not to give LSC any more money until it fixes its wayward spending.
"LSC headquarters continues to operate in total disregard of federal law when it suits them," the Iowa Republican wrote. "The fact that serious and vigorous oversight of the LSC grantee community is almost nonexistent is, to say the least, alarming. This misuse of federal funds that has happened over the years is offensive and just the tip of the proverbial iceberg."
Mr. Grassley isn't the only person concerned about LSC's management. Workers inside the LSC program charged with oversight duties have contacted a union, hoping to win collective-bargaining representation. Paul Shearon, treasurer for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, who authored the workers' letter and is helping them organize, told the Times that "those workers are not having any input into the way their agency is run."
The LSC workers in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement and the Office of Program Performance "feel pretty well ignored by management at this point in regards to their concerns," Mr. Shearon said, adding that the workers whose job it is to notify management about problems fear reprisals. "They have concerns about wanting to keep a low profile because they feel threatened," he said.
LSC officials say they are trying to get the agency's problems under control and are implementing several recommended improvements urged by the program's independent watchdog, the inspector general, and the Government Accountability Office. They hope the latest questions about spending won't have any impact on the funding increase LSC is seeking.
"More than 95 percent of our funding goes directly to help the nation's poor, and we would hope that they would not be penalized, especially at a time when so many are at risk of losing jobs, homes and access to health care," LSC spokesman Stephen Barr wrote in an e-mail.
"The LSC Board of Directors and the LSC staff have spent hundreds of hours over the past two years implementing the recommendations of the GAO and the LSC inspector general," he wrote. "We have tightened up our practices, improved our oversight, and will continue to seek out and adopt the best management practices."
LSC officials acknowledged to the Times that they are investigating why one of their offices, in Fort Worth, Texas, was spending money during difficult financial times to build a multistory, decorative natural-stone wall. LSC officials said they didn't know the final cost of the project; Mr. Grassley's office said it had received information putting the price tag at $150,000.
LSC is a nonprofit corporation funded by Congress with tax dollars, and it distributes grants to legal-aid groups nationwide who, in turn, help the poor with civil cases ranging from domestic abuse and child custody to home foreclosures and disability benefits. It received $390 million in federal funds for 2009.
Beyond its spending practices, the program also has run into serious problems complying with its own rules.
The inspector general in a report this month documented widespread problems with LSC contracting, including inappropriately classifying LSC workers as "independent contractors" over the past 15 years on as many as 200 occasions, leaving the agency vulnerable to expensive IRS penalties and fines and frequently awarding contracts to a small number of consultants on a no-bid basis without proper approvals or documentation.
The IG found that 37 of the 38 consultant contracts it reviewed had not been competitively bid and that in nearly every case the required "exception process" for skipping bidding wasn't followed. "Competing contracts helps ensure that LSC receives best value in accordance with its policies," the IG admonished in its report.
IG audits of individual programs across the country funded by the LSC also uncovered several examples of waste and abuse.
For instance, in January 2008, LSC hosted an event in the U.S. Capitol's Lyndon Baines Johnson Room for members of Congress and staff, taking care to print on the invitation that "no federal funds are being used."
But, according to the IG report, $5,000 was in fact put on an LSC credit card, and tax dollars were used to pay for alcohol, food, awards and photography at the event.
The mistake was magnified because LSC had been warned in a previous GAO report to stop spending money on alcohol. In December 2007, the GAO criticized receipts it uncovered for alcohol purchases, one totaling $2,800 for beer and wine at a reception for college interns. The agency's executive director promised at the time that LSC funds would no longer be used to buy alcohol.
That 2007 report - reported widely by the Associated Press - also found that federal dollars were used by LSC to give interest-free loans, without any contracts, to employees for computers and for down payments on personal residences. Federal money was used to pay for lobbying registration fees as well.
But the problems have persisted since then and have continued into the recession.
The inspector general concluded that California Indian Legal Services wasted $6,384 by booking the 136 rooms at the casino hotel that were never used.
Mr. Grassley's office said it had learned that at least two contracts were modified from their normal language to allow "double-dipping" on the part of LSC headquarters workers who also were working for one of LSC's federally funded programs. The senator's office also noted his office continues to get information and allegations from whistle-blowers inside the LSC.
The whistle-blowing and the questioning of expenses are sensitive issues since the board that governs LSC considered firing then-Inspector General Kirt West for exposing embarrassing expenditures on behalf of LSC officials in 2006. He found that the officials had charged LSC for the $14 Death by Chocolate desserts and for limousine service from LSC's Georgetown headquarters to Capitol Hill. Mr. West also said LSC was paying as much as $7 million too much in rent for its Georgetown address. The discussions about his ouster sent shock waves through the agency a few years ago.
Despite these concerns, LSC has many allies who support increased funding, including Mr. Obama. He included $440 million, an 11 percent increase, for LSC in his 2010 budget request and asked Congress to eliminate several restrictions governing how LSC can use its money. Under the changes, LSC's federal dollars could be used to claim, collect and retain attorneys fees and participate in class-action lawsuits. LSC also would be allowed to use non-federal dollars for lobbying.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the president's request, but the Senate Appropriations Committee hasn't gone as far. It approved a $10 million increase, a sum that has been criticized in several newspaper editorials as too stingy.
Mr. Grassley's letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee asked the members to hold off on any new funding for the program until it could demonstrate that taxpayer money "is used efficiently, effectively, economically and consistent with applicable law."
"Unfortunately, the LSC president, as well as the board, has been less than successful in providing such assurances to Congress and to America's taxpayers," he wrote.
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Ala. Law Foundation welcomes new president, board
By Mario Hendricks, WSFA-TV
July 28, 2009
MONTGOMERY, AL - The Alabama Law Foundation proudly announces that David R. Boyd is the new president for 2008-2009.
David Boyd is a partner in Balch & Bingham LLC practicing in the firm's Montgomery office. Boyd has served as chair of the Alabama Board of Bar Examiners, a member of the State Bar's Board of Bar Commissioners, State Bar vice-president, and chair of the State Bar's Disciplinary Commission. He is a Fellow of the Alabama Law Foundation and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.
Boyd is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Chambers USA: American's Leading Lawyers for Business, and Alabama Super Lawyers. Acknowledging his long record of service, he was awarded the William D. "Bill" Scruggs Service to the Bar Award from the Alabama State Bar in 2006.
President Boyd's main goal for his tenure as Alabama Law Foundation president is to take a "wellness check up" of the foundation's resources and goals to identify "strengths and weaknesses and plan for the future."
In addition to the new president, the Alabama Law Foundation proudly welcomes three new board members and two members appointed to serve another term. New board member Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr., a partner in Bradley Arant's Birmingham office, specializes in corporate law. Listed in "Best Lawyers in America," Carruthers is a Fellow of the American College of Tax Counsel, and the Alabama Law Foundation where his service is further recognized by being a charter member of the Alabama Law Foundation's Atticus Finch Society. The Birmingham Bar Association named Carruthers the "Outstanding Lawyer of the Year" in 2001, and "Outstanding Member of the Bar in 2008.
Joseph A. Fawal joins the board for the first time. Fawal's law firm, Fawal & Spina, is located in Birmingham; Fawal specializes in meeting the legal needs of small businesses. From 1977-1978 he was a member of the Law Review of the Supreme Court. Joseph Fawal is a charter member of the Alabama Law Foundation's Atticus Finch Society.
New board member Alyce Manley Spruell is Managing Member of Spruell & Powell, LLC in Tuscaloosa. Spruell's practice focuses on employment and corporate law-primarily for small businesses. Spruell is a charter member of the Alabama Law Foundation's Atticus Finch Society, the Alabama Academy of Attorney Mediators, and the Supreme Court Commission on Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Patrick C. Davidson, of Adams, Umbach, Davidson & White LLC in Opelika, is appointed to serve another term. Davidson, an active member of the Alabama Law Foundation, has served as grant committee chairman, and is a charter member of the foundation's Atticus Finch Society.
Also serving a second term, Walter E. McGowan of Gray, Longford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson is located in Tuskegee. McGowan is a Fellow of the Alabama Law Foundation.
The Alabama Law Foundation welcomes President David Boyd, the new board members and those serving a second term. President Boyd acknowledges "the many volunteer layers and other citizens who contribute to the Alabama Law Foundation‘s work and support its mission to improve the access of justice to low-income citizens in Alabama."
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Pro bono hours rise at major U.S. law firms
Karen Sloan, The National Law Journal
July 27, 2009
Between attorney layoffs, dipping profits and a lack of business, 2008 was a brutal year for many major law firms. But these difficult economic times have been a boon to one practice area: pro bono.
A survey by the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center found that pro bono hours increased by 13% in 2008 among 135 of the firms involved in the institute's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge — a jump the report called "extraordinary."
That report follows earlier findings by NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer, which surveyed the 200 largest grossing firms and found that they spent more time in 2008 than ever before on pro bono matters. The publication found, for example, that at nearly half of the firms surveyed, lawyers committed 20 hours or more to pro bono last year and on average spent more than 60 hours on pro bono matters.
Esther Lardent, president and chief executive officer of the institute, said that tough economic times in the past have spurred law firms to pull back on pro bono efforts and concentrate on money-making projects. That hasn't happen this time around.
"The reason that lots of people would give [for the increase in pro bono hours] is the slowdown in work," Lardent said. "People certainly saw that slowdown in the last six months of 2008. But this time firms wanted to keep people engaged and have them learn new skills through pro bono."
While rankings and hour counts of law firm pro bono work have helped spur lawyers to donate their time, they have also helped shift the focus from quality to quantity, said Deborah L. Rhode, director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School.
"It puts a focus on what can be measured, such as hours and attorney participation, without much quality control," Rhode said.
For instance, the attorneys who had time to engage in pro bono last year because of a slowdown in work aren't necessarily the same attorneys with the desire or the right skills to serve pro bono clients. Thus, Rhode is encouraging law firms to take a larger role not only in getting attorney to do pro bono, but also to help ensure the quality of that pro bono work.
The Pro Bono Institute launched the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in 1993 to encourage pro bono work at law firms and set out pro bono goals. One of those goals is that firms put either 3% or 5% of their billable hours toward pro bono work. Another goal is that firms make an institutional commitment to pro bono and not rely on individual attorneys to find their own pro bono work.
Firms reported completing more than 4.8 million hours of pro bono work in 2008 (not including any hours donated by the 11 firms involved in the Pro Bono Challenge that did not submit information for the report). Most of those hours were spent serving people of limited means or the organizations that assist them, according to the report.
Vilia Hayes, co-chair of the pro bono committee at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, said that pro bono hours were up slightly for its attorneys last year. That growth isn't an anomaly, however. Hughes Hubbard attorneys have been devoting a growing number of hours to pro bono in recent years. According to The American Lawyer, Hughes Hubbard attorneys spent an average 132 hours on pro bono matters in 2008.
"We've had more and more people do it over the years," Hayes said. "It's been a steady progression."
While pro bono work used to go almost exclusively to litigators, the firm has found opportunities for all of its attorneys to get involved, even on the corporate side, she said.
Despite the increase in donated pro bono hours overall, the report found that the average amount of money that firms donated to legal services organizations last year dropped slightly, from $349,604 to $346,198.
The increase in pro bono hours isn't just a byproduct of attorneys not having enough work to keep busy, Lardent said. Law firm pro bono efforts are more organized and streamlined than ever before.
"We're seeing a different attitude about pro bono," she said. "Firms are being much more proactive. They're taken on big-time signature projects."
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People in Business
The Montgomery Advertiser
July 19, 2009
Thomas J. Methvin of the Beasley Allen law firm has been elected president of the Alabama Bar Association. He announced the major initiatives of his term will include increased funding for Access to Justice with the goal of protecting the legal rights of people living in poverty. He is the 23rd attorney from Montgomery to achieve the position.
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Methvin takes office as president of the State Bar
The Montgomery Independent
July 16, 2009
Thomas J. Methvin, managing shareholder of the Montgomery law firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C., is the 133rd president of the Alabama State Bar for the bar year 2009-10.
As president, Methvin will serve as head of the 16,000-member organization. Key initiatives for his term in office will include increasing funding for Access to Justice with the goal of ensuring the legal needs of people living in poverty are adequately met, increasing participation in the Bar’s Volunteer Lawyers Program, and overseeing Alabama’s participation in the first-ever celebration of National Pro Bono Week.
“Our goal is to make access to justice in Alabama a priority like it is in other states,” Methvin said. “It’s going to take all of us, working together, to accomplish this. We currently rank last in funding in this area, even behind Puerto Rico. It is our opportunity, and our responsibility, to be a part of making Alabama a leader in ensuring true access to justice for all.”
Methvin was born in Eufaula in 1963. He received his undergraduate degree in corporate finance from the Univ. of Alabama (1985) and earned his law degree from Cumberland School of Law (1988). His family has been involved in the practice of law in Alabama for more than 200 years, and both of his grandfathers were lawyers. He always knew he wanted to be an attorney.
During the past year, as president-elect, Methvin was responsible for planning, organizing and implementing the ASB Task Force on Mortgage Foreclosure Assistance. Under his direction this project provided free legal counsel to any homeowner in the state facing foreclosure, regardless of income.
Methvin began his legal career at Beasley Allen in 1988 representing victims of consumer fraud.
His professional affiliations include: serving on the state bar’s Board of Bar Commissioners for nine years (its decision and policy-making body), the Executive Council for two years and as vice president in 2005; induction as a Fellow in the Alabama Law Foundation, the state bar’s charitable and philanthropic arm; president of the Montgomery Cumberland Law School Club, and a member of the finance committee for the Access to Justice Commission, formed by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb to find new ways to provide access to justice for the poor in Alabama.
He is a former president of both the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Montgomery County Trial Lawyers Association. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Alabama Association for Justice. Methvin is the 23rd lawyer from Montgomery to serve as president.
An active member of the community, Methvin serves as president of the Board of Directors of Brantwood Children’s Home, a home for abused and neglected children; and is on the Board of Let God Arise Ministries, a prison ministry; and the Cystic Fibrosis Advisory Panel.
The Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility and competence of its members, improving the administration of justice and increasing public understanding and respect for the law.
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Lawyers offering discounts to military
By Jenn Rowell, The Montgomery Advertiser
July 16, 2009
Military members have a way to find legal help at a reduced price, thanks to the work of a former judge advocate general and the Alabama State Bar.
The Lawyer Referral Service helps connect military members with legal services in Alabama -- at a discounted rate.
Currently, the service only applies to members of the Alabama National Guard and the Alabama State Defense Force, but in October, the service will expand to all military members.
Retired Air Force Col. George Schrader proposed the service last year, and the state bar took up the issue.
Schrader, a Montgomery resident, got the idea from the Military Officers Association of America. The national organization has a program in which lawyers volunteer to provide discounted services to the military.
When a military member calls the state bar's Lawyer Referral Service, he or she will be directed to a lawyer who is willing to offer a 25 percent discount to service members. If a participating lawyer isn't in the service member's area, they'll be referred to the nearest attorney who offers the discounted rate.
The military discount is an additional option within the bar's referral service. Lawyers pay $100 fee to participate in the program.
In about a year, the number of participating lawyers has nearly doubled with 235 across the state currently participating.
Renee Avery, director of the program, said she expects that number to double again during the recruitment process in September when lawyers join or renew memberships to the state bar and can opt into the program.
Avery said most lawyers have jumped at the chance to provide more support to the military.
"This is what (they) can do to help the military, and I think they will," Avery said.
Schrader spends a lot of time at meetings, visiting various military installations and attending conferences. And everywhere he goes, he takes the new brochures for the program.
Avery said after each of Schrader's visits, she gets at least five calls from new people wanting to use the service. She gets lots of calls from military members looking for help with will and estate planning and also child-custody cases.
"This targets a lot of good people who can help," she said.
For more information or to reach the Lawyer Referral Service, call 269-1515 or visit http://www.alabar.org/lrs
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Northport attorney earns leadership position
By Dana Beyerle, Tuscaloosa News
July 18, 2009
MONTGOMERY | Northport attorney Alyce Manley Spruell takes office as president-elect of the Alabama Bar Association today and is in line to become the first woman to head the state bar, the association announced Friday.
Spruell, a managing member of Spruell and Powell law firm, will take office as president in July 2010.
She will succeed Tom Methvin, who becomes the 2009-10 bar president today. Spruell was elected in April by the board of bar commissioners for the 16,000- member organization.
'Alyce brings to our association experience, wisdom and magnificent leadership skills,' said outgoing bar President J. Mark White. 'She has already been a great resource for us both during our terms.'
Spruell, 51, said she's not sure why the legal association has not previously had a female president.
'I can't really answer that,' she said Friday.
Spruell said her role models have been other female lawyers, including Camille Cooke, the late Nina Miglionico, and former state Supreme Court Justice Janie Shores.
'There are so many wonderful women without whom I wouldn't be here,' she said.
Spruell will be the eighth lawyer from the Tuscaloosa area to lead the 86-year-old association.
'When she becomes the first woman to be president of our association in 2010, we will lead the celebration together with every other lawyer in Alabama,' White said.
Spruell grew up in Marengo County and lives in Tuscaloosa. She is the daughter of attorney and former state Sen. Rick Manley, D-Demopolis.
She graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a law degree from the University of Alabama law school in 1983. Her firm specializes in business, employment and real estate law.
Spruell began practicing law in Tuscaloosa with the firm Phelps, Owens, Jenkins, Gibson and Fowler and also was an assistant dean and director of law development at the university's law school for six years. She started her own firm in 1996.
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Growing numbers of poor people swamp legal aid offices in U.S.
By Tony Pugh, The Detroit Free Press
July 12, 2009
WASHINGTON — After years of funding shortfalls, legal aid societies across the country are being overwhelmed by growing numbers of poor and unemployed Americans who face eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy and other legal problems tied to the recession.
The crush of new clients comes as the cash-strapped agencies cut staff and services.
The nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which funds more than 900 legal-aid offices nationwide, says the number of people who qualify for assistance has jumped by about 11 million since 2007, because of the recession. Roughly 51 million people are now eligible for assistance — individuals and families who earn less than 125% of the federal poverty level, now set at $27,564 a year for a family of four.
The federal government budgeted an 11% increase in funding for legal aid this year. That increase, however, is more than offset by the growing demand for services and a recession-driven decline in state funding, charitable gifts and grants, which together traditionally make up half of legal service funding.
That means that legal-aid programs will turn away roughly 1 million valid cases this year, advocates say, about half the requests for assistance they’ll receive.
“The impact of the recession on the delivery system for civil legal aid has been dramatic with respect to those nonfederal funds,” said Don Saunders, the director of the Civil Legal Services division of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
In Cleveland, where unemployment is 10%, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has seen a 56% increase this year in employment cases, such as wage-and-hour disputes and the denial of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers.
The agency, which has 55 full-time lawyers and 1,400 volunteer lawyers, expects to handle more than 900 such cases this year and about 10,000 cases overall. However, it’ll turn away some 14,000 other valid, income-eligible cases because it can’t meet the demand.
“It’s heartbreaking that we have to turn away so many clients,” said Melanie Shakarian, the Cleveland agency’s director of development. “We have a considerable amount of resources to help low-income people, but even with all that we have, we can’t serve everyone who comes to us for help.”
Middle-class people also have trouble affording legal help, but with fewer economic resources, the poor are more likely to find their money problems leading to court.
Legal aid offices typically handle cases involving divorces, child custody and a host of consumer issues that can include landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, applications for government benefits and battles with predatory lenders. They often represent battered women who need protection, women who are trying to obtain child support or families trying to secure insurance payments.
Each downward turn of the economy increases the need for services. During the first year of the recession in 2008, 93,000 people contacted the Cleveland agency for help. That was up 35% from the year before, Shakarian said. This year, the agency is on pace to get 100,000 calls for assistance. Of these, only about 10% will be served.
Nationally, experts estimate that 80% of low-income Americans who need legal help in civil cases don’t receive any. That comprises “not only people who show up at the door and are turned away, which is a large number, but also those who don’t even try because it’s so hopeless,” said Peter Edelman, who teaches poverty law at Georgetown University in Washington.
In southwest Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid turned away a third of the people who requested help last year. The rate is even higher this year, communications director Cindy Martinez said.
One major reason is the decline in funding from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program. The program collects interest from lawyers’ client trust accounts and distributes the money as grants to legal-service organizations nationwide. Nearly $112 million in such funds were distributed last year. That funding is expected to fall 21% this year, however, in part because the Federal Reserve slashed the benchmark interest rate to near zero to help fight the recession.
Some states have seen more precipitous declines. Connecticut went from $21 million in Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts funds to $4 million in one year, Saunders said, while Texas funds declined from $30 million to $2 million.
“When those interest rates dropped, they took legal aid with them,” Martinez said.
After providing $390 million for programs funded by the Legal Services Corp. this year — an 11% increase over 2008 — Congress is poised to up the ante again. The House of Representatives has requested $440 million for fiscal year 2010, President Barack Obama asked for $435 million and the Senate has called for $400 million.
House and Senate conferees will settle on a final amount, but it’s unlikely to approach the previous inflation-adjusted peaks of $750 million in 1981 and $554 million in 1995, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center. The report found that the Legal Services Corp.’s inflation-adjusted funding this fiscal year is the lowest in the program’s 35-year history, an estimated $6.85 per person.
“We’re at less than half of where we were when President Reagan was inaugurated,” said Saunders, of the legal aid and defender association. He noted that federal Legal Services Corp. funding has followed a typical pattern since the 1980s, increasing when Democrats control Washington and declining when Republicans are in the majority.
Ted Frank, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research center, expressed the conservative sentiment, saying, “There are better ways to help the poor than by sending in more lawyers.”
He suggested changing the rules that make legal representation so costly, such as eliminating the third year of law school and bar examinations. Doing so, he said, would free more time for private lawyers to provide pro bono work for the poor. He also said there was little research to show that the legal needs of the poor couldn’t be addressed at current funding levels. He suggested that legal aid offices already are taking just the strongest cases and turning away only weaker, less meritorious ones.
Marcia Cypen, the executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, disputes that contention. She said her agency turned away cases involving consumer issues not because they didn’t have merit but because it had to focus its scarce resources on the most urgent and needy.
“It’s not that they’re weaker cases,” Cypen said. “We have to select cases that go to core survival issues: food, shelter, income protection for vulnerable populations. It’s not that the other cases aren’t important. They’re things that people need, but they just won’t die if they don’t get them.”
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Female minority lawyers don't stay at U.S. firms - 75% bail within 5 years due to barriers
BY FRANCINE KNOWLES, Chicago Sun-Times
July 22, 2009
A study has found that more than 75 percent of female minority attorneys at U.S. law firms will leave their jobs within five years due to continuing barriers to advancement. The finding is by the women's research group Catalyst, which notes the barriers bring with them big costs.
"Those who leave often report experiencing institutional discrimination and unwanted and or unfair critical attention, which combine to create an exclusionary and challenging workplace," the report said.
When a lawyer leaves a firm, the cost to the employer is equal to or greater than that person's annual salary and benefits, Catalyst said, citing a previous study it did.
The report looked at the workplace experiences of minority women, compared with those of men of color and white women and men. Challenges unique to women of color include limited growth opportunities and a greater sense of "outsider status," racial and gender stereotyping and more feelings of sexism in the workplace compared with white women; lack of access to high-profile client assignments and important client engagements, and missed opportunities for candid feedback, the report said.
The findings come as firms focus on associate satisfaction and retention and address diversity issues while facing a client base and talent pool composed of more women and minorities, Catalyst said.
The report found stark differences between groups of minority women in their perceptions of workplace culture and diversity.
Black women were more likely to believe diversity programs don't address workplace biases and feel that partners and other supervising attorneys get insufficient training on how to work effectively with diverse cultures. They also cited a lack of access to challenging work assignments.
The report, whose sponsors included Sidley & Austin, said that to attract and retain women of color firms need to:
• Include senior leaders as active players in building and establishing inclusive workplaces.
• Raise awareness on the varying needs of different minority groups.
• Create opportunities for dialogue between firm leadership and female minority attorneys.
• Educate all attorneys, especially partners and other supervising attorneys on how to recognize bias and stereotyping of women of color.
• Monitor and track the career development of minority women and hold leaders accountable for their advancement.
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Bar Association Plans for Litigation Over FTC Rules
By David Ingram, The Legal Times of D.C.
July 22, 2009
The president of the American Bar Association said today that the group is preparing to go to court if it cannot persuade the Federal Trade Commission to exempt lawyers from new regulations to protect against identity theft.
H. Thomas Wells Jr. said in an interview that the New York-based firm Proskauer Rose has signed up to represent the ABA pro bono. The trade commission is scheduled to begin enforcing the regulations Aug. 1, and Wells said the bar association would file a lawsuit by the end of next week if necessary to head off enforcement.
“If they stay with the Aug. 1 date and we don’t get some kind of sign, we’ll be filing before Aug. 1,” said Wells, a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala.
The bar association has been lobbying for months to have lawyers kept out of the regulations, known as the “Red Flags Rule.” The regulations, which grew out of legislation passed in 2003, require businesses and organizations that act as “creditors” to establish a program for preventing identity theft. According to a Federal Trade Commission guide, the program must identify potential areas of vulnerability within a business and include policies for detecting and responding to red flags.
The Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with protecting consumers, has included lawyers, doctors, and many other professionals in its definition of “creditors” because they bill customers only after providing services. The bar association disagrees with the interpretation.
“We just don’t think this is what Congress was looking at” when it wrote the law, Wells said.
The commission did not return a call today requesting comment on possible litigation. Any lawsuit would likely be in the District of Columbia, where in 2005 judges rejected another attempt by the commission to regulate lawyers. In that case, a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a district court ruling that lawyers did not have to send out privacy notices to clients. Proskauer Rose represented the New York State Bar Association in the case.
FTC officials have already delayed enforcement of the regulations twice, most recently three months ago at the request of the bar association. The bar association is also hoping for intervention from Congress.
The commission and the bar association differ on how much of a burden the regulations would be on businesses. The bar association says it asked two law firms to go ahead and implement the regulations: a five-lawyer firm needed 15 hours and a 300-lawyer firm needed 120 hours. The commission has said the rules would be a relatively low burden for most firms.
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ALABAMA VOICES: Attack on death penalty system unjustified – [Op-ed]
By Clay Crenshaw, The Montgomery Advertiser
July 17, 2009
The Advertiser recently published an Alabama Voices column headlined "Dare defend rights," which unfairly and unjustly criticized Alabama's death penalty system.
The article's author, Thomas Wells, is a Birmingham lawyer who presently serves as the president of the American Bar Association and whose legal practice focuses on environmental law and product liability cases.
Because I have a front-row seat in death penalty battles as a prosecutor in the Alabama attorney general's office, over the past 22 years I have acquired detailed knowledge of capital litigation law. As someone with long personal experience in this area, I feel it is necessary to offer the following counterpoint to Mr. Wells' column.
The column criticizes Alabama's system of electing judges as well as our state's "judicial override" provision. Mr. Wells contends that trial judges in Alabama feel pressure to sentence capital defendants to death so they will not be labeled "soft on crime" when facing re-election.
This problem is exacerbated, according to Mr. Wells, by Alabama's sentencing scheme, which allows trial judges in capital murder cases to override a jury's sentencing recommendation of life without parole. Mr. Wells' column does not, however, offer a single example of a capital murder defendant who was unjustly sentenced to death.
In contrast, I'd like to offer an example of a trial judge who appropriately rejected a jury's sentencing recommendation of life without parole. The case that I reference involved a defendant by the name of Henry Hays, who committed a capital murder in 1981.
Hays, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, went riding around Mobile looking for a black man to murder. Hays had decided to kill a black man because he was angry that a jury had failed to convict a black defendant who was charged with killing a white policeman.
Once Hays found a black man to kill, he forced the victim into his car, tied a rope around the victim's neck and dragged him behind the car, beat the victim with a tree limb, and slashed the victim's throat with a knife. When he was finished, Hays hung the victim's body in a tree on a street in Mobile.
Despite these appalling facts, at the conclusion of Hays' trial, the jury recommended a sentencing verdict of life without parole. Fortunately, the trial judge dispassionately applied the law, overrode the jury's recommendation, and sentenced Hays to death. Hays was executed in 1997.
Let us have an objective debate regarding the administration of the death penalty in Alabama. Mr. Wells' recent column, however, offers only conclusions unsupported by facts.
As such, columns such as this do not provide truly useful contributions to a well-reasoned, factually accurate discussion of this important issue.
Clay Crenshaw handles death penalty cases in the Alabama attorney general's office.
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Alabama Voices: Dare defend rights of all – [Op-ed]
The Montgomery Advertiser
July 5, 2009
I love Alabama. It pains me to see my home state cited with disapproval, when we have so much that is good to offer.
A report issued in May by Philip Alston, a special investigator for the United Nations, identified Alabama as the U.S. state with the highest per capita rate of executions. He tied our execution rate to the fact we elect our judges, noting research that shows judges are more likely to either impose or refuse to reverse death sentences when elections are imminent and tightly contested, when capital punishment support groups are active within a state and when judges have experience in seeking elective office.
It is not news that the politics of electing our state's judges affects our death penalty rates. Just three years ago, the American Bar Association released an assessment of our death penalty jurisprudence, conducted by a team of our own state's legal leaders -- a law professor, a state senator, a district attorney, a law school dean who also was a former federal magistrate and four lawyers in private practice.
That team acknowledged that judicial candidates sometimes campaign on a pro-death penalty platform.
Key among a series of recommendations by the assessment team was that Alabama reform its "judicial override" provision permitting trial judges to override jury recommendations on sentencing.
While other states provide for override, most limit judges to reducing the sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow judges to impose a death sentence when the jury recommended life in prison, and the only one among them that also selects its judges in partisan elections.
The combination can create pressure for a judge to sentence a person to death for reasons having little to do with the circumstances of the crime or the characteristics of the offender.
The team enumerated other individual problems with Alabama's death penalty. Our state failed to fully comply with 51 of the 79 ABA recommendations describing the manner in which a fair and accurate capital punishment system should operate, including such broad areas as adequate indigent defense, lack of standards for identifying mental retardation, post-conviction DNA testing and inadequate jury instructions.
Any of those shortcomings, taken alone, is serious enough to cause concern. But the harms of such problems are cumulative, prompting the assessment team to urge the state to launch a full-bore, government-sponsored analysis of how we investigate, prosecute, defend, judge and sentence in capital cases, and how we conduct post-conviction reviews and clemency proceedings.
That study is a life-and-death necessity. The team of Alabamians made a start on that analysis, but much of the data needed for a thorough and informative review was not accessible to those volunteers.
The team also recommended key reforms to establish a death penalty data clearinghouse, require juries to be unanimous if they recommend a death sentence, create a statewide indigent defense commission, and research possible disparities in socio-economic status, race, geography and other factors of sentencing.
Alabama has a truly stirring motto: "We dare defend our rights." Isn't it time that we dared to defend the rights of all our citizens, even those accused of capital crimes?
H. Thomas Wells Jr. is president of the American Bar Association and a partner in the Birmingham office of Maynard, Cooper and Gale.
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Solidifying platforms in bid for governor
By M.J. Ellington, Decatur Times-Daily
July 5, 2009
MONTGOMERY - On the day Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb announced her intention to stay at the helm of the state court system instead of running for governor in 2010, she put some rumors to rest as well.
For instance, rumor has Alabama Education Association Associate Executive Secretary Joe L. Reed, who also heads the Alabama Democratic Caucus, as a primary governor's race pusher. "It was not Joe Reed," Cobb said.
And AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert? He was one of the ones urging a run, but "not the main one," Cobb said.
Who was leading the push? A former high-ranking party official pushed first, she said. And right afterward, the president of the Alabama Bar Association and attorneys around the state pushed right back.
Cobb is a comparably young politician who could jump in gubernatorial race waters or even some other in another year.
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Bankruptcies low in states that don't seize wages
MIKE BAKER, The Associated Press
(AP) — States that allow debt collectors to seize consumers' wages have sharply higher bankruptcy rates than neighboring states that prohibit or strictly limit the practice, an Associated Press analysis has found.
This link highlights a dilemma for credit-card companies and other debt chasers: By going after wages-an increasingly popular maneuver since the recession began, lawyers say-they risk pushing consumers into bankruptcy court, where judges can reduce or wipe away all sorts of financial obligations.
The apparent relationship between so-called garnishment laws and states' bankruptcy rates also bolsters the arguments of consumer advocates, who have long said that intercepting someone's wages to pay their debts only increases their financial vulnerability.
After gathering millions of bankruptcy records from 2006 until now, the AP plotted the number of filings for each U.S. county in its Economic Stress Map-a geographic, chronological and visual depiction of economic misery based on unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy data.
While bankruptcy rates vary for many reasons, the five states that prohibit or strongly limit wage seizures-North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida and Texas-all have drastically lower rates than their neighbors, with particularly striking differences along borders, where economic conditions are similar but bankruptcy rates are not.
South Carolina's bankruptcy rate is almost one-quarter that of Georgia's; Pennsylvania has half the rate of Ohio; North Carolina has about one-third the rate of Tennessee; Texas has a smaller rate than all its neighbors; and Florida has just about half the rates of Georgia and Alabama.
The Carolinas, Pennsylvania and Texas prohibit wage garnishment, except in special circumstances such as unpaid taxes or child support. Florida prohibits garnishing wages from the head of a household.
The nationwide bankruptcy rate is 42 percent higher than the rate in those five states.
Bankruptcy filings have been steadily rising since the end of 2005, when a change in federal law sent filing rates plummeting. The number of filings in May were 35 percent higher than a year earlier, and more than 1.2 million cases have been filed in the past 12 months.
Debts are usually delinquent for several months before companies target consumers for recovery. Creditors must get court approval to seize a person's wages or other assets. Federal law and state laws restrict how much can be taken-typically 25 percent of "disposable" income, or income after taxes and other legally required deductions.
If a person files for protection under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the federal bankruptcy code, it automatically overrides a court order to seize somebody's wages.
While counties do not maintain statistics on wage seizures, attorneys say the recession and credit crisis have made lenders more aggressive about seeking court orders to grab borrowers' wages. The reason is simple: with the competition for collecting unpaid debts on the rise, a creditor that gets the authority to garnish wages gets the first grab at a person's finances, leaving others to fight over what's left.
The mere threat of a wage seizure is enough to cause some people to seek bankruptcy-court protection, attorneys say.
Still, credit collection companies view wage seizures as a tool of last resort, according to David Cherner, the director of state government affairs at ACA International, a trade group that has hundreds of debt collection members around the country.
"The debt collection industry isn't necessarily enjoying a lot of success at this point," in part because personal bankruptcies are on the rise, Cherner said. "While volume (of credit collection activity) is up, consumers are hurting."
In South Carolina, limits on wage seizures have given people leverage in their negotiations with creditors and have helped keep them out of bankruptcy court, said Carri Grube Lybarker, a staff attorney with the state's department of consumer affairs. Lybarker said those who are behind on their debts because of an emergency medical expenditure, divorce or job loss are sometimes able to regain their financial footing and make good on what they owe.
Professor Rich Hynes, who teaches and researches bankruptcy and finance issues at the University of Virginia School of Law, said he sees signs that garnishment is playing a role in bankruptcy rates, but he added that plenty of other factors are at play.
Bankruptcy rates may be influenced by a variety of state laws that protect consumers, including rules on how foreclosures can proceed, regulations on attorney advertising or debt-to-income ratios. Hynes also said issues such as the culture of local courts can play a role in those differences.
In Tennessee, which has the highest concentration of bankruptcies, Nashville-based attorney Edgar Rothschild said wage seizures frequently tip his clients over the edge, and into a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 filing. He also said the rates may be influenced by the differences of local judges, trustees and lawyers.
Cheryl Greer of Vinemont, Ala., sought protection from creditors under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy code in May.
Before filing for bankruptcy, Greer, who mainly lives off Social Security checks but also works part-time as a clerk at Wal-Mart, managed to pay off thousands in credit-card debt and keep up with other bills, including the monthly mortgage on an $80,000 home.
But she couldn't escape the unpaid debts of a former roommate she had tried to help out.
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Greer agreed a few years ago to help her roommate consolidate debt. That left Greer on the hook for several thousand dollars her roommate owed to a debt collection company, which in February 2008 was granted the authority to begin seizing up to a quarter of Greer's monthly income.
When she eventually filed for bankruptcy, Greer reported $7,112 in non-mortgage debt, most of it stemming from her former housemate.
In Greer's county of Cullman, bankruptcy rates are moderate by Alabama's standards. But over the past year there have been 16 bankruptcy filings for every 10,000 individual tax returns-a higher rate than any county in the five states with stiffest anti-wage garnishment laws.
For people in dire situations, filing for bankruptcy may be the only way to prevent themselves from digging an ever-deeper financial hole.
For her part, Greer said she might have one day been able to pay off her debt-if it wasn't for the court order allowing her wages to be taken away. Although disappointed by her financial failures and somewhat stung by the stigma that comes with a bankruptcy filing, she's also feeling a sense of relief now that she's filed for bankruptcy.
"I don't have (creditors) hounding me," she said.
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Attorneys helping beleaguered mortgage holders
Karen Sloan, The National Law Journal
July 6, 2009
Attorneys around the country have been volunteering their time to assist homeowners at risk of losing their property, but the availability of free legal help is far outpaced by demand in some areas.
Florida Attorneys Saving Homes — a program that pairs homeowners at risk of foreclosure with volunteer attorneys who negotiate with their lenders — was launched on July 10, 2008 and has received 15,000 applications for assistance, said program director Jennifer Newton. Approximately 1,000 private attorneys have volunteered for the program, which is a partnership between the Florida Bar and Florida Legal Services Inc. But the program needs another 1,000 pro bono attorneys to help cut down on the backlog of cases, she said.
"We're still looking for more volunteers," Newton said. "We didn't know we would have this many people interested in the program."
A wave of people applied for assistance when the program debuted, and applications have remained steady during the past year. The case backlog is a result not only of a lack of volunteer attorneys, but also of the slow process of renegotiating mortgages. Lenders are moving even more slowly on loan modifications because they are still figuring out a number of recently enacted federal loan programs. Most of the 1,000 cases that have been assigned to the volunteer attorneys are still being renegotiated, Newton said.
Florida Attorneys Saving Homes is available to Floridians who are nearing but not yet in foreclosure and can demonstrate financial hardship. The individuals must live in the home at risk of foreclosure. The program provides the attorneys with training on pre-foreclosure law though a series on online video lessons. It also provides sample letters and forms that attorneys can use when dealing with lenders, Newton said.
Some of the people who have contacted the program are dealing with the aftermath of foreclosure prevention scams. "Lots of the clients have fallen into that trap and given money to companies that disappeared overnight," Newton said. "They call us because they no longer have any options."
Some attorneys in Pennsylvania are taking a different approach to helping residents remedy their financial problems. An estimated 700 attorneys are expected to participate in the "Get Help Now, Pennsylvania" program spearheaded by Gov. Edward G. Rendell. The plan is to bring together volunteer attorneys, bankers and other financial professionals at 19 locations around the state on Tuesdays and Thursdays, beginning on July 7. The attorneys and bankers will help residents identify their financial problems and will direct them to resources to address those problems. The sessions are scheduled to run until Sept. 11. The Pennsylvania Bar Association is helping organize the program.
Organizers expect home foreclosures to be the major issue that people bring up, but credit card debt feature prominently as well, said Jeff Gingerich, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania bar.
Bar President Clifford E. Haines fears that the number of people who show up to get help may overwhelm the volunteers.
"This is an obvious area of need and we are trying to address it," Haines said. "We're anxious to help."
Haines expects the efforts to assist homeowners to extend in some form beyond the scheduled end date for the program.
Attorneys in other states are also finding ways to help stem the foreclosure tide. Lawyers are playing an important role in North Carolina's State Home Foreclosure Prevention Project, which was launched in November 2008. That program, overseen by the North Carolina Office of the Commissioner of Banks, requires mortgage companies to give the state 30 days' notice before foreclosing on a subprime loan. The homeowners then have time to access a network of housing counselors and attorneys to find a way to keep their home.
Legal service providers, volunteer attorneys from the North Carolina Bar Association and law schools have been providing assistance to homeowners. As of late April, the volunteer attorneys and others had reviewed more than 400 subprime loans for potential legal violations, according to the office of Gov. Bev Perdue.
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US News Law Firm Rankings: Coming in 2010
By Sarah Randag, ABAJournal.com
July 7, 2009
US News & World Report announced today that readers can look forward to a law firm rankings feature in the fall of 2010.
"We can feel law-firm marketing directors getting a little twitchy already," the Wall Street Journal Law Blog writes.
There will in fact be two sets of rankings, according to a press release: the best law firms, and the best law firms to work for. The rankings will evaluate more than 3,000 U.S. law firms using "a wide range of objective data as well as individual assessments from more than 40,000 private practice lawyers, 20,000 clients, and thousands of law firm employees." The survey will be conducted this fall, the release says.
This fall, the US News site will host Best Lawyers' search engine, which contains profiles of more than 50,000 U.S. lawyers. Best Lawyers is partnering with US News for the law firm rankings.
Above the Law points out that Vault.com was actually the first to arrive at this party. But US News is no wallflower.
"What if the new US News rankings differ significantly from the Vault rankings?" Elie Mystal writes at Above the Law. "Will industry professionals still trust Vault, while clients are starstruck by US News? Or vice-versa? Or will US News end up as a late entry into a field that Vault already dominates?"