Birmingham Business Journal
July 7, 2010
The Alabama Law Foundation recently gave out its annual IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts) grants. Eighty percent of IOLTA funding goes to programs that provide legal aid to citizens who cannot afford an attorney.
• The Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program, which refers cases directly to lawyers in 64 counties and coordinates more than 1,000 volunteers, received a $90,000 IOLTA grant.
• The Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program, which refers cases to 770 attorneys in the Birmingham area, received $100,000.
• The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama received $50,000 to continue providing low-cost, quality legal and immigration services to low-income immigrants.
• The University of Alabama Law School’s Civil Law Clinic received $66,000 for a staff attorney to supervise law students who provide free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and participate in a yearly divorce clinic.
• YWCA of Central Alabama received $80,000 for their “Justice on Wheels” program to provide legal services to isolated victims of domestic violence.
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New Loan Repayment Program Aims to Woo Pa. Lawyers to Public Service
By Zack Needles, National Law Journal
The Pennsylvania Bar Foundation and the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers Trust Account Board have launched a new statewide school loan repayment program designed to ease the financial burden on recent law school graduates in hopes of making public service a more attractive and viable career option.
The program, approved by the Pennsylania Supreme Court earlier this month, will offer one-year loans to qualifying attorneys at IOLTA-funded legal services organizations that can be used to repay undergraduate and law school debt and will be forgiven at the end of each year.
Under the program, qualifying attorneys will be eligible to receive roughly $2,000 the first year. After that, program organizers say, the program could be changed so that qualified applicants would receive tiered payments based on their individual debt-to-income ratios.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said he expects the program to help public interest lawyers stay in the profession despite student loan debt that is often in the six-figures.
Castille said providing the loans to public interest lawyers "encourages individuals with more than just a monetary interest in the legal profession. They're the ones who are willing to do something to help people."
And with the median entry-level salary for a civil legal services attorney hovering around $40,000, according to the most recent study conducted by the National Association for Law Placement Inc., recruitment and retention are real problem areas in the public service sector.
For young attorneys saddled with massive law school and undergraduate debt, public service compensation is simply not enough to live on.
As a result, many either opt for private practice directly out of law school or are eventually forced to leave public service positions after only a few years in order to make ends meet.
"I can't tell you how many times that has happened," said Rhodia Thomas, executive director of MidPenn Legal Services in Harrisburg.
Thomas said her organization just recently lost "a really good, talented lawyer" to the pressures of mounting school debt.
"She had been in a loan repayment program through the Legal Services Corp., but it was a pilot program and it's up for her now," Thomas said. "She said, 'Rhodia, I just can't stay.' She and her husband had two children and a house."
For Thomas, it was a resignation speech she'd heard many times before.
"We'll hire an attorney and after two years, when the loan goes to a higher interest rate or something like that, they'll say, 'Rhodia, I'm sorry, I love my work here, I love what I do on behalf of clients, but I just can't do it anymore,'" she said.
Samuel W. Milkes, executive director of Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network Inc., which provides funding to 16 legal aid programs across the state, said attracting and keeping quality lawyers is an increasingly daunting task for public services organizations as school costs continue to rise.
"The salaries within legal services have not been able to keep pace with the level that these loans have increased," he said. "It's a greater challenge today than it was a decade ago and a decade ago people were talking about it being a crisis."
But Milkes was optimistic about the new program.
"This is a big deal to help legal services programs recruit and retain lawyers in public interest positions," he said.
"It's really nice to see at a statewide level that something is happening. I really think it's wonderful," Thomas said.
The origins of the new loan repayment program can be traced back to May 2006, when a Pennsylvania Bar Association Task Force on Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance found that the struggle to reconcile huge school loans with modest compensation was a major roadblock for law school graduates considering a career in public service.
In June 2007, the state Supreme Court established pro hac vice admission fees from out-of-state lawyers as a funding source for the IOLTA Board.
"And then we've just been accumulating the money," said Alfred J. Azen, executive director of the IOLTA Board. "There was simply not enough money to get started until just this year."
Castille said the Supreme Court unanimously approved the program at its most recent administrative session.
According to Ebensburg, Pa., solo attorney and Bar Foundation President George Gvozdich Jr., the IOLTA Board forwards those pro hac vice funds to the foundation through a three-year grant and the foundation is then tasked with distributing them to eligible applicants.
"We're the ones who will do the nuts and bolts work of soliciting applications and reviewing information we get from applicants and we're the ones who actually cut the check to the applicants," said Gvozdich.
According to a Pennsylvania Bar Association press release, there will be one loan assistance cycle each year beginning Sept. 1 and eligible IOLTA-funded organizations will be required to submit their employees' applications by Oct. 15.
In January, the initial quarterly payments will go out to eligible attorneys. An attorney who maintains eligibility can apply for 10 one-year loans over the course of his or her employment, the press release said.
Gvozdich is quoted in the press release as saying that the Bar Foundation anticipates that each qualified attorney will receive about $2,000 during the first year of the program but that, in the future, the program could be changed so that qualified applicants would receive tiered payments based on their individual debt-to-income ratios.
Gvozdich told The Legal Intelligencer that the IOLTA Board and the Bar Foundation hope to achieve two objectives during the program's first three years.
"One is to get other sources of funding for LRAP and the other is to expand our services to cover a broader range of pubic service attorneys -- people like public defenders and other attorneys who are doing work without being paid by the client," he said.
Milkes called the IOLTA-funded LRAP "the first statewide initiative of this sort within Pennsylvania."
"There are programs that exist [that are run by] some bar foundations or local county bar associations and there are law school programs that exist, but they're targeted to particular geographic regions or particular populations," he said. "This one is a little different in that it's really meant to be a statewide program covering a large variety of legal aid."
Gvozdich said statewide LRAP applicants are encouraged to also apply for any of the other loan assistance programs available.
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Scruggs case fallout lauded - investigation over, squashing rumors of charges yet to come
Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi)
July 6, 2010
The end of the federal government's three-year investigation into former millionaire trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs and allegations of judicial bribery in Mississippi has led to at least one certainty.
"It puts an end to the rumors as to who's going to get indicted next," said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
But that question has left an impact on the legal profession and Mississippi politics.
Mississippi Bar President George Fair believes what's happened has helped lawyers "refocus on what we're supposed to be doing as lawyers, which is to serve our clients and courts with honesty and integrity."
While the case "initially had an impact on public confidence, since that time some healing and progress has been made," he said. "The system did work, and it may have helped people seeing that."
After the bribery char-ges against Scruggs and others in late 2007, the state Commission on Judicial Performance saw an increase in the number of complaints against judges.
In 2007, the commission received 268 complaints. That figure rose to 322 in 2008 and 337 in 2009.
Executive Director John Toney said most complaints turn out to be unfounded. "Our goal is to help good judges and get after bad judges," he said.
Adam Kilgore, general counsel for The Mississippi Bar, said his office received an increased number of complaints against lawyers in the wake of the charges.
Those complaints, normally in the mid-500 range, reached 604 from August 2007 to July 2008.
The Bar also received regular phone calls from attorneys who wanted to make sure they didn't cross the line.
One lawyer said he knew a judge that had been hospitalized and wanted to make sure it was OK to send flowers.
"My thought was 'My gosh, is this where we're going to be now?' " Kilgore said.
He managed to track down an ethics opinion in New Hampshire in which attorneys had been given the green light to send flowers to judges who were ill.
"I think the Bar had a healthy response, and I think the profession had a healthy response," he said. "I'm proud to be a lawyer. Ninety-nine percent of those in the profession are quietly giving back to the public."
Wiseman notes the bribery probe "had a cleaning effect on the legal community."
Lawyers are much more reticent to tread into "the gray area by playing fast and loose with ethics," he said. "When you see even the biggest can fall, it's a powerful lesson to a lot of folks."
Scruggs, who achieved celebrity status with his legal settlements with Big Tobacco, is now serving seven years in prison - most of it after pleading guilty to scheming to pay Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey $40,000 to rule in Scruggs' favor in a $26.5 million legal- fees dispute involving Hurricane Katrina litigation against State Farm.
Federal authorities wound down the investigation after former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, equally famous for successfully prosecuting the 30-year-old slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, pleaded guilty last year to a charge that he lied to the FBI investigating a Scruggs lawsuit.
For Democratic office seekers, the impact has no up side.
In the wake of the charges in 2007, Wayne Dowdy, then-head of Mississippi's Democratic Party, said he saw funds to Democratic candidates "substantially reduced."
"It would be akin to removing large corporations such as BP from Republican donor lists. Prior to their legal troubles, the lawyers, with some exception, were very loyal Democratic donors."
He said what happened, along with the entire tort reform effort, has led to a political playing field that is "not as level" as it was before.
While trial lawyers have played an important role nationally in providing funds to Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party, the role of trial lawyers was even more critical in Mississippi, said Wiseman, whose son is a lawyer.
"They were holding the world together," he said.
Much of the trial lawyer funding has dried up since, he said. "It's knocked a hole a mile wide in the Democratic Party politics," Wiseman said. "Money is nowhere to be found."
Tort reform has reduced lawyers' incomes, he said. "It's just not there like it used to be."
People like to jokingly repeat the quote from one of Shakespeare's characters, "Let's kill all the lawyers," he said, but he notes society needs a strong legal profession to ensure a fair system for everyone.
Veteran journalist Curtis Wilkie has a book on the Scruggs case coming out in October.
That book, The Fall of the House of Zeus, attempts to explore what Scruggs once called "the dark side of the force," Wilkie said.
"A network of political fixers in Mississippi was alive and well long before the Scruggs case broke, and so far as I know, it still exists," he said.
"A few of them are now in jail, a few others were not prosecuted, and a lot more are out there who have never come under investigation."
- After the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month throwing out parts of the "honest services" statute, Zach Scruggs, son of Dickie Scruggs, is hoping to get his conviction erased. He already has served time on a lesser charge.
- "We still have to figure out if that's what the case allows us to do," said his attorney on appeal, Chip Robertson, of Jefferson City, Mo. "There are tons of nuances, and we'll have to see how this fits with Zach."
- On Dec. 1, a federal trial begins in the whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Cork and Kerry Rigsby, of Ocean Springs, who once worked for Alabama-based E.A. Renfroe, a company State Farm contracted to provide damage assessments after Hurricane Katrina. State Farm is seeking to question Dickie Scruggs in the case.
- The Mississippi Bar created a task force that traveled across the state, studied the profession and delivered a report on suggested changes to court rules for lawyers. The state Supreme Court is examining those suggested changes and others. State lawmakers, however, have not addressed the Bar's request for restrictions on "misleading" advertising in judicial races.
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