Pro bono legal services offered Nov. 13
By David Snow, Demopolis Times
October 27, 2009
DEMOPOLIS — The City of Demopolis was the first municipality in the State of Alabama to proclaim Oct. 25-31 as Pro Bono Week, a week in which attorneys statewide provide free services to those unable to afford a lawyer.
“The goal of Pro Bono Week is to educate the public about the extensive work that Alabama lawyers are doing, donating their time to improve the lives of vulnerable members of our community,” according to a release issued by the Alabama State Bar Pro Bono Celebration Task Force. “We hope to encourage more individuals in the legal community to get involved in pro bono work and financial support the legal aid system.”
“Pro bono” is a Latin phrase meaning “for the good,” and refers to work done by professionals for no fee or for a greatly reduced fee.
The week will feature legal aid clinics, recruitment and recognition events and service projects throughout the state, helping lawyers and law students make volunteer connections with legal aid organizations.
“There is a bar services program on Friday, Nov. 13, at the Demopolis Civic Center,” said Demopolis attorney Scott Stapp. “There will be local lawyers on hand to answer questions of anybody, and it’s all open and free to the public.”
Demopolis native Alyce Manley Spruell, the president-elect of the Alabama Bar Association, played an active part in getting Demopolis to be the first city in Alabama this year to proclaim Pro Bono Week.
“Regretfully, we are the state that gives the least to funding pro bono legal representation,” she said in an interview last July. “We are trying to emphasize not only that our membership do more in its volunteering, but also that the state citizenry understand and support the need for this.”
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Free Legal Help
October 27, 2009
Some local residents are getting a chance to get some free legal work this week. The American Bar, and the Alabama State Bar Association, have designated this National Pro Bono Celebration Week. Local attorneys are volunteering their services to senior citizens to help get their affairs in order, as well as Lovelady Center residents in hopes of freeing them of their legal problems.
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Lawyers spread word about poor’s legal needs
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
October 26, 2009
Alabama lawyers will provide free legal clinics and spread the word about the need to improve funding for poor people seeking justice in civil courts, as part of the national observance of Pro Bono Week, according to the Alabama State Bar.
Separate clinics will be held Tuesday and Thursday in Birmingham to provide free legal assistance to seniors and to women making the transition from prison.
Several cities in the Birmingham-Hoover metro area also plan to issue proclamations in observance of the week set aside to call attention to the legal needs of poor people and families.
The recession has sent more people seeking free legal help but groups such as the Legal Services Corporation don’t have the money to meet the demand.
Individual lawyers willing to work pro bono, or free, can’t take up all of the slack, according to the bar association.
“Providing access to justice for those who cannot afford it levels the playing field,” Thomas Methvin, the state bar president, said.
“When we improve access to the state’s courts we are actually helping Alabama families help themselves.”
Alabama ranked 51st nationally, below every other state and Puerto Rico, in providing funding for civil legal aid according to an American Bar Association survey in 2006.
Funding that year was less than $10 for every low-income person in the state, said Tracy Daniel, executive director of the Alabama Law Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting programs to provide civil legal aid to the poor.
Funding increased in 2007 to about $11 per year for every low-income person, and reached approximately $12.50 in 2008 due to increases in grants from the Legal Services Corporation and other sources as well as initiatives by the state Supreme Court, Daniel said.
The state also appropriated $200,000 for indigent civil services in 2008, the first-ever allocation for that purpose, Daniel said.
But money for indigent civil legal services in Alabama still lags. Alabama is one of nine states where spending is less than $20 per indigent person, according to a 2009 American Bar Association. In 12 states the funding level exceeds $50, the report said.
“We are grateful to our elected representatives for including in the state budget funds for legal aid, but it’s still a shameful situation,” said Methvin, who has made increased funding for civil services for the indigent a top priority during his term as bar president. “Given the tough economic times, we have to do more.”
Nationally, half of the people seeking free help through legal aid programs were turned away because the programs lack sufficient funding, according to a study by the legal Services Corporation, a national nonprofit network providing legal aid for the poor.
Alabama lawyers from all 42 judicial districts will participate in Pro Bono Week according to the state bar.
In addition to legal clinics and addresses to city councils, some lawyers plan to meet with civic groups and ask them to lobby for improved legal aid funding.
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Lawyers recognize pro bono week
By Lisa Tindell, The Brewton Standard
October 26, 2009
Facing legal problems is stressful enough, but facing those same problems without benefit of an attorney can be life altering. Alabama attorneys are joining this week to recognize the 2009 Pro Bono Week.
John Jernigan, a Brewton attorney, said he is part of a group of attorneys who want to help those in need.
“I am part of the volunteer lawyers program,” Jernigan said. “We have four in Escambia County now. Our goal is to be available to offer free legal services to those with low income who qualify.”
State Bar President Thomas J. Methvin of Montgomery said the act of providing fee legal services can help improve the state of Alabama. “Providing access to justice for those who cannot afford it levels the playing field,” Methvin said. “When we improve access to the state’s courts we are actually helping Alabama families help themselves.”
Jernigan said he is currently representing two clients on a pro bono basis and encourages other attorneys to join the cause.
“Right now there are only four attorneys in Escambia County who take pro bono cases,” Jernigan said. “We certainly need more participation in the program.”
A proclamation signed by Brewton Mayor Ted Jennings in recognition of the celebration week states that some 23 percent of Brewton citizens live in poverty.
The situation is particularly acute now as the recession has caused many financial problems to become legal problems and increasing numbers of the poor and disadvantaged are turning to legal aid programs because they have nowhere else to go, Jernigan said.
“Low-income people who need legal advice can apply to have an attorney represent them in legal matters,” he said. “There are certain qualifications that have to be met, but there is help.”
Methvin said the types of unresolved civil legal problems include women who are seeking protection from abuse, mothers trying to obtain child support or custody of their children, families who are facing unlawful eviction or foreclosure that could leave them homeless, and individuals who have lost their job and need unemployment benefits.
During the week of Oct. 25-31, lawyers across Alabama will join in a national observance and celebration of Pro Bono. Lawyers in each of the state’s 42 judicial circuits will participate in events like conducting free legal clinics offering advice and counsel in areas such as elder and family law; discussing with community and civic groups the critical need for the Legislature to provide a continuous stream of funding for legal services, and recruiting additional lawyers to volunteer to provide pro bono service.
Attorneys who are members of the volunteer lawyers program in Escambia County are Jernigan, Everette Price, Eric Coale and Shirley Darby.
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Pro Bono week spotlights need for equal access to legal service
The Greenville Advocate
October 23, 2009
Both the City of Greenville and Butler County Commission have issued proclamations declaring Oct. 25-31 as Pro Bono Week, participating in both a national and state weeklong campaign to spotlight those individuals needing access to legal service.
The Alabama State Bar is sponsoring the campaign.
“Providing access to justice for those who cannot afford it levels the playing field,” said State Bar President Thomas J. Methvin. “When we improve access to the state’s courts we are actually helping Alabama families help themselves.”
Greenville attorney Cleve Poole, who is the 2nd Judicial Circuit representative on the state Board of Bar Commissioners, said attorneys frequently offer their services pro bono, (Latin: “For the public good”), at a reduced rate to those clients who exhibit need.
This week, he said, is the chance for attorneys on a local, state, and national level to focus on low-income citizens who lack basic access to legal assistance.
“Many people know that when you are accused of committing a crime, then the court appoints you an attorney if you’re unable to afford one,” said Poole. “But not in civil cases, which can be anything from divorce, to child support, to lawsuits. And there’s a lot of people who just don’t have the money to pay for legal service.”
According to the Alabama State Bar, Alabama currently ranks 51st in the U.S. and its territories in the amount of funding provided for civil legal aid.
On average, the state spends $10 annually for every low-income citizen, which places Alabama behind even Puerto Rico.
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National Pro Bono Celebration being observed locally
By Meredith McCay, The Daily Home (Talladega)
October 14, 2009
Alabama State Bar has asked the city of Talladega and Talladega County to approve proclamations recognizing the National Pro Bono Celebration planned for the end of October.
Lawyers throughout the state have been busy organizing task forces and events leading up to the official celebration, set for Oct. 25-31, to bring about more awareness of available programs, both for lawyers not already involved in pro bono work and citizens who may not have known such services were available.
Jeanne Dowdle Rasco, an attorney in Talladega and a member of the task force responsible for informing law school students at the state’s five law schools about the importance of pro bono work, said she is excited the city and Alabama as a state have been so proactive about the event so far.
“This is the first time Alabama has focused and participated in a national campaign for this program,” Rasco said. “This is such a good project and it is so exciting that the city has jumped right in with preparing to approve a proclamation. I am anticipating that the county will do the same, although I don’t have confirmation from them just yet.”
The city agreed to approve a proclamation at its meeting Monday in support of the pro bono celebration and the efforts lawyers in Talladega have put forth to be a part of the events scheduled throughout October.
Events planned in Alabama include forums with law students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, information clinics for women recently released from prison, speeches at Kiwanis Clubs throughout the state, information clinics for senior citizens and information clinics about domestic violence and the legal steps that can be taken to stop it.
Lawyers throughout the state are passionate about providing free legal services for low-income families because as many as 48 percent of these families have experienced at least one civil legal issue a year in recent years.
When those low-income households experienced legal issues – part of the 422,000 households experiencing 733,000 legal issues in 2008 – only about 16 percent of them were able to find legal assistance.
Currently, the Supreme Court does not recognize a constitutional right to a lawyer in civil cases unless actual loss of liberty – commitment to a mental hospital – is the cause of the civil case.
Therefore, anyone who falls below the poverty line must either hope a lawyer is available and willing to represent them pro bono, or they must deal with the issue themselves.
For example, to be considered eligible for free legal services, the family income for a family of four could be no greater than 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which equates to a salary of $27,563 for the entire family.
“There is quite a gap between people who can afford to pay for a lawyer with no problem and those who don’t have any money, but still need help,” Rasco said. “It can be hard to navigate the legal system without the assistance of a lawyer.”
In Talladega and Talladega County, the numbers of citizens living in poverty considerably outweighs the number of lawyers who have agreed to donate their time and talents to providing free legal services to those who can’t afford to pay.
In the city, about 19 percent of its citizens are experiencing a life of poverty. In the county, about 18 percent of citizens live below the poverty line.
About 15 percent of Talladega Bar members have donated a portion of their time to pro bono work.
By having a weeklong pro bono celebration, lawyers in Talladega and Alabama hope to educate the public about the extensive work pro bono lawyers are doing to donate their services to improving the lives of some of the community’s most vulnerable members, according to Rasco.
The goal is to get more individuals in the legal community involved in pro bono work and financially support the legal aid system.
“So many folks can slip through the cracks if we don’t volunteer our services,” Rasco said. “I hope this continues to grow and that next year we could host a one-day clinic here in Talladega.”
For more information about the events throughout the month or pro bono services in general, visit the Alabama State Bar’s Web site at www.alabar.org.
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Mobile lawyers take to the stage for a good cause
By Amy Browning, The Mobile Press-Register
October 25, 2009,
MOBILE, Ala. -- Local lawyers will sing and dance for a good cause in "Broadway Briefs: Lawyers Take the Stage" on Oct. 29 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Mobile Marriott.
The production is presented by the Volunteer Lawyers Program, the pro bono branch of the Mobile Bar Association.
"The show will feature a collection of songs, scenes and monologues from various plays related to the law," said Blakely Davis, VLP executive director. "The public is invited."
The production will also include legal scenes from "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Barefoot in the Park."
The cast includes Chris Kern, Barney March, David Peeler, Gaby Reeves and Bill Watts. The emcees are Jeff Deen and John Green.
"It should be wonderful," said Davis. "We are so excited. So often we don’t often have an opportunity to thank the attorneys and show our appreciation for them."
The presentation will conclude the American Bar Association’s pro bono week, which is Oct 25-31. The events leading up to the show are designed to educate the public about the efforts made by lawyers to provide free legal services to those in need, Davis said.
"It is an opportunity for our local community to celebrate the attorneys who provide legal services free of charge to low-income Mobile County residents with civil legal matters," she said. "It is also about spreading the word to the eligible population."
Tickets to the event are $50; table sponsorships are available. Proceeds support the Volunteer Lawyers Program. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Call 251-432-1102, or visit www.vlpmobile.org.
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California gives the poor a new legal right
By Carol J. Williams, The Los Angeles Times
October 17, 2009
California is embarking on an unprecedented civil court experiment to pay for attorneys to represent poor litigants who find themselves battling powerful adversaries in vital matters affecting their livelihoods and families.
The program is the first in the nation to recognize a right to representation in key civil cases and provide it for people fighting eviction, loss of child custody, domestic abuse or neglect of the elderly or disabled.
Advocates for the poor say the law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week, levels the legal playing field and gives underprivileged litigants a better shot at attaining justice against unscrupulous landlords, abusive spouses, predatory lenders and other foes.
Although some analysts worry that it could swell state court dockets or eat up resources better spent on other needs of the poor, the pilot project that won bipartisan endorsement
in the state Assembly will be financed by a $10 increase in court fees for prevailing parties.
Anybody confronted with criminal charges has a constitutional right to an attorney, as set out in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright in 1963. But such a right does not apply in civil court, and the majority of citizens fighting what can be life-altering civil actions now attempt to handle their cases without professional guidance.
An estimated 4 million people seek to represent themselves in California in civil matters each year, the state Judicial Council estimates, not because they want to but because they can't afford to hire a lawyer.
"How ironic that you can be arrested for stealing a small amount of food -- a box of Twinkies from a convenience store -- and you're entitled to counsel. But if your house is on the line, or your child is on the line, or you're being abused in a domestic relationship, you don't have the same right to counsel," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the bill.
California's pilot project is the first in the nation to create a right of "Civil Gideon" and will be closely watched by access-to-justice advocates across the country, say legal analysts who expect the presence of lawyers to ease court congestion.
As conceived, the program will fund public interest law groups, where lawyers typically earn salaries more on the level of teachers than their well-paid colleagues from big law firms. Such legal aid groups are overwhelmed by the needs of the indigent. At least 70% of those with civil law problems are turned away for lack of funds, experts say. Groups receiving the money will be chosen by the Judicial Council, and the pilot program will be reevaluated to determine whether it should be continued beyond its 2017 funding guarantee.
"The great thing about this is that local courts and local legal aid programs will team up and provide local solutions," said Julia R. Wilson, executive director of the Legal Aid Assn. of California.
Some legal analysts, however, see the project as a misplaced priority, especially given the persistent shortcomings in a criminal justice system many say is increasingly plagued by instances of wrongful conviction.
"I think it is of considerable doubt that this is the best use of scarce resources on behalf of the poor," said Lawrence Rosenthal, a Chapman University professor of civil rights law, arguing that the tens of millions to be devoted to civil case representation would be better spent on law enforcement, quality day care or lead paint eradication in low-income communities. "There are a lot of questions that nobody asks when this kind of bill gets passed, because everyone is too busy applauding that more money is going to be paid to lawyers."
Three years ago, the American Bar Assn. called on states to provide a right to counsel in civil cases in which "basic human needs" are at stake. Since then, nine states have made moves to afford limited civil representation, but California will be the first to extend that to a broad array of family law and social justice issues.
"A lot of states have moved forward bit by bit. What is noteworthy about the California situation is that the proposed pilot projects are in a lot of the core areas people have been pushing for, like foreclosure and landlord-tenant disputes," said Russell Engler, a professor at New England Law in Boston.
Over the four-plus decades since the Gideon ruling, legal researchers have documented that when litigants have lawyers in civil cases, more just and cost-effective outcomes are reached.
For example, women seeking restraining orders against abusive partners were successful 83% of the time when they had legal representation, compared with 32% without an attorney, according to a 2003 report by University of Baltimore law professor Jane C. Murphy. Giving civil litigants the legal advice they need to work out a settlement ahead of their court dates also cuts down on post-judgment appeals and the costly social services incurred when parents lose their rights simply because they don't know how to navigate the legal system, analysts say.
"In abuse-and-neglect cases, if parents don't have representation, children spend more time in foster care, and that's very expensive for the state," said Laura K. Abel, deputy director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The project gives hope to the legions of unrepresented civil litigants such as Angela Rhoden, 31, who said she was forced to leave her job in Atlanta earlier this year to come to Los Angeles after the father of her 10-year-old son seized the boy during a visit here and refused to return him.
"When I came to California, I didn't have legal representation, nor could I afford it. I didn't even have a job at the time," said the mother, whose case was recently taken up by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
"To a certain extent, you know your rights," she said. "But if you have a lawyer to speak on your behalf, the court just takes you more seriously."
Irma Green, an ailing 62-year-old surviving on $890 a month in disability benefits, said she would have been unable to fight off an eviction notice from her landlord in South L.A. if she hadn't had an attorney represent her for free.
"I can't tell you how bad it feels when you're sick and you're a senior citizen and they're kicking you out of your home," she said, crediting the intervention of Neighborhood Legal Services with preventing her from becoming homeless.
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Where Are All the Foreclosure Lawyers?
By Tim Padgett, TIME Magazine
October 24, 2009
Home foreclosure isn't a legal abstraction for Yolanda Paschal, a recent graduate of the University of Miami School of Law. Her parents are facing foreclosure on the Miami house she grew up in. They're luckier than others, since they have another home to fall back on, but the experience has convinced Paschal how acute the crisis is in Florida, which now has the nation's highest mortgage foreclosure rate, at 17%. "I'm part of this community," says Pascal, 25. "I can't escape how deeply this is affecting not just my neighbors, but me as well."
Paschal plans to practice business litigation next fall once she joins the firm that hired her. In the meantime, she will put her legal education to use for South Floridians like her family thanks to a $10,000 "foreclosure defense fellowship" she received from the UM law school. The innovative new grant program has sent out eight recent grads this month to help local residents navigate one of the law's most labyrinthine arenas.
But as much as Paschal and her UM colleagues can help a little, they only represent a drop in the bucket: with foreclosures continuing to rise, the shortage of lawyers available to represent homeowners trying to save their most precious asset has reached emergency proportions.
Unlike similar legal fields such as bankruptcy, foreclosure is rarely a full-time practice and is often handled by real estate attorneys or legal aid services agencies. Still, more than 3 million property foreclosures were filed in the U.S. last year; South Florida is expected to see more than 150,000 this year compared to fewer than 25,000 three years ago.
And while mortgage modifications had been on the upswing in recent months, the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center reported this week that many large banks and other mortgage servicers have decided it's cheaper to foreclose than to offer more affordable loan terms. Making matters even worse, as many as 86% of foreclosure victims in hard-hit areas didn't have legal counsel last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, which released a report earlier this month.
If those numbers don't draw more attorneys into foreclosure law, at least as a short-term specialty until the crisis subsides, homeowner advocates hope it will at least motivate more of them to shift more of their pro bono work in that direction. In hard hit counties like Miami-Dade, bar associations are responding by holding foreclosure defense clinics for local lawyers. Otherwise, the fear is that far more people than necessary stand to lose homes, possibly slowing economic recovery and clogging a civil court system already ravaged by states' budget cuts. (See a video of people facing foreclosure in Tampa.)
That specter of judicial paralysis helped spur UM law professor Michael Froomkin to create the foreclosure defense program. It places fledgling attorneys like Paschal with legal aid service organizations to help tackle the backlog of cases — more than 50,000 foreclosure filings so far this year in Miami-Dade County alone.
Many homeowners don't know what legal defenses are available to them as they battle lenders to keep their properties — or at least make foreclosure less painful, and costly. "Potentially, one of the most significant [defenses] is that the lender, because so many home loans were securitized during the housing boom, often doesn't even know who owns the mortgage anymore," says Froomkin. That, he adds, could throw into question the lender's right to bring the foreclosure case in the first place.
Carolina Lombardi, senior attorney at Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., which is mentoring some of the UM fellows, says foreclosure defendants also need attorneys to help them fend off all too frequent lender practices such as exorbitant escrow claims.
"Homeowners who have lawyers are usually prevailing in those cases," says Lombardi. But she notes that unless homeowners fall below the federal poverty line ($22,000 for a family of four), they can't qualify for the free legal aid that agencies like hers provide. That creates an obstacle for most foreclosure defendants, who aren't impoverished but, due to job loss and other circumstances that brought them to the brink of losing their home, often can't afford a lawyer.
Another impediment is foreclosure law itself, a bureaucratically convoluted field worthy of a Dickens novel. "It's a labor-intensive area of practice," says Paschal. "It involves a ton of paperwork." Yet another is the relatively low pay attorneys usually reap from defending foreclosure clients.
Melanca Clark, counsel at the Brennan Center and co-author of this month's study, urges Congress and state legislatures to create incentives, like more funding for foreclosure legal representation, that "level the playing field" against lenders and their comparatively well paid lawyers. Restrictions on government funding for legal services should be relaxed, she says, especially rules that don't let victorious foreclosure defendants collect attorney fees, as prevailing parties in most other kinds of civil litigation do. "We need structural reforms as badly as we need more [foreclosure defense] lawyers," says Clark.
A growing number of court jurisdictions are attempting to reduce the need for lawyers, as well as the glut of cases, by mandating mediation between lenders and homeowners.
Courts that cover Miami-Dade now require such arbitration, as they do in cities like Philadelphia. But the efforts to modify mortgage terms or find other ways to avoid full-blown foreclosure don't always work, and many cases still end up in court.
State bar associations like Florida's are also promoting pro-bono foreclosure work. The effort is helped, says Lombardi, by a new awareness among many lawyers who once deemed foreclosure victims foolish, lazy or unethical borrowers, but who now realize "this is often about decent, hardworking people who fell prey" to loans whose conditions weren't always clear.
Still law schools like Miami's may be one of the best untapped sources. Other programs, like the Yale Law School's ROOF Project, also send students into local communities to aid foreclosure cases; but UM's is one of the first to create a paid fellowship. It also makes sense, says Paschal, since so many law firms today are trimming costs by delaying the start date for new hires by a year or more. That gives law grads time to pursue this kind of work — whose complexity, Paschal adds, is ideal for cutting young legal teeth.
Says Froomkin, "It's a great opportunity to give recent graduates some invaluable experience and help your neighbors through this enormous spike in foreclosures," if not help end it sooner.
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Law firms pay new hires to work for public good
By SARAH KARUSH , The Associated Press
October 24, 2009
WASHINGTON — If things had gone according to plan, Lindsay Murphy would be a big-city tax lawyer by now. Instead, the recent law school graduate found herself doing legal aid, listening to complaints about raw sewage bubbling up into the bathtubs of a Mississippi Delta housing project.
Murphy is among hundreds of newly minted lawyers who've been forced by the recession to take a detour on their way to the nation's top firms, spending up to a year helping out nonprofits for as little as a third of the salary they'd expected.
From San Francisco to New York, high-powered firms are postponing the start dates of new hires they recruited before the economic meltdown. Many are paying the "deferred associates" stipends to spend a year doing public interest work until the business slowdown ends.
For cash-strapped nonprofits and government law offices, the free help is an unexpected silver lining. And the young lawyers and the firms that pay them say they are benefiting from valuable training and hands-on experience.
Murphy, 25, started her public interest fellowship at the University of Mississippi's Civil Legal Clinic in August. She has helped poor clients with housing and tax problems and traveled this month to the poverty-ridden Delta with other attorneys and law students to investigate one low-income neighborhood's sewer problems.
"This is what this profession is for — it's for helping people," said Murphy, who focused on corporate tax early in law school at Ole Miss. "I had lost sight of that."
Nobody has an exact count of how many law firm associates have been deployed to public interest law offices, but experts say it's likely in the high hundreds.
The list of firms paying such stipends include some of the biggest legal names.
Murphy, for example, is one of 59 public interest fellows from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, whose Dallas office she plans to join next year. Ropes & Gray is paying 51 incoming associates to do public interest work. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has 45 participants. All are international firms with large offices around the country.
The economic downturn has meant less work for law firms, fewer experienced attorneys leaving jobs and thousands of lawyers laid off. From August 2008 to August 2009, total law office employment fell by nearly 26,000 jobs, a mere 2 percent but striking for an industry accustomed to constant growth.
While a few firms rescinded offers entirely, most have taken pains not to lose graduates they recruited and hosted as summer associates in 2008. They offered stipends for the deferral period, in many cases tying the stipends to public interest work at nonprofits or government law offices.
"We knew them well, we'd invested time in recruiting them and working with them over the summer," said Eric Kraeutler, firmwide hiring partner at Morgan Lewis.
Most deferred associates remain in big cities. A few, like Murphy, are spending the year away from the major legal centers. Two of the 30 public interest fellows from the firm Mayer Brown are working overseas — one in Brazil and the other in Namibia.
A reduced income can be a hardship for law school graduates who had been counting on bigger paychecks to pay off student loans. But many deferred associates say they're grateful to have a job.
Albinas Prizgintas is among 28 associates who elected a yearlong deferral from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. The firm is paying him $80,000 for work helping the unemployed and domestic abuse victims at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
"It would seem almost absurd to be angry about $80,000 when every day you're dealing with clients who are hoping that any day that check comes in," said Prizgintas, 27. His salary is also far higher than the typical $40,000 starting wage for a legal aid attorney.
In exchange for reduced income, deferred associates get more experience in court and interacting with clients than they could get early on at big firms, said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute, which encourages public interest work by commercial law firms.
While big firms generally perform a certain amount of pro bono work each year to stay in good standing with their professional associations, the work of deferred associates doesn't count in most cases because associates are not yet employees of the firms, she said.
Not all nonprofits can accept free legal help. Some lack resources to train and supervise new lawyers or equip them with computers.
For those able to accept the assistance, it comes at a perfect time. The recession has heightened demand for legal services for the poor, while budget cuts and a slowdown in foundation grants and private giving have put pressure on many public interest offices to scale back their work.
At Legal Aid of D.C., a hiring freeze has left three of 26 attorney positions vacant. The organization has taken four deferred law firm associates for the year and two for shorter periods. They help with research and client interviews, freeing up staff attorneys to take on more cases, said Eric Angel, the group's legal director.
There are some concerns that law firm fellowships are making it harder for those intending to enter public interest law to land jobs. But the nonprofits insist deferred associates aren't taking anyone's place since they wouldn't have the money to hire anyway.
Public interest law offices can expect more free labor ahead. Many firms have announced plans to defer next year's crop of new attorneys too — and some hope sending recruits into the field before bringing them on board full-time will become a permanent feature of legal hiring.
The arrangements were "a creative response by the firms to what was a very ugly crisis," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has eight law firm fellows. "My wish going forward is that what you can do in bad times you can do in good times."
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Law license return not automatic for ex-judge
By Phillip Rawls, The Associated Press
October 27, 2009
MOBILE -- A former judge won't automatically get his law license back now that he has been cleared of criminal charges accusing him of paddling and sexually abusing young inmates.
A decision on what happens to the law license of former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas could take months, said Jeff Deen, his defense attorney.
Thomas served 17 years as a judge before resigning in 2007 after allegations arose that he had spanked inmates. After resigning, he resumed his career as an attorney.
That changed in March when a Mobile County grand jury indicted him, and the Alabama State Bar quickly suspended the license of the 48-year-old former judge.
Most of the 103 criminal charges against Thomas got dismissed either by prosecutors or the trial judge, but he was tried on 21 charges of sodomy, attempted sodomy, sex abuse and second-degree assault.
On Monday, the jury found him not guilty of seven charges and reported it couldn't reach a verdict on the remaining 14 charges. The trial judge, Circuit Judge Claud Neilson, threw out the remaining counts, ruling that the evidence didn't support the charges.
Thomas walked out of court a free man, but he didn't walk back into his lifelong profession.
Deen said the next goal for Thomas' defense team is to help him get his law license back, but he said, "It's not automatic."
Tony McClain, general counsel for the Alabama State Bar, said the Bar's proceedings against Thomas were put on hold while the criminal case was pending.
The accusations involved in Thomas' suspension of his law license cover some of the same accusations as in the criminal case, including improper contact with young male inmates who appeared before him in court:
The big difference, McClain said, is "we've got a different level of proof" than a criminal court.
Also, some of the charges against Thomas got thrown out because the four-year statute of limitations had expired, but McClain said the State Bar's cases have a six-year statute of limitations for each case.
McClain said the next step is for Thomas to have time to gather information and then have a hearing before the State Bar's disciplinary panel. No date has been set.
"If he's found guilty of any of our charges, it could be anything from a private reprimand to disbarment," McClain said.
Defense attorney Robert "Cowboy Bob" Clark said jurors were persuaded by defense witnesses, including a Roman Catholic archbishop, who testified about Thomas' many hours of community service work, particularly as a mentor for youth people. He's hoping the State Bar will come to the same conclusion about Thomas.
"He's done more for Mobile than any two men combined," Clark said.
One thing Thomas won't have to worry about is a big legal bill. Clark said he and Deen have represented Thomas for free because "he's been a friend for years."
County to observe Pro Bono Week
By Amy Jones | Shelby County Reporter
October 14, 2009
The Shelby County Commission is working to make sure local citizens in need get legal help, regardless of whether they can pay for it.
The commission Oct. 12 passed a proclamation declaring Oct. 25-31 Pro Bono Week in Shelby County. The Alabama State Bar sponsors Pro Bono Week, which will happen across the state.
While many communities across the state will host legal aid clinics to assist the needy, Commissioner Lindsey Allison said such events are not necessary in Shelby County because of the bond among those in the legal community.
“We don’t necessarily do those events. We don’t have to because we have such a tight community, the judges get us to help the people who need to be helped.”
According to the proclamation, 7 percent of Shelby County citizens live in poverty. In the state of Alabama, there are more than 422,000 low-income households, and there are less than 55 paid legal aid lawyers available to serve them.
Allison said more people are now attempting to represent themselves in legal issues because of the fear they will be unable to afford an attorney.
Since such concerns have touched Shelby County citizens, it’s important for attorneys to remember the less fortunate. Pro Bono Week will help serve as a reminder, Allison said.
“I think what the state bar is trying to show, even though we’ve consistently done it in Shelby County, is that there are those who are less fortunate that can’t afford legal services,” she said. “We have an obligation as attorneys to help those who can’t help themselves.”
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Lawyers donate time for legal aid
By Michelle Mann, The Enterprise Ledger
October 14, 2009
Fourteen percent of Enterprise residents live in poverty, according to Shannon Clark. That is part of the reason the Coffee County Bar Association will host two free Legal Aid Clinics next week, she said.
Clark is president of the local 50-member bar association that will hold free the free clinics from 4:30 until 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Enterprise Public Library and Oct. 29 at the public library in Elba.
Nearly 20 percent of Coffee County’s attorneys donate their time in free legal services each year, Clark said, “But there is still a huge, unmet need for legal assistance for the disadvantaged in our area.”
This is the first time the local bar has participated in the nationwide week that recognizes the volunteer service of lawyers. Last year, Clark said, some 3,000 lawyers statewide donated 5,000 hours of free legal services to assist disadvantaged residents.
“We’re trying to heighten public awareness about legal services,” Clark said. “The concept of providing access to civil legal justice without cost is fundamental to the culture of the legal profession and has been viewed as an ethical responsibility of attorneys since the beginning of the profession.”
Reservations are not required for to attend the clinics, Clark said. She said she can be contacted at 393-7680 for more information.
“People just need to come,” she said.
“To provide justice for all,” is the focus of Pro Bono Week, Clark said. “Unlike the criminal defense system, the constitutional guarantee of funding for low-income Alabamians who need civil legal assistance is not met.”
Alabama ranks 51st in spending for legal aid from all sources to the poor, according to Clark. “The legal problems faced by those living in poverty can have serious, long-term consequences for children and as a result, for society as a whole,” Clark said.
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On the Move
The Times Daily, Florence
October 11, 2009
Florence attorney David Howard has been chosen to be commissioner-at-large on the Alabama State Bar Board of Bar Commissioners. He also was elected as secretary-treasurer of the Alabama Defense Lawyers Association. He specializes in defense litigation and practices in Carr Allison's Florence office.
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Uniform Bar Exam Drawing Closer to Reality
Leigh Jones, National Law Journal
October 12, 2009
It could mark one of the biggest changes for lawyers joining the profession since the first U.S. bar exam was given in Delaware in 1763 -- a single bar exam aimed at standardizing attorney credentials nationwide.
Next year, at least 10 states are expected to switch to the so-called Uniform Bar Exam, and 22 other jurisdictions are positioned to adopt the test in the next few years. The test, developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, will allow law school graduates to transport their bar scores across state lines without re-taking exams. And backers say a uniform exam will improve the quality of bar exams, particularly in states with small test-development budgets.
The test still has big hurdles to overcome. Several of the biggest legal markets have yet to sign on: New York, California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois and Texas so far have taken a pass. Some worry the test will give short shrift to important state law concepts. Others have scheduling problems and scoring concerns. And the test puts a great deal of power in the hands of the NCBE, which gives some state-level bar officials pause.
Even so, the fact that several states have accepted one test may mean a major shift for the profession. Individual states have doggedly clung to their autonomy in testing lawyers, and this would mean giving up that power. "Roughly 10" states have indicated that they will give the uniform test by 2011, said Erica Moeser, president of the NCBE, though she wouldn't provide specifics on which states will actually sign on. However, officials in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri have said they are considering the test. Next month, representatives from the states that will be among the first adopting the test will gather in Phoenix to discuss late-stage details of implementing the exam.
"It's got to start somewhere, and it's happening," said John J. McAlary, executive director of the New York State Board of Law Examiners. New York, which administers some 15,000 bar examinations each year, is considering the uniform exam. That said, McAlary doesn't expect the state to make a move anytime soon. "There are significant challenges with it," he said. New York will not send representatives to next month's meeting.
A QUESTION OF STATE LAW
Foremost among the doubters' concerns is how states will evaluate an applicant's knowledge of state law, since the uniform test will focus on federal law and doctrine. Related to that concern is the weight that a mastery of state law will play in admission to practice. Supporters of a uniform test, recognizing the resistance among some states to relinquish authority over their bar exams, are careful to call it a "uniform" instead of a "national" or, worse, a "federal" test.
No state yet has formally adopted the uniform test and exactly which ones will be the first to sign up is uncertain. Some 22 jurisdictions already use the three test components developed by the NCBE that will make up the uniform bar exam. In order to convert to a uniform test, those states will all score the components uniformly and, most importantly, will establish score portability, the essential element of the project. Once they do, each will honor applicants' passing score from the other states.
One component of the uniform bar exam will be the Multistate Bar Exam, a multiple-choice test with 200 questions that 48 states and the District of Columbia already use. The other two portions will be the Multistate Essay Exam and the Multistate Performance Test.
Missouri has "preliminarily decided" to move to the uniform test, said Kellie Early, executive director of the Missouri Board of Law Examiners. She expects implementation no earlier than 2011. She noted that states seem reluctant to be the first to embrace the uniform exam. "I don't know who else is doing it," Early said. "We say that we might be the only ones."
Minnesota won't be ready for a 2010 rollout, but state Board of Law Examiners Director Margaret Fuller Corneille would not rule out a 2011 launch. The state still has some "timing" issues to work through before it makes a final decision, she said.
The NCBE won't identify the states sending representatives to Phoenix, but they likely will come from the pool of the 22 jurisdictions already using the three test components. "We have preferred to take matters slowly and carefully and don't want to jeopardize the eventual outcome by rushing to identify jurisdictions that are undertaking the prudent evaluation of the concept and reality of the UBE," Moeser said in an e-mail.
Vocal support for the uniform exam has come from state bar examination officials from Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and North Dakota. Some of the other jurisdictions using NCBE testing components are Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oregon and Utah. Most jurisdictions that adopt the uniform test will need their highest courts to issue orders enacting the change and will need to modify some practice rules.
Although some of the largest jurisdictions have yet to be persuaded to administer a uniform test, Moeser said that the movement can proceed. "I have never felt that the participation of any particular jurisdictions would be essential," she said. "There is no downside to starting on a modest scale if that is what occurs."
Illinois is among the states now using all three test components. But according to Neil K. Quinn, president of the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, his state is not on board with the uniform test at the moment. "We don't have enough information," he said, but officials are "continuing to examine" the idea.
The District of Columbia also is hesitating. Mark S. Carlin, an NCBE trustee and chairman of the Committee on Admissions of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, said that a stumbling block in the District is how to reconcile the bulk, three-component score that the uniform test will provide with D.C.'s practice of considering just the multiple-choice test score for admitting out-of-District applicants.
Under the plan for a uniform test, each state could still set its own minimum pass score, or "cut score," but the score would represent the applicant's performance on all three components. Currently, the scoring scales applied to tests and the weights given to different subjects or types of questions vary across jurisdictions. The uniform test would eliminate those differences. States still could require some state law component for admission to the bar, but, under the uniform system, the state portion would not figure into the portable uniform exam score and would not present a significant hindrance to licensing in a state.
Moving toward one test will create notable changes in legal education and the practice of law, said Jerome Hafter, chair of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The greatest benefit, he said, will be the portability of scores for new graduates. In recent years, more jurisdictions have admitted out-of-state attorneys to practice by a motion to a state court; a portable score is part of a trend toward the nationalization -- if not globalization -- of legal practice, Hafter said. He personally supports the uniform test, although the ABA legal education section has no official position on the issue.
It is important for states to be able set their own pass scores, Hafter said, but he expects that most eventually will settle on the same score, the equivalent of 135 out of 200 on the Multistate Bar Exam.
As more states move toward one test, Hafter expects a normalization of law school curriculum, to focus on the core subjects covered on the test. Law schools would not feel the pressure to cover "niche" subjects such as workers' compensation or oil and gas law, since those subjects would not be included.
Eliminating those niche subjects from a bar exam is exactly why Pennsylvania is not adopting the uniform test, said Mark Dows, executive director of the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners. Dows' board has not ruled out a uniform test in the future; it already uses the NCBE's multiple-choice test, he said. But for now, Pennsylvania wants to retain control over its exam, including the essay portion, which covers 15 state-law subjects. Dows worries that his state would lack input on a uniform test. The Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners has an annual budget of about $2 million.
"We don't have any say with the [uniform] test questions," Dows said. At present, "we have control of what we write."
Neither Dows nor other state bar exam officials interviewed for this article criticized the quality of the NCBE's tests, but some echoed Dows' concerns that ceding control of the state portion of their bar exams would harm the profession and the public. The concern is that attorneys need to demonstrate an understanding of state law, which is critical to local practices.
A related concern is that too much power in attorney licensing would rest with the NCBE, a private corporation and, as Dows put it, a "vendor." The organization sells its tests to the states. "Attorneys are officers of the court, and some think that it should be handled by a government agency instead of a private company," said one bar examiner, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
The nonprofit NCBE reported $9.8 million in revenue and $47.7 million in assets for the tax year that ended in June 2009. Moeser's annual salary was $277,179. In 2008, the organization reported $13.1 million in total revenue and $52.1 million in assets. Moeser's salary that year was $265,020. Moeser attributed the decline in revenue from 2008 to 2009 to lower returns on investments.
The NCBE board of trustees comprises 12 volunteer members, all of whom are active or former bar examiners from various states. Attorneys, judges and law professors, usually from respectable but not top-tier schools, serve on test-drafting committees and generally receive $6,000 each year for their work. In February 2008, the NCBE moved into new headquarters, a $10 million building in Madison, Wis.
The impetus for establishing the uniform exam is to improve the profession, Moeser said. "The [Uniform Bar Exam] was never conceived as a revenue producer. It is viewed as a good idea, the time for which has finally arrived in a world that has seen multijurisdictional practice grow on the national and international level," she said. "If anything, candidates will take fewer of our tests because they will have score portability."
Moeser was unaware of concern about handing over power to a private company. "It is unclear to me how the fact that attorneys are officers of the court relates to the need to have licensing decisions made via the fairest high-quality tests available," she said. "Every profession deserves this, and all that the UBE does is bring law into line with other professions in having a uniform licensing test." Indeed, medicine and accounting have standardized licensing.
The NCBE has not determined how much the uniform test will cost. The price per test-taker of the three components, which require two days of testing, will be $96 in 2011, Moeser said. The NCBE sells about 69,000 each year at $52 each.
"We expect no increase just because states use the three tests as components of the UBE."
Bar President Tom Methvin asks members of the Alabama Association for Justice to support VLP
A priority of Tom Methvin’s year as President of the Bar is Access to Justice. A key component to ensuring that everyone in Alabama has access to the legal services they need is the Volunteer Lawyer Program. Mr. Methvin recently sent a letter to all members of The Alabama Association for Justice asking that they join this program.
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NAACP to host civil rights pioneer
The News Courier, Athens, Ala.
October 07, 2009
The Limestone County NAACP Branch will host the Alabama NAACP State Conference 57th Annual State Convention at the Decatur Holiday Inn Oct. 22-25 with a special guest appearance by a woman who was beaten and left for dead at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. Guests include Amelia Platts Boynton, 98, a member of the group that formulated strategies for nonviolent social resistance in Alabama and most widely known as a civil rights activist and organizer for the march over the Edmond Pettus Bridge. . . Also, Attorney Thomas J. Methvin, managing partner of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C. law firm of Montgomery and recently elected president of the Alabama State Bar Association, will make remarks.
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Working for Their Clients – [Editorial]
The New York Times
October 8, 2009
The Legal Services Corporation was created to help provide essential civil legal services to low-income Americans. In the mid-1990s, the Republican-controlled Congress imposed sweeping and unwarranted restrictions that continue to hamper the work of local legal services offices.
One egregious rule bars legal services providers from representing clients in class-action lawsuits — even though such suits can be an efficient way to obtain relief for problems affecting a large number of people. Another eliminates one deterrent to consumer fraud against the poor by preventing attorneys paid by legal services from claiming or collecting fees from opposing parties.
In coming days, the Senate is expected to pass a Justice Department appropriations bill that would allow legal services offices to use money raised from other sources to provide these and other important services to clients. Such offices often get the bulk of their financing from private foundations, wealthy individuals and state and local governments. Congress certainly has no business dictating how that money is used.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat of Maryland, has tirelessly championed this reform in the Senate. The House version of the Justice Department spending bill lifts the class-action ban but leaves in place the restriction on how legal services providers can spend non-federal money. Once the measure clears the Senate, Ms. Mikulski and the White House will have to work hard to ensure that the final version includes the Senate provision.
The House bill does have one clear advantage: It provides $440 million to pay for legal services — $40 million more than the current Senate version.
In these difficult times, the demand for help is so high that legal aid offices around the country are being forced to turn away at least half their potential clients. Congress needs to make sure that the Legal Services Corporation is well financed, and it must lift these restrictions so lawyers can fully represent their clients.
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Lawyers Get YouTube-Style Site
Douglas S. Malan, The Connecticut Law Tribune
October 06, 2009
When it comes to searching for lawyers, Alabama trial attorney Lew Garrison believes people need more information than what they get from directories that simply list names of lawyers.
Potential clients need to learn more about the personal side of the lawyer, as they would when having a conversation, Garrison said. To help make those introductions, Garrison launched a Web site called LegalTube that serves as a video directory and lawyer-search resource.
The Web site went live on Sept. 1 after about four months of development.
"Like anyone, we're just trying to figure out how to get more business and how to get more cases through the door by marketing more effectively," said Garrison, who is partner of the 13-lawyer Birmingham, Ala.-based firm of Heninger Garrison Davis.
Garrison's firm handles various civil litigation including asbestos claims, medical malpractice and trucking accidents. The firm has done television advertisements but wanted the ability to provide more information about themselves to potential clients.
That's when Garrison decided to create the site with the help of a Web development and videography team, which handles all of the maintenance and production on the site.
"We wanted to create one site where lawyers could market their services," Garrison said. "It's the next best thing to being in the lawyer's office. It's giving the client a sense of what that person is really like."
The Web site features a graphically rich design with multiple features for users looking for attorneys.
The heart of the site allows people to search for lawyers by practice area and by state. The results of the searches are video snippets of attorneys talking about their practice, their experience in the law and answering general questions about specific areas of the law.
For example, as of last week, the only Connecticut lawyer with a presence on LegalTube was Carter Mario, a Milford-based personal injury lawyer. In Mario's vignette, he discusses auto accident cases with a woman who's conducting the interview in the style of a news-talk television show via satellite feed. The woman appears to be in one city while Mario is talking with the Hartford skyline as a backdrop.
Other attorneys' video segments include tours of law offices and presentations about how and why they got into the practice of law. Most of the videos are about two to three minutes long.
But there's more to the site than lawyers talking about law. There's also an "arresting entertainment" section with lawyers telling lawyer jokes on video and also relating some strange moments they've had while representing clients. The site also posts updates to its reality series, "Law After Dark," which currently features videos from night court proceedings in small towns north of Birmingham.
Garrison said about 50 law firms have signed up to add videos to the site and salespeople are contacting lawyers in every state: "We're loading videos as fast as we can right now."
The cost for adding a video profile depends on the size of the market. Connecticut is considered to be among the largest markets because of its proximity to Boston and New York, so the cost to post a video is $900 per month.
Contracts run for six months or one year, Garrison said. The LegalTube team will shoot and produce the video snippet for an extra cost, or law firms can shoot their own videos and provide them to LegalTube, Garrison added.
Part of the deal includes exclusivity, Garrison noted. There are 18 practice areas highlighted by the site, and only four lawyers' profiles can be posted in each practice area for a particular state. So with the Connecticut personal injury lawyer search, Mario is now featured along with three out-of-state law firms. No other personal injury lawyer can post a video in that section until one of the current profiles is removed.
"You're not going to be in a directory where it's just page after page of text listings," Garrison said.
It's all an effort to present a more three-dimensional image to the public searching for legal representation, Garrison said. "This is a new way to market legal services," he said. "Everything is headed to the Internet whether we like it or not."
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Lawyers scarce for poor facing foreclosure
By Brad Heath, USA TODAY
October 6, 2009
WASHINGTON — The nation's foreclosure crisis has swamped lawyers for the poor, leaving thousands of low-income homeowners across the country without legal assistance that could save their homes.
Legal offices providing help to the poor are turning away many who have been hit hard by the economy, according to lawyers in cities across the country who were interviewed by USA TODAY.
A study to be released today by the Brennan Center for Justice found that many people now face complicated foreclosure proceedings with "no opportunity to obtain help from a lawyer."
The deluge is hitting cities across the country: Cleveland, Las Vegas, Washington, Phoenix, and others, USA TODAY found. In Chicago, the number of people seeking help has more than doubled over the past two years, says Dan Lindsey, who supervises a foreclosure program there. In Miami, so many people started seeking help that the local legal aid office now turns away everyone but people over 60 and families with children, says senior attorney Carolina Lombardi.
"It's overwhelming how many people don't have representation," says Melanca Clark, a Brennan Center for Justice lawyer and the study's author. "People don't know what to do when they have to go through this alone."
The Brennan Center, part of the New York University law school, found that it's tough to get help in several states. In parts of New York, more than 80% of homeowners facing foreclosures on high-risk mortgages did not have a lawyer. In Connecticut, about 60% of property owners didn't have a lawyer.
Hiring a private lawyer can cost over $5,000, a price out of reach for most homeowners who can't pay their mortgages, says AnnaMarie Johnson, executive director of Nevada Legal Services.
Meanwhile, the tide of foreclosures shows little sign of ebbing. The number of foreclosure filings last month was nearly 18% higher than in August 2008, according to the tracking firm RealtyTrac.
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Lawsuit website rankles some lawyers
By MISSY DIAZ, SUN-SENTINEL (Miami, FL)
October 5, 2009
Have you been bitten by a vicious dog? Been the victim of a surgical mishap? A sexual assault on a cruise ship? There's a lawyer waiting for your call.
Boca Raton-based whocanisue.com has scores of billboards and bus-shelter signs dominating the tri-county landscape, showing a lawyer slipping on a banana peel. The service matches website visitors with lawyers in a quick-and-easy form that takes just minutes to complete.
Choose your complaint from a drop-down menu -- nursing home abuse, for example -- and then a subcategory, such as bed sores, dehydration or falls and fractures. Plug in your ZIP code and in the click of a mouse, a page or more of lawyers appears.
But there's controversy over this seemingly quick way to sue for a quick buck.
The site has drawn the ire of many in the legal community, including the vice chairman of a Florida Bar advertising-ethics committee. Critics say whocanisue and other online referral services degrade the legal profession and often steer the public to lawyers who operate under a business model of ``bring in as many cases as you can and settle them.''
Others, including those who advertise there, say it's just another way to attract clients.
``I'm getting probably twice as many phone calls,'' said Martin Saenz, a Miami labor and employment lawyer who has been advertising on the site for just more than a month. ``Of course, not all of them have a case. A lot of time is spent going through cases, but I get clients. Old-school lawyers have to keep up with technology.''
Mitch Polay, a Fort Lauderdale personal injury and criminal attorney, says colleagues recommended the site, and in the month he's been using it, his phone hasn't stopped ringing.
``The name was catchy,'' Polay said. ``I was upset I didn't think of it.''
Whocanisue's tactics are ``egregious'' and ``directly appealing to people who want to be litigious, to seek out a claim,'' said West Palm Beach personal injury attorney Gary Lesser, managing partner of a 10-lawyer firm started by his grandfather.
``There are real people who are hurt, who need lawyers,'' he said. ``Whocanisue.com is part of an emerging trend. They are not a law firm, but a referral agency.''
Lesser is vice chairman of the Florida Bar's advertising committee, which governs lawyer advertising by reviewing and monitoring ads. Lawyers are supposed to submit their ads in advance, Lesser said, but with 87,000 Bar members it's impossible to know how many lawyers are not doing so.
Complicating matters is that the Bar only regulates lawyers, not referral services like whocanisue.com, which skirts the rules for lawyer ads. If a lawyer who advertises on it breaks a Bar rule, such as promising a client a specific outcome such as a monetary judgment, the lawyer can face discipline. Sanctions range from a fine to a reprimand to suspension, though the latter is seldom used and reserved for repeat offenders, according to Lesser.
Even some law firms advertising on TV -- something once frowned upon in the legal community -- are critical of whocanisue.com's approach. Powerhouse West Palm Beach firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart and Shipley runs spots, but senior partner F. Gregory Barnhart says it isn't ``direct advertising'' and that they don't even include phone numbers. The whocanisue marketing strategy, he said, is ``a disgrace.''
``We're not advertising for whiplash cases or bad backs or slip-and-falls,'' Barnhart said.
``We handle large cases. Those people who slip and fall in Publix, God bless them. If [a
firm] has to hire some guy who looks like a fireman to keep the phones ringing, that's fine'' for them.
Whocanisue was launched in October 2008 by Curtis Wolfe, 46, a former in-house counsel at a large Miami firm. He's well aware that his site's name might offend some.
``It's definitely meant to be edgy,'' he said. ``We wanted to provoke people. Most lawyer advertising is unremarkable and not memorable. I would sit at home and see these ads asking if you're injured blah, blah, blah. There was no branding involved. We have a brand.''
The company's office on West Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton has 22 employees, the majority in sales. Two hundred and fifty law firms are signed up as clients and about 25,000 people visit the site each month. Whocanisue.com also advertises in Texas, California, New York, Pennsylvania and other states.
``At this rate we are projecting to do $10 million-plus in 2010,'' said president Vincent Celentano, who helped finance the multimillion-dollar start up, which includes irreverent television spots featuring buxom nurses and a pack of lawyers chasing an ambulance.
Despite the parody, Wolfe says, his site actually is the ``anti-ambulance-chasing lawyers.''
``Come to our site, then find the attorney of your choosing when you're ready,'' he said.
Injuries top the list of queries, followed by loan modifications and foreclosures and then employment issues.
Wolfe says the site makes it very clear: “Whocanisue doesn't represent you. You're represented by whoever you hire as an attorney.'' Lesser said he and many other lawyers are dismayed at its appeal. “We get together and say: `It has come to this?' “
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