Pro Bono Legal Hotline Looking For Help?

American lawyers are not forced into providing pro bono legal work for exigent individuals who can’t afford help. But it’s recommended by the Bar association for a number of reasons. It doesn’t always take much time to help out, but it can make a tremendous difference in the life of the client. And building relationships is a big part of keeping any big law firm afloat. 

That’s why the American Bar Association describes it both as a professional and legal obligation to the community: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services per year.”

Unfortunately not all lawyers seem to agree. Alpine Legal Services (ALS), a Glenwood Springs legal aid office, is having trouble finding enough volunteers to run a hotline service called “Ask a Lawyer.” The worst part? The service is only provided on Wednesday night. It’s not a huge commitment. 

Noone Law Firm attorney Claire Noone said, “Anyone can call. These conversations allow people who feel silly asking questions or don’t know if they have rights or don’t have the money [for a lawyer] to have the access, time and attention of an attorney.”

A retired lawyer from Jones Gregg said, “Pro bono work is important for every law firm. When it’s simple work over the phone, why not encourage your law firm’s associates and partners to do it? The work builds relationships within the community, and that can lead to more clients down the road. It’s a win-win for both the clients receiving free legal expertise and the firm providing it.”

Noone said she wants to keep the hotline operational in order to smash common legal misconceptions. According to her, you’re not supposed to need a lawyer for many legal obligations in life such as divorce. You can also file a lawsuit in small claims court without the need for legal representation. It’s all about “empowering” people, she said. Sometimes all it takes is a small push to let someone know they can do some of the work themselves.

Noone said there was a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic: “In April, 2020, with the help of an Americorps volunteer, we switched to phones.”

In other words, these same services used to be provided in person. But some people are anxious about meeting a lawyer — especially if they don’t have money or don’t know if their case has validity. By opening the hotline, these people were the first to benefit. Those without access to transportation or who are too busy with work might also make the call, which might last less than fifteen minutes.

Only nine attorneys volunteered to keep the hotline running. That means some people still have to wait on hold to tell their story. Noone wants even more access. 

University of Denver Sturm College of Law Associate Dean Alexi Freeman said, “Pro bono work can also be emotionally and mentally challenging, because you’re often supporting individuals, groups, or causes that are in real crisis.”

Pro Bono Lawyers Win Massive $26 Million Case

Lawyers Karen Dunn of Paul, Wiess, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Robert Kaplan of Kaplan, Hecker & Fink, and Alan Levine represented nine clients who were injured during a white supremacist rally in 2017. Not only did they do it for free, but they also won $26 million on behalf of those clients.

According to Karen Dunn, the four-week trial showcased “a bubble of hate and violence.”

Kaplan is Jewish. She decided to take the case after reviewing the facts — and seeing with her own eyes what the protestors were capable of thinking and doing. The conservative extremists carried torches and weapons while they marched. They chanted. Cameras caught them voicing slogans like “Jews will not replace us.”

During protests such as these, counter-protestors usually take the streets opposite to voice their opposition to the insidious supremacist ideas. One man, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his vehicle into these counter-protestors, killing one and injuring many others. The pro bono lawyers served only nine, but there were dozens injured by this man. Fields is behind bars for good, thanks to the work of state prosecutors.

Dunn acknowledged the obstacles facing such a case. She said, “External threats have been a constant from the very moment we filed this case…We had maybe six lawyers at the time. The idea that we would be able to do a case of that size was obviously insane. It immediately occurred to me that we needed help.”

She began her own firm, but looked to past colleagues for legal aid. She received it almost immediately. Their lawsuit was also supported and funded by the nonprofit Integrity First for America. Everyone assumed the case would go to trial — and it did.

They planned to argue that the defendants in the case, some of the protestors, were guilty of conspiracy to commit violence — and that the protestors’ right to free speech does not protect from the legal repercussions of committing such a crime. And the team won their case.

What Is Enforceable Pro Bono Obligation And Who Is Subject?

Many people have used the pandemic to band together in a show of community support. Teachers have gone from the classroom to learning how to teach remotely and then back to the classroom. Lawyers and judges have begun to do business online and in a virtual space. Healthcare providers have been most at risk but reap the fewest rewards. Everyone has had to make these changes in order to keep the country moving in the right direction.

Most state bar organizations ask law firms to commit a specific number of hours to pro bono work. Others enforce it. And that “pro bono obligation” is what we’re here to discuss. While we hope lawyers would commit their time voluntarily, some must be compelled. The reason? Not everyone can afford legal help, and public attorneys don’t always provide the same caliber of work that private attorneys do. 

Usually, obligation precedes bar certification. A 2012 ruling made New York the first state to implement such a rule. 

Presiding Judge Jonathan Lippman said, “If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is — and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should — these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession.”

That law hasn’t yet been applied to most practicing lawyers. 

What’s the driving idea of pro bono obligation? It’s similar to what it means to provide jury duty, which is considered not just a civil service — but a civil “duty.”  We don’t do it because it’s convenient, personally beneficial, or because we want to. We perform the service because it’s a duty required of us by the community. That doesn’t change that providing such a service can be very rewarding and provide individuals with a great deal of fulfillment. Whether or not lawyers or those seeking to pass the bar exam perform pro bono work willingly, then, is not so important.

An anonymous family lawyer from the Matteucci Family Law firm said, “Many legal clients in need of pro bono services arise in our neck of the woods, New Mexico. Imagine you’re in a toxic relationship with an abusive partner who wants to take the kids. She’s got money and influence, but she beats them or does drugs. You know they need to be removed, but you can’t afford the same kind of legal help she can. That’s where pro bono work comes in. We make this work — because that’s why we’re here.”

Visit website here to see what the law firm is all about.

The pandemic might be inspiring change in the way we all feel about pro bono obligation — and whether or not that obligation should be applied only to those seeking to pass the bar, or those who already have succeeded. It’s also worth wondering where these laws are likely to be written first. This might be worth the wait.

Attorney Joseph Bauer Making A Pro Bono Difference

Not every lawyer takes pro bono work seriously. Why should they give their time so freely only to receive little name recognition? But not everyone became a lawyer for fame or fortune. Esteemed attorney Joseph Bauer is one such man. After retiring, Bauer chose to pay a hefty fee in order to procure a foreign attorney license to be inducted into the Indiana Bar. That was before a rule change that rescinded the fee. Now he doesn’t have to dip into his savings.

The Supreme Court admitted Bauer to the Indiana Bar because he “intended to provide legal services free of charge to persons of limited means through a pro bono or other legal service organization eligible for fee waiver.”

And that’s all one needs to practice law under the Indiana Bar.

That doesn’t mean everyone is lining up at once. Only eight applications have been processed since the program’s implementation. The program allows any attorney to apply if they are in good standing and uphold a fine moral character while practicing the law. 

Attorney Asher-Waite Jones said, “I think it’s a fantastic program. There’s almost nothing you can’t do as a pro bono attorney. I think, for me, I went to law school knowing I wanted to be a public interest attorney. I knew that I only wanted to represent clients living in poverty. If someone is already a pro bono attorney, and you want to work with low-income clients, it’s a fantastic way to waive the bar requirement and waive into Indiana on a shorter timeline basis.”

Bauer is just happy to help out the community. 

Attorney Gina Frey put her legal career on hold after becoming pregnant. After moving to Indiana, she decided to use the program to jump back into law. She said, “I didn’t think I could get any legal work, as I had been out of the ‘game,’ so to speak, for a number of years…I sent my resume to their office manager and their general counsel reached out to me and told me about (pro bono publico).”

How Law Firms Are Achieving Their Pro Bono Financial Goals

Fundraising has long been a difficult task for bigger law firms that provide many hundreds of hours of pro bono service each year. But the task is making gains, both because of new technologies and new support from the public and state and federal governments. Everyone understands that when the justice system fails, it’s often pro bono work that sets everything right. So how are law firms finally achieving their pro bono financial goals?

According to the OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview in 2021 predicted that 235 million people would require some kind of humanitarian aid over the next twelve months. This represents an enormous increase over the previous year.

But it might not be too much to handle.

Increasing implementation of remote working provided pro bono firms with critical decreases to expenditures. This came at an important time due to the increase in needed services. New systems like Remote Legal Connect were put into service in order to connect legal services with those who need them. This allowed new programs to be built in a streamlined fashion.

One client of the new engine said, “After I talked to the attorney, I left  like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

An attorney who uses Remote Legal Connect added, “I went to law school, so I should be able to figure this [technology] out!”

And the technology is built to be simplistic to use, both for client and lawyer.

In other words, digital tools are being used more than ever. It’s easier for low-income individuals to find information directly on the Internet. This gives those in need with more choices when it comes to finding a law firm that can provide the right service for the right person.

The United States remains the nation with the highest worldwide incarceration rate. Over 2400 individuals have had sentences vacated since 1989. While that might not seem like a large number compared to the millions upon millions of convictions in the decades since, it’s startling to see why many of these occurrences happened in the first place. Usually, we find that it was due to misconduct or lying on the stand. More resources for lawyers means that more cases like those aren’t likely to happen at all.

Many criminal defense lawyers acknowledge that some defendants are probably innocent. An anonymous lawyer for Ronald Freeman Law said, “At the end of the day we’ll never know exactly how many of our clients are innocent or guilty. But you do get the sense that you can start to figure out how, why, and when someone is lying to you. We expect that a judge can figure out who’s telling the truth. But we forget lawyers have the same skill! I’ll say this much: I’ve defended clients who I thought were innocent. A few were convicted anyway. It’s my job to work to find a way to stop that from happening again. It’s all of our jobs.”

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Wrongful Imprisonment And Death Row Cases In The Spotlight

Former President Donald Trump spent his last remaining days in office putting more people to death than any president has in decades. Most of those individuals had stories that should have saved them from capital punishment. Perhaps that’s why so many pro bono lawyers are spending dozens of hours trying to free wrongfully imprisoned men and women this year — and why the mainstream media is actually paying attention.

Usually, these cases were ruled upon decades ago. The defendants never acknowledged guilt. The prosecution made huge mistakes. Witnesses later recanted sworn testimony. The Attorney General who put the case to bed so long ago will never admit wrongdoing — and of course they don’t want an otherwise “good” record stained by a reversal.

With all these forces at work, it can be difficult to free men and women who were wrongfully convicted. While that might not make sense from a moral standpoint, it does make sense from a legal one.

The wrongfully imprisoned Trent Wells was convicted of rape and burglary in 1985. It took the jury 26 minutes to decide his fate. He was 19 and sentenced to 50 years without parole. He has maintained his innocence. No witnesses, physical evidence, or DNA tied him to the scene of the crime. No rape kit was ever received in court because it was lost. The ruling was vacated in 2021 — 36 years later. 

It proved to be a stroke of luck for Wells.

The case hinged upon changes to juror laws in the years since the crime was committed. Back then, he was convicted in a 10-2 decision. Unamity was not required for that conviction. That law has since changed, and jurors are required to provide a unanimous decision before convictions are made. 
A few months after the Wells verdict was vacated, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court decided that the new laws should not apply to old cases because of the drain on state resources or “stale” evidence.

Attorney Chris Edwards Wins Appeal In North Carolina Pro Bono Case

One of the practice areas in which there is an increased need for pro bono volunteers is family law — and we like to routinely recognize those attorneys who provide their time free of charge for impoverished clients whose lives are irrevocably changed by the effort. North Carolina attorney Chris Edwards has won a recent family law case on appeal that ended a mother’s parental rights on the basis that she was unfit. 

The name of the child that Edwards fought for has not been released.

The mother became pregnant after a period of sexual abuse when she was only thirteen years old. When she gave birth, her child was placed into foster care. She was placed in the care of the Department of Social Services (DSS). The goal of DSS was to eventually place the child into the grown mother’s care — but the court would ultimately decide whether or not that was to happen.

She was old enough to leave the custody of DSS in 2017. Two years later, in April of 2019, the DSS would argue in court that she should have her parental rights terminated. They cited NC General Statute 7B-1111, saying that the mother’s “neglect, willful failure to make reasonable progress, willful failure to pay a reasonable portion of her child’s cost of care, dependency, and willful abandonment” had contributed to the decision.

According to DSS, the mother had halted her education. She had dismissed parenting classes and therapy sessions, both of which were required for reunification with her child. DSS said she “disobeyed the rules of her placements and ran away.”

In September 2019, DSS won the case and the mother’s parental rights were terminated. She filed a notice of appeal. 

Edwards won the case when the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision, writing: “The TPR order to determine whether the trial court’s finding of facts supports its conclusion. [The mother] willfully left [the child] in foster care or placement outside the home for more than twelve months.”

Edwards said, “The Court does not decide to terminate the rights of a parent lightly, and it shouldn’t. Despite being a difficult and heartbreaking case, we must always put the best interests of the child first, and the Court’s decision reaffirms that.”

How the mother responded to the verdict is unknown. Her supporters pointed out that she has led a difficult life as the result of her own abuse, and the public should not be so quick to judge her as unfit or uncaring. She will continue to make progress at her own pace and still hopes to someday be reunited with her child.

Philadelphia Couples Have Trouble Divorcing Because Of Money Issues

There was a rise in divorce applications following the 2020 holiday season — but not as much of one as expected, considering many Pennsylvania residents had been cooped up together for the duration of the season. Generally, many people wait out the holidays to apply for divorce in February or March, when the bank account is fuller. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the money just isn’t there. And many impoverished state residents are paying a different price.

A 2019 survey conducted by Martindale-Nolo Research found that the average cost of divorce is $12,900. More than you expected? Well, it’s more than most Americans can afford. The cost goes down when an attorney guides the couple through the motions, but not everyone can afford one of those, either.

A recent Harvard Law School Study found that many people are trapped in loveless marriages because of the costs associated with divorce. Pro bono help is sorely needed, but there aren’t enough volunteers to fill the gap.

The study, which was published in PNAS, was conducted in Philadelphia County and found that pro bono help was more likely the longer a couple stays married.

Lead researcher Jim Greiner, Hon. S. William Green Professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School and Access to Justice Lab faculty director, said, “There is generally understood to be a constitutional right to a marriage, and a constitutional right to end your marriage. The Supreme Court has recognized the fact that divorce is one of the only legal contracts that the parties themselves cannot end without anybody else’s approval.”

And it’s that approval that costs money, even when both parties agree on terms.

Greiner said, “We asked folks why they didn’t want to be married anymore. Sometimes, someone had a single asset, such as a house, that they wanted to ensure wasn’t inherited by a person they had been separated from for 10 or 12 years.”

Marijuana Prosecution Leads To Lots Of Pro Bono Work

Many Americans have had an epiphany in recent years: perhaps prosecuting people for consuming marijuana isn’t the sensible thing to do. After all, why should our tax dollars be spent prosecuting and incarcerating people who aren’t actually harming anyone (except maybe themselves?). Shifting public opinions have resulted in the amount of marijuana-related pro bono work skyrocketing across the country.

An anonymous junior associate working for Hale Monico said, “Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that African Americans and Caucasians use cannabis at about the same rate in the United States, but that the justice system targets African Americans at a disproportionate and unbalanced rate. It’s not about doing wrong. It’s about systemic racism. We can’t ignore it any longer.”

Even in states where marijuana has been legalized, people are still getting arrested for marijuana-related crimes. And residents are sick of it.

Colorado House Bill 1090 would change existing marijuana laws to streamline the process for sealing marijuana convictions on a criminal record and increase the amount of marijuana that state residents can legally carry on their person from one ounce to two ounces.

Colorado Representative Alex Valdez said, “We’re really looking for folks who had kind of a one-time hiccup … allowing those folks to get on with life.”

A man named Steve DeAngelo started the Last Prisoner Project in 2019 in order to provide resources to those who had been incarcerated for using marijuana. The organization includes advocates for reform and a number of pro bono lawyers who agree. Partner Jim Belushi said, “There’s no better hustler in the world that Steve DeAngelo. Man, he’s just relentless, and it’s beautiful to watch.”

According to Belushi, the project’s achievements have never been greater. They still need more investments of course, and he acknowledged that most of the legal work done on behalf of the group is pro bono. 

Belushi said, “And it would be great if people in the [cannabis] industry hire those that get out [of jail]. He added, “Cannabis is not a gateway to drugs. It’s a pathway to healing.”

Belushi agreed that change was happening all across the country. He said, “This is a very exciting time in the cannabis world. People have seen changes in others [who partake in cannabis]. Tumors are shrinking, seizures are stopping, people are sleeping and people are getting better. It’s interesting because, no matter if you’re conservative or liberal or old or young, everybody knows someone that has suffered deeply.”

Not sure that you agree with the legalization of cannabis? Here’s an interesting TED Talk that might shed more light on the subject — especially on the fact that we have not actually legalized marijuana at all.

North American Pro Bono Organizations Experience Unprecedented Budget Cuts

Ontario’s budget for legal aid was slashed by 30 percent in 2019, which amounted to about $60-70 million. More recently, the legal aid budget was squeezed even more due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provides pro bono services and funds private lawyers in order to reduce impacts on marginalized minority individuals and populations when they find themselves in court without representation.

LAO Executive Director Jack de Klerk said, “The elimination of positions [within legal clinics] will be inevitable.”

LAO provided a number of overtime hours for associates over the past year as a result of the pandemic — a reality that has exhausted its budget even faster. Volunteer criminal law attorneys are in short supply, but the demand for them has only increased.

Many politicians disproportionately place blame on individual lawyers and law firms for failing to meet the rising calls to action, but fail to take responsibility for their own program cuts or reducing budgets across the board.

Professor Trevor Farrow of Osgoode Hall Law School explains, “Having access to justice primarily means having available options to prevent, address problems…This requires more than traditional courts and lawyers.”

Farrow believes the burden of action therefore falls to judges and legislators too. 

Pro bono legal aid in the United States hasn’t fared much better over the past few years, which is mostly as a result of former President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which targeted equal opportunity justice organizations. 

The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) responded to those proposals with a pleading letter: “For over four decades, the LSC has provided essential financial support for nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the nation, which serve close to two million low-income individuals annually. Its elimination would price law out of reach for those who need it most.”

Income inequality is the heart of the matter — and it’s a topic becoming more and more popular with left-leaning populations who wish to help the impoverished.