Lawyer volunteers hold brief for needy

December 27, 1992|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Television ads claim that if you have a telephone, you have a lawyer. But they don't tell you that you also need money.

The lawyers at the other end of the phone line take a one-third cut of any settlement a client receives. And if you aren't seeking money, you have to pay them.

That's where the Anne Arundel County Bar Foundation Inc. comes in.

The 2-year-old organization provides legal services free for the indigent and working poor.

Nearly half the county bar association's 685 lawyers have agreed to provide free services through the foundation's program, said John Greene, foundation president.

The program helped Kelly Norfolk, a 29-year-old Glen Burnie woman who was out of work, secure a divorce from the husband she hadn't seen in four years and an order for custody of their son.

Free.

"It gives you a nice feeling, like you've given something back to the community," said Saul McCormick, the Glen Burnie lawyer who took her case.

Mrs. Norfolk said that she was afraid that her former husband, who lives in Florida, would take their son unless a court order established that she had custody.

"Without anything from the court, he could just come up and take him without telling me," said Mrs. Norfolk, who lives in Marley Park. "He didn't need permission, and there was nothing to keep him from doing it."

When a case worker for the state Domestic Relations office in Annapolis told her a year ago that the bar foundation provided free legal services, she called.

Foundation staff members put her in touch with Mr. McCormick, who put in 10 hours -- roughly $1,000 worth of legal services -- at no charge, securing both the divorce and a court order awarding her custody of the son.

Mr. McCormick, who has been practicing law for 13 years, is a partner in Brown and McCormick, based in the 200 block of Crain Highway, Glen Burnie.

In this case, Mrs. Norfolk sent a note to the bar foundation, thanking them and telling them what a good job Mr. McCormick had done for her.

"You don't get that kind of response with every client," Mr. McCormick conceded.

Lawyers in the program can help the indigent, the working poor and working middle-class families who need a lawyer and can't afford one.

Douglas Hofstedt, executive director of the foundation, refused to release its eligibility requirements, arguing that some potential applicants might "tailor their situations" to meet the income criteria.

Attorneys in Anne Arundel County usually charge $75 to $160 per hour.

That means that drafting an average will can cost about $100 and the price of an uncontested divorce can range from $300 to $500, plus $225 in court costs.

"Not everyone can afford a lawyer. We realize that, and this is an attempt to try to balance the scales a little," Mr. Greene said.

The service is similar to that offered by the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc., which provides legal services for the poor.

But the foundation handles cases that the bureau cannot accept, such as divorces, bankruptcies and adoptions.

And in some cases, it tackles wills and problems senior citizens are having with tax and utility bills.

"What we try to do is get the people who really need the help and who fall through the cracks of the legal system," Mr. Hofstedt said.

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