Lawyers guide poor out of paperwork maze

Free aid fills void, broadens perspective on cases for attorneys

August 17, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The woman in her 60s had only the clothes on her back, a few bags of belongings, a tiny apartment without much in it. But to her they were precious possessions she wanted to make legally certain would go to a cherished friend.

She pulled up a chair next to lawyer Patsy McGowan and made out her last will and testament at the Beans & Bread soup kitchen in Fells Point, leaving everything she had to a social worker who had helped her in her struggles.

"She had been wanting to get it done for a while," McGowan said. "She had sort of, in a small way, paid back [the social worker]."

Every second Thursday of the month, a small team of lawyers from Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll leaves its comfortable quarters on the 19th floor of a downtown office tower to take free cases at Beans & Bread.

With a growing number of high-powered firms, the Ballard lawyers are going to the clients to fill a persistent void -- the need for basic legal services for the working poor, the homeless and middle-income families.

Often, those who sign up to speak with the lawyers need help wading through forms for government benefits, negotiating with a landlord, or obtaining a divorce or custody of children. Sometimes, as in the case of the woman and the will, they seek to observe the formalities of life, just like those who have more to give and spend.

In June, the Baltimore firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston won the 1999 Maryland Law Firm Pro Bono Service Award from the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland for being the first firm to participate in an "Adopt-a-Shelter" program through Baltimore's Homeless Persons Representation Project. About 30 of the firm's 125 lawyers from Baltimore and Towson regularly visit three shelters in Baltimore, Pikesville and Owings Mills to help clients. The other firm involved in the shelter program is Ballard, Spahr. Its Baltimore office sends nine volunteers.

"We've seen a continued increase in the number of cases handled by volunteer lawyers," said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center. "The flip side is it's still very challenging to find sufficient resources. I think there's still much more potential in the bar to step forward."

Most large firms have always taken pro bono cases. But often the free work was in the form of advice to nonprofit community groups, or to clients who arrive one by one by referral to the lawyers' offices. Some law firms are recognizing that to give their employees a fuller sense of clients' situations, they must send lawyers where the people are.

That has led to a greater understanding of the cases, participants say. "I'm not on the 12th floor of the First Union Tower anymore. I'm down where these clients are living," said Whiteford, Taylor associate Frank J. Mastro, who visits a YWCA shelter in Reisterstown.

"It really opens your eyes. A client may have a dispute over $75, yet that $75 means as much to that client, if not more, than millions maybe to a corporate client."

On Thursday, McGowan joined fellow Ballard, Spahr associate Swata Gandhi Shea and two legal assistants to listen to prospective clients at Beans & Bread and Frederick Ozanam House, an adjoining outreach center for the homeless.

They met people such as Curtis Jones, a sad-eyed 66-year-old trying to get the stove and videocassette recorder he left behind during an eviction; Joseph Ashe, whose cane helps support a reed-thin frame and infected legs and who is looking for workers' compensation; and Alex Barnes, who wants a divorce.

Jones said his landlord evicted him from his Calhoun Street apartment in June because he was behind on his rent, but that several appliances he bought never made it to the curb. He had kept his receipts for the items, piled with his other papers and belongings in a large Save-A-Lot bag.

Jones said he had fallen behind on the rent because his landlord never provided a refrigerator for him -- vital for storing insulin for his diabetes. Finally, he bought one.

"It was probably wrong, but I was afraid for my life," Jones said.

Ashe, 54, said his leg injuries, suffered 14 years ago when he worked at an electric company, have kept him from working. A lawyer had arranged for him to receive workers' compensation, he said, but that compensation turned out to be temporary when it should have been permanent.

Ashe lives on the street. Another lawyer has told him he'll need to be re-evaluated by a doctor, he said, but the doctors he's been assigned have offices in the suburbs -- places he has no transportation to reach.

"There's a lot of problems I have right now," Ashe said. "My legs feel bad, and I don't feel like going. I just run out of rope -- that's what it seems like."

The lawyers said they would look into his case and try to find him a doctor downtown.

Sister Mary Louise Zollars, director of Frederick Ozanam House, said the lawyers have made a difference for the people she sees, who often are confused and frustrated by their dealings with bureaucracy.

"Their trust has been shattered so many times by the system," Zollars said. "This is just a phenomenal service."

Pub Date: 8/17/99

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