Lawyers asked to give financial aid to Legal Aid

Balto. Co. effort in March seeks $2 or percentage of Thursdays' billable hours

January 21, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Eliot Wagonheim has heard all the lawyer jokes. He knows the shark metaphors. He can imagine how the term "billable hours" sounds to the public. But Wagonheim thinks he can kill these perceptions with kindness.

A lawyer himself, Wagonheim is tapping into the Baltimore County legal community's need for service by asking county lawyers to donate $2 or 2 percent for each billable hour on Thursdays in March. The money will go to the Legal Aid Bureau, which represents indigent clients in civil cases, the Baltimore County Bar Association and the new Baltimore County Firefighters Victims and Members Assistance Fund.

"I'm trying to take what is often the worst part of attorneys' reputation - the billable hour - and turn it into a pure good," Wagonheim said.

The timing couldn't be better. Charities across the state are seeing donations decline and nonprofit legal services fear decreased funding. At the same time, new court rules will make lawyers report pro bono work they did - or did not do - last year.

Last year, in the rules governing lawyers' professional conduct, the Maryland Court of Appeals set a goal for attorneys of 50 hours of pro bono work a year, and said they would have to report how much they do. This month lawyers were sent the forms to fill out with their 2002 service hours and donations. They are due next month.

Sharon E. Goldsmith, the executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, said she has noticed an increase in the number of lawyers looking to get involved.

"Anecdotally, people are paying a lot more attention," she said.

Nonprofit legal services, such as the Legal Aid Bureau, are hoping to benefit from that new focus, the same way they got attention from Wagonheim. These groups help low-income people with child-custody issues, unlawful evictions, benefits and other civil legal matters. It is a hefty task: Legal Aid says it is only reaching 20 percent of the population that needs its help.

Legal services receive the bulk of their money from interest generated on lawyer trust funds. But because of low interest rates and a constitutional challenge to those types of accounts, many expect that funding to drop, and fear more people will go without help.

"There is a real crisis in legal service funding," said Stephen J. Nolan, president of the county bar association, who has promoted Wagonheim's "Take Two" initiative on the organization's Web site. "And we are, as a bar association, working to do our part to meet the unmet needs of indigent citizens who have civil legal problems."

Numerous efforts have been made to secure additional funding for such services. The statewide Equal Justice Council was created in Maryland in the mid-1990s to raise funds for Legal Aid independent of the interest payments. This winter, local attorneys began setting up a Baltimore County chapter.

"The most success we've had outside of Baltimore City is when we get local lawyers involved in the effort," said Decatur H. Miller, chairman of the statewide Equal Justice Council. Harford and Anne Arundel counties have chapters.

James Nolan, an attorney who is heading up the Baltimore County chapter, said 18 lawyers have volunteered to spearhead local fund-raising efforts. They will meet for the first time this month.

Although Wagonheim's "Take Two" fund-raiser is not connected with the Equal Justice Council, it serves a similar goal in getting money to Legal Aid. "Take Two" differs from most fund-raisers because it targets individual lawyers rather than firms, and is focused on participation as much as revenue, Wagonheim said.

"It's something new and different," said Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., the executive director of Legal Aid. "We hope he's successful and [that the effort] grows."

Already, 50 attorneys have signed up for the March fund-raiser, far more than Wagonheim expected at this point.

"If we could get by March 300, I'd be ecstatic," he said. "That's about 25 percent of the [county] bar association. I didn't expect to get much participation at all until March."

That would be 300 lawyers who could tell the Court of Appeals they are doing service.

"I have a lot of pride in the good that my colleagues do for the good of their communities," Wagonheim said.

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