Attorney Karl-Henri Gauvin works with a client at the Foreclosure… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
Borrowers struggling to save their homes from foreclosure desperately need legal help, but that's often when they're least able to afford it.
In Maryland, though, nearly 1,000 attorneys are ready to assist for free.
Lawyers began signing up to volunteer a year and a half ago, when Maryland's chief judge - alarmed at skyrocketing foreclosures - urged the bar to join the new Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project. Organizers, who had been hoping to recruit as many as 500, have trained 981 attorneys so far in the finer points of foreclosure law and hooked up them up with borrowers or groups helping borrowers.
It's one of the largest pro bono foreclosure-prevention efforts in the nation, according to the American Bar Association. Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, which is organizing volunteers, thinks the number is "pretty remarkable."
"It's something everyone can relate to," she said, explaining how the nationwide foreclosure crisis prompted lawyers to join the effort.
The pro bono project has substantially widened the field of local attorneys with the background to help homeowners in trouble. Before the program began, advocates say, only a handful of lawyers in Maryland were regularly representing borrowers in foreclosure situations.
Job losses are aggravating the mortgage-delinquency problem, which began as an outgrowth of the housing bubble. That's spurring more states to launch pro bono efforts, said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington.
But the numbers are daunting. In Maryland alone, about 150,000 homeowners were behind on their mortgages at the end of September. Pro bono attorneys have worked with about 1,840 homeowners so far, either by giving guidance at workshops or by taking on borrowers' cases directly.
Organizers say 83 percent of the resolved cases had positive outcomes - though that includes not only lowered mortgage payments but also exit strategies that meant borrowers had to sell. Most of the cases are still open.
Lardent said it's great that attorneys are offering their services for free, but she worries that the system they're working within limits their ability to keep people in homes with payments they can afford.
"If what you're doing is trying to help somebody but there really is no way out of this box, or you're buying them an extra two weeks in this place, ... is that really meaningful?" she said. "The question is how to really hone the system so that the legal assistance is substantial enough."
Lardent said Philadelphia's system of foreclosure mediation courts looks like a model. There, attorneys are having better results helping homeowners avoid foreclosure, she said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to propose some form of required mediation in Maryland. A task force is sifting through possibilities and is expected to make a recommendation soon.
Karl-Henri Gauvin, a Baltimore attorney who volunteers with the pro bono effort, said the wait for a lender's decision on loan modification can be long, even when homeowners have a lawyer on their side.
Still, Gauvin is an enthusiastic participant in the pro bono project. By his count, he's worked with more than 100 homeowners, either by giving them advice at workshops or by representing them.
So did Myra M. Frazier, an attorney in Gaithersburg. Frazier, who said about two-thirds of clients she's helped are still in their homes, is passionate about the effort.
"It's really becoming the defining issue of our generation - to help people hold on to such a basic necessity of life," she said.
Some of the work is negotiation, but other cases end up in court. Stephen H. Sturgeon, an attorney in Rockville, is representing clients he believes are the victims of lender fraud. He's filed one case and is about to file another.
Phillip R. Robinson, executive director of Civil Justice, a Baltimore nonprofit that is training the pro bono participants, said the effort does more than connect homeowners with attorneys. It's a blueprint for how to react "when the next crisis hits," he said.