Need for pro bono legal services rises as economy sags

Lawyer volunteers can't meet the demand

November 16, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Michael Bell's body is dying of ALS, a fatal disease that has steadily robbed him of speech and muscle control. But his spirit still has fight.

So when his daughter's mother threatened to keep the infant from him after he broke off the relationship, he waged war, filing a custody suit in Baltimore Circuit Court this year with the help of a volunteer lawyer.

After months of legal wrangling — and more than $16,000 worth of work donated by his attorney — Bell, 34, won regular visitation rights with his little girl.

"That child is all that he lives for … and he fights every day just to have the next day to see her," said Bell's primary caregiver, Candace Ingram. "If he hadn't gotten visitation out of all that, I don't know that he would have had the drive to keep fighting the disease."

The state and national bar associations expect lawyers to donate at least 50 hours of work a year to give legal aid to those like Bell, with little or no income. It helps the courts move cases along, helps attorneys develop new skills and helps individuals get out of bad situations.

But only 22 percent of full-time lawyers meet that goal, according to the most recent statistics, despite a skyrocketing demand.

For potential clients, "the need has increased dramatically" because of the struggling economy and the resulting foreclosure, bankruptcy and debt issues, said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, a sort of clearinghouse for three dozen volunteer legal programs and centers throughout the state.

Legal advocates across the country are calling for more support, arguing that leaving the poor to fend for themselves leads to judicial backlogs and further financial burdens. Families could be forced from their homes without help, they say, and parents won't get access to the child support they're owed.

And while economists claim the recession is over, legal aid center workers say they still haven't seen a letup in demand.

"It was hard enough to keep up before," Goldsmith said. "Now it's really just that much more difficult."

Specific numbers are hard to come by: Most volunteer centers don't track how many people they turn away, Goldsmith said. But some centers say that the need has doubled at a time when increased unemployment makes being able to afford a lawyer impossible for many.

Thomas Mulinazzi, Bell's Columbia-based attorney, typically charges $275 an hour. He said he put in about 65 hours reuniting Bell with his baby, and could have billed nearly $18,000 for it.

But instead, he got around $1,600 — the maximum allowed through the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, or MVLS, which paired him with Bell.

"These people really need help, they don't have the resources themselves," he said.

And their numbers are rising

Credit problems

Some formerly middle-class people have had to take lower-paying jobs to support their families after being laid off. And they're now dealing with credit problems that require a knowledge of the law, said Bonnie Sullivan, MVLS' executive director.

Her group is receiving as many as 6,000 calls for assistance a month, she said. That's five times the monthly average for 2008. But most calls are dropped before they're answered — the five paralegals simply can't get to them all.

Sullivan says the inability to meet the demand is a "legal crisis," and she doesn't expect the pressure to let up until unemployment lessens.

One client facing foreclosure committed suicide, she said. "That's how desperate some people's lives are right now."

The volunteer service accepts clients the group considers the "working poor" — those who live alone and make about $26,000 a year (more if they have dependents). Other centers give priority to the truly poor.

Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, for example, focuses on those who earn less than 125 percent of federal poverty income guidelines, which this year is $10,830 for a single-person household. That means a person earning $13,537 or less could qualify for help from the bureau, if they have the volunteers to provide it.

The nonprofit held a sort of pro bono party last month at its Baltimore offices, offering free legal consultations to more than 150 people.

"The event highlighted the tremendous need for access to justice," Yoanna Moisides, a training coordinator for the bureau, said in a statement on the agency's website. "People began lining up at 8 a.m."

About 60 people — lawyers, paralegals, students — showed up to volunteer.

Attorneys too have been hit hard by the economy, with about 1,400 laid off from the largest firms this year, according to a National Law Journal survey. In 2009, more than 5,000 were laid off from those employers, making the combined two-year decrease the largest since the survey began 33 years ago.

Some lawyers said there is the potential for more volunteerism because of layoffs and decreased business.

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