Most attorneys do not like to step outside their comfort zone, but that is exactly what Michael Nast, of Roda & Nast, did when he volunteered to take a pro bono case from MidPenn Legal Services in Lancaster County. When Nast, an antitrust lawyer, was told his case would be a custody case, he responded that he knew nothing about that area of the law. He also was concerned about the fact that there were no published resources in that area to guide him through the procedure. But after a favorable outcome and overall rewarding experience, he has taken on another custody case and plans to do more in the future. Nast is one of the growing number of attorneys taking pro bono cases in Lancaster County thanks to the efforts of the Lancaster Bar Association’s past presidents and board of directors.
In Lancaster County, nearly eight-percent of all individuals live below the poverty line, and there are just seven legal services lawyers to serve them. There is one lawyer for every 652 Lancaster County residents, but there is only one legal services lawyer for every 5,079 low income people.
In the past 14 years, Pennsylvania has seen an increase of more than 25- percent in the number of lawyers in the state. At the same time, the number of staff lawyers providing legal services to the poor has decreased by almost one-third. This is in large part due to the dramatic cuts of millions of dollars in funding for legal services throughout the country. So, while the population of people living below the poverty line in Pennsylvania has remained steady for the past few years, federal and state funding for legal services has been slashed, resulting in fewer legal services attorneys for the low income population. Despite the efforts of the dedicated legal services lawyers, there is an enormous need for lawyers to do pro bono work.
In Lancaster County, six past Lancaster Bar Association presidents are doing something about it. “At a time of significant budget cuts, the legal needs of the poor are not being met. We’re grateful our bar is taking a role,” said J. Elvin Kraybill. James W. Appel, Jeffery Gonick, James Kearney, Kraybill, John S. May and Gregory Paulson not only recognized the need to increase the number of attorneys taking pro bono cases, but also that they were in a unique position to do something about it. By forming a team of past presidents, the six began to visit the managing partners at law firms throughout the county. Their first goal is to get every attorney in the county to take a case through the Lancaster Bar Association Volunteer Attorney Program (VAP). If an attorney is unable to take a case, he/she has the option to “Buy In” by contributing $500 to MidPenn Legal Services. However, as May said, “There will never be enough money to hire enough legal services attorneys. Money will not do it. It has to be service.”
The team has raised awareness of the need for legal services, especially at the larger firms. While the bulk of pro bono work is often associated with small firms and solo practitioners who may specialize in family law or related areas, the team brought attention to this increasing need to the larger law firms. One of the three largest firms in the county, Barley, Snyder, Senft & Cohen, now has 100-percent participation by volunteering to take a case for every attorney in the firm. Participation across the bar has increased over the past year due to the past presidents’ efforts.
While it is too early to measure the success on this program in numbers, the project has clearly increased pro bono participation. Kearney believes that what makes this program unique, and serves as the key to its success, is the personal nature of lawyer approaching fellow lawyer. No one likes to be told what to do or guilted into taking cases, and this is likely to result in resentment. However, the face-to-face meetings between the past presidents and the large firm partners facilitates communications and allows the attorneys to express their concerns and reservations about pro bono work. Moreover, both MidPenn and the LCBA have learned how to better serve the attorneys in the county, and the area attorneys have had their concerns alleviated by being given the opportunity to express themselves and by gaining information about how the program works. Educating the bar in this personal way has helped everyone to recognize the need for pro bono legal services.
One of the concerns commonly cited by attorneys for not taking cases is that they are unfamiliar with the subject area of the typical legal services case. A great number of the pro bono cases involve custody or domestic abuse. This often results in family law practitioners taking on the majority of the pro bono cases. But there are cases in many other areas from bankruptcy to employment law. Moreover, there is ample support provided for the volunteer attorneys. MidPenn Legal Services assigns mentors to work with the volunteer attorneys. Sue Danforth, the coordinator of VAP, waylaid Michael Nast’s fears about taking on his first child custody case by assigning him a mentor, Jim Sorrentino, a custody specialist with Sorrentino & Savoca. Sorrentino met with Nast and his paralegal for over an hour to explain the custody procedure and was later available to answer questions whenever they arose. Danforth also makes an effort to assign less complex cases to new volunteers.
Other support is provided as well. Periodic continuing legal education classes are provided where volunteer attorneys can learn about new areas, and if they take a case, the fee for the class is waived. Finally, for each closed case, the attorney can receive a coupon for a free CLE.
Another important effort has resulted from the LCBA’s work with the Lancaster County President Judge Michael A Georgelis. The courts have agreed to help by giving volunteer attorneys an accelerated docket, so attorneys taking a family law case will be placed first on the day’s docket, and the bailiff will put a volunteer attorney in the first slot in Protection From Abuse cases if the attorney advises him/her that the case is pro bono. Similar treatment is available in support appeals.
“Most attorneys want to do it, and find it gratifying to provide services and equal access to justice for those with low income, but we forget we have an obligation to provide service and it is a responsibility we can’t ignore,” added May. Patrick Zimmerman of the Law Offices of Patrick Zimmerman is a long time VAP participant. He says that the satisfaction he gets from his pro bono cases is “tremendous.” He loves the fact that the cases allow him to deal with the legal issues without having to worry about billable hours or the business side of a law practice. Whether an attorney volunteers because of the ethical obligation, to promote goodwill for lawyers or for the personal and professional rewards of stepping outside your comfort zone, the attorneys in Lancaster County now have a better understanding of the need for pro bono and how they can meet this need with the help of the LCBA.