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Pro Bono Spotlight April 2004

Pro Bono Project Takes on Predatory Lending

In many a lawyer’s mind, “pro bono” work is associated with doing charity law for no other benefit than the service to the poor and to the profession. This traditional vision finds pro bono representing (to the lawyer) a small commitment of time for a worthy cause, but a commitment that is unrelated to the lawyer’s daily business of making a living. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) has been actively challenging that traditional notion with its Predatory Lending Referral Panel (PLRP). PLRP is a pro bono initiative that offers lawyers a potential area of new fee-generating practice.

CLE created PLRP to assist its lawyers in responding to the explosion of foreclosure problems caused by the well-publicized “predatory lending” epidemic, which is fueled by unscrupulous lending practices causing homeowners to take on loans laden with high interest and buried costs. New, excessively expensive loans then are offered to pay off the older loans, creating a cycle of increasing debt that results in foreclosure. PLRP functions as a specialized referral panel for this problem. PLRP is operated by CLS outside of the normal referral system run by the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) of the Philadelphia Bar Association. LRIS agreed to this arrangement in recognition both of the highly specialized knowledge required to handle these cases and of CLS’s commitment to and expertise in this area of legal practice.

Participants in the PLRP are trained by CLS in two half-day sessions and agree to accept at least two cases from CLS. CLS provides ongoing advice and, on occasion, will co-counsel a case with the panel member.

According to Irv Ackelsberg of CLS, nationally known for his predatory lending work, these cases almost always involve potential claims for statutory attorney fees. Although panel members are prohibited from conditioning representation on payment of an upfront fee by the referred CLS client, they are encouraged to claim and pursue such claims after prevailing on the client’s case or in the course of settlement negotiations. Therefore, PLRP cases are often fee-generating, and, as illustrated by the example of several PLRP members, can lay the foundation for a viable private practice.

PBA member Brian R. Mildenberg, anattorney with Mildenberg and Stalbaum P.C. in Philadelphia, was one of the original recruits to PLRP. Mildenberg is, according to Ackelsberg, its greatest success story. Mildenberg has regularly accepted cases from CLS as part of a rapidly expanding practice that is devoted primarily to representing victims of predatory lending. His enthusiasm and quick learning has, says Ackelsberg, led him to become an active leader in the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

“These cases are tremendously satisfying,” states Mildenberg. “The underlying stories never cease to amaze me. These are fun cases to handle, I get to work on behalf of the ‘good guys’ and my practice is beginning to take off.”

Ackelsberg reports that CLS will conduct a PLRP training for new recruits this spring. Those interested can contact him at iackelsberg@clsphila.org. He also is willing to provide technical assistance to those seeking to set up similar programs in other counties. Ackelsberg’s complete contact information is below:
Irv Ackelsberg
Community Legal Services
3638 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19140
Phone: 215-227-2400, Ext. 2417