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Bar News - October 18, 2013


Pro Bono Month: Lawyers Giving Back

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NHBA President Jaye Rancourt, Director of Legal Services Ginny Martin, and Pro Bono Board Chair Brian Shaughnessy receive the Pro Bono Month proclamation from Gov. Maggie Hassan at the State House last month.
During the last fiscal year, the New Hampshire Bar Association Pro Bono Referral Program helped 4,640 people by referring a wide range of civil cases to volunteer lawyers. In recognition of all the pro bono legal services provided in New Hampshire, as well as an increasing need for legal assistance among the poor, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan has proclaimed October to be Pro Bono Month in the Granite State.

By providing legal services to low-income citizens of New Hampshire, attorneys across the state help increase access to justice, provide a boost to the economy, and enhance the image of the legal profession. The NHBA Pro Bono Referral Program, in several ways, leverages the time contributed by attorneys, maximizing their impact.

Why Pro Bono?

In addition to the seriousness of the need and the important goal of achieving justice for all, there’s another reason to do pro bono work – it makes you feel good. Marty Van Oot found that out when she represented an elderly woman whose husband had left her decades earlier.

"I clearly remember a Pro Bono divorce client skipping down the sidewalk and singing, ‘I’m free, I’m free’ as we walked back from court. The hearing hadn’t lasted long since it was a simple, uncontested divorce. She hadn’t seen her husband in 40 years since he’d moved out west… Even today, I can still hear this elderly woman singing with joy, ‘I’m free. I’m free.’"

Don Hebert learned that even when you lose, pro bono cases can energize you about the practice of law.

"When the flowers were delivered to my office, it was the largest bouquet I’d ever seen. A complete surprise since we’d lost the case. The final decree had arrived just days before, and I felt terrible. My Pro Bono client no longer had what was then called primary custody, although she was awarded liberal parenting time. I had taken the Pro Bono referral when the case was already under way. My client’s background was somewhat blemished, but she was absolutely devoted to her child and a good mother. Unrepresented, she’d lost custody temporarily. When I got involved, it was an uphill struggle to try to undo the damage already done. And, really, too, the father was a good dad. It was a tough case to litigate and to lose. Even though she didn’t win back custody, my client was extremely grateful that she had someone who stood up for her and tried hard to achieve her goals. I’ll never forget this case, this client."

Using a careful screening process, the experienced staff at the Pro Bono program refers all kinds of cases, including domestic violence, divorce, estate planning, bankruptcy, and tax cases, to caring attorneys willing to provide representation for free. Through the referral process, volunteer attorneys are matched with cases that suit their skills and experience and sometimes offer an opportunity to build on their existing skill sets. Pro bono organizes innovative training programs to provide lawyers with the background they need to handle pro bono cases that are not in their regular practice areas.

But there are always more cases and unrepresented parties than there are lawyers who can and do provide free services.

"One of the goals of Pro Bono Month is to increase the number of New Hampshire Bar Association members who consider it part of their professional duty to consistently have one open pro bono case at all times," said Ginny Martin, director of legal services at the NHBA. "We always have a variety of cases available for referral, and we work hard to match cases with our volunteers’ areas of expertise."

Pro Bono Month also aims to attract attention to the hard work of the many attorneys and organizations throughout New Hampshire who are regularly performing pro bono work, including lawyers who provide limited-scope representation or unbundled services to pro bono clients through the NHBA Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project.

Nationally, 36 percent of attorneys report performing at least 50 hours of pro bono work in 2011 for clients of limited means or organizations serving disadvantaged people, according to a March 2013 study by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. Of that group, 61 percent said they provided at least 80 hours of service. Sixty-eight percent of attorneys surveyed reported providing some reduced-fee legal services in 2011.

The ABA study found that the commitment to performing pro bono service among legal professionals remains strong, which is just as true in New Hampshire as it is for the country as a whole. While other professions, such as architecture, medicine and technology, are beginning to see the value in offering free services to disadvantaged people, the legal profession has long held pro bono service as part of its culture.

Poverty in New Hampshire

Unfortunately, no matter how many pro bono clients find representation, the cyclical nature of poverty, our present economic realities, and population growth all dictate that the need for legal help among the poor can only increase.

In New Hampshire, the percentage of children living in poverty rose faster than in any other state between 2011 and 2012, according to census data analyzed by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Released in September, the institute’s report found that the rate of children younger than 18 living in poverty rose from 12 percent in 2011 to 15.6 percent last year. Compared to 2007, the rate is 75 percent higher, and New Hampshire now ranks 11th in child poverty.

"The significant increase in New Hampshire is particularly surprising given that it has consistently had the lowest rate in the nation," the study authors wrote. Other statistics paint a similarly troubling picture. The 58,229 families that received food stamps in January represent an 85 percent increase since June 2008, according to a recent report by the Associated Press.

Pro Bono Week

To call attention to the increasing challenges facing low-income people and recognize the pro bono work of American lawyers, the ABA four years ago created National Pro Bono Week. From Oct. 20-26, state bar associations and other legal service organizations throughout the country host events and create information campaigns to highlight these problems and increase access to justice for all.

In New Hampshire, we’ve taken Pro Bono Week and turned it into Pro Bono Month. Last year, Pro Bono teamed up with the UNH School of Law to honor the late Bruce Friedman with an award for an exemplary Pro Bono volunteer and UNH Law alum. Friedman was a founder of the Pierce Law Civil Practice Clinic and a mentor whom many NH lawyers credit with giving them inspiration and the confidence to tackle challenging pro bono cases.

Pro Bono Week also includes referral marathons to place cases and, this year, Pro Bono has added a new way to take cases. Summaries of available Pro Bono cases are now available on www.nhbar.org in the "For Members" area. Pro Bono month also marks the return of Divorce Camp, a three-part training series designed to equip attorneys to handle divorce and parenting cases.

The Friedman Pro Bono award presentation is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22 at UNH Law. This year’s recipient will be Steve Scudder, general counsel to the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and former director of the NHBA Pro Bono Program.

For more information about how you can get involved with Pro Bono, contact Ginny Martin at (603) 715-3221, or Margaret Gilsenberg at (603) 715-3203.

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