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Bar News - December 19, 2008

Chapter 1: Young Attorneys Create Pro Bono Program During Economic Hard Times

Pro Bono is no stranger to a landscape marked by uncertainty and hardship--the Program was forged when economic woes were at the top of the news. During 1976-77 words such as "deteriorating" were used to modify "New Hampshire’s economy" in the NH Bar Law Weekly and articles spoke of increased bankruptcies and foreclosures and job losses on the rise. The then relatively new staff attorney program, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, was stretched beyond capacity in trying to meet the legal needs of the poor, even after discontinuing family law representation. As always, private attorneys had been pitching in on an ad hoc basis but more was needed to try to fill the gap in legal services. Then, as now, engaged energetic leadership and Bar Association involvement were the saving grace.

As a young attorney and chair of the Bar’s Citizens Rights Committee, Michael Hall (now deceased) inspired a number of other newly minted lawyers to take action. With the backing of NHLA Director Robert Gross and leadership of the Bar, Hall and his committee members seized the opportunity to submit a grant application to the federal Legal Services Corporation for a special Pro Bono demonstration project.

In an interview for a Bar Journal article five years ago, Hall modestly commented, "We were just the most recent wave of lawyers who went into the practice of law understanding that part of being a lawyer was representing people who couldn’t afford to pay."

New Hampshire received one of only six grants awarded nationally and launched the Pro Bono Program with Janine Gawyrl as the first Director. "Part of the newness of what we did was creating an organized program that bridged the gap between legal aid and the private bar," Gawryl said in a 2003 Bar Journal interview. (Leaving for private practice in 1982, she has remained a stalwart Pro Bono volunteer ever since.)

In bridging this gap, the organized Pro Bono Program built an infrastructure to assist attorneys in fulfilling their professional responsibilities to benefit those otherwise unable to afford civil legal representation. Pro Bono provides tools to attorneys taking these cases that include client screening case development, help in obtaining waivers of filing and service fees, subsidized training (and NHMCLE credit) specific to issues and substantive law that arises in representing disadvantaged clients, mentoring, and coordination of other support services. Pro Bono routinely coordinates the services of foreign language translators given an increasingly diverse population and has long relied on volunteer services provided by members of the NH Court Reporters Association.

In Pro Bono’s 30th anniversary year, the hard times are back: We are facing one of the worst financial meltdowns since the Great Depression. Increasing numbers of people in desperate straits are turning to legal services and Pro Bono for help and hope. Can we continue to answer the call when so many are struggling and not just the poor? When the legal community itself is facing its own challenges? To say it boldly and simply while loosely quoting the musician Warren Zevon, we need lawyers and funds. And champions.

While helping people access civil legal services is a core function of Pro Bono, the Program is not just about the clients. Pro Bono exists because attorneys and other leaders—including champions such as Jon Ross, John Norton and Jack Middleton—have not wavered in their dedication to the cause of providing low-income people with access to legal advice and representation. Pro Bono is about the attorneys who accept case after case for low-income families and seniors with no fanfare and no recompense. It’s about the lawyers and judges who have stepped up as advocates for the program, and a Bar Association that has made access to justice a priority. It’s also about staff that remain undeterred by all the "no’s" they must hear and continue their pursuit of those positive responses that connect client and lawyer, making access to representation a reality.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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