Bar News - August 14, 2009
Pro Bono – for the Good of the Public; for the Good of the New Lawyer
By: Joshua Pantesco
On my first day of work, I stepped foot in my new office and found a single file on my desk. "N.H. Pro Bono – Amy W." My pulse quickened – my first case!
I introduced myself to Ms. W by reading her intake sheet. At age 65, she married a man who was 12 years her senior. She was now 68. Last summer, her husband John visited his son on vacation and never returned. He left Amy with a mortgage and a car loan she could never hope to pay on her fixed income.
As all lawyers know, the phrase pro bono is shorthand for "pro bono publico," meaning "for the good of the public." There are important systematic reasons why New Hampshire lawyers should consider taking pro bono cases this year if they have not done so already (See also N.H. Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1). Chief Justice Broderick has made this argument with eloquence and élan far exceeding my own; I will let him and other leaders of the bar speak to those issues.
Each new lawyer should take a pro bono case this year to gain useful practical experience to apply to his/her entire caseload. While law school succeeds at teaching legal theory, the classroom is not where new lawyers learn practical problem-solving skills. I found that my Pro Bono case, like many other such cases, presented a particularly wide range of problems, many of which did not require a legal solution.
Lesson 1: Deal with unrealistic expectations sooner, not laterDuring the first meeting, my client explained that her husband had left her so that he could enjoy the single life, but not before co-signing a mortgage, a car loan, and a home equity loan; combined, these debts cost over $2300 per month to finance. While John had significant monthly income, my client’s fixed income totaled only $900 per month. When John left, he took his income with him, sending my client anemic monthly checks in the amount of $400. My client was unable to satisfy the marital debts, so she had simply stopped making mortgage and car payments.
Naturally, my client was upset at this situation, and I agreed that she had been wronged. What made John think he could saddle her with these outrageous debts without any consequence? My client wanted a divorce, and alimony – she said in no uncertain terms that she would consider settling for as little as $1700 per month. This amount, she explained, would allow her to experience the lifestyle she had enjoyed during her marriage.
I should have told her right there and then that no judge would award such a high amount in a case involving a short-term marriage and no children. I, for one, felt she deserved it, given what she had been through. I had already developed a soft spot for my first client, who appeared to be a good person who had been dealt a bad hand. So I told her that this amount was rather high and shifted the conversation to the next topic.
Avoiding this issue turned out to be a big mistake. I spent a considerable chunk of my life over the next six months convincing my client to lower her demand to a reasonable range, in the interest of settling her case without a trial. Particularly for clients with a history of difficult interactions, it can be nearly impossible to adjust unrealistic expectations once they have been established.
Lesson 2: Consider practical solutions to client problemsAs the fall ended, my client decided she wanted to leave the state to be with her family. I asked her if she would return; she indicated in a roundabout way that if it would help her case, she would rent an apartment in state, but that in all likelihood this would be a permanent move.
My first instinct was to spot the jurisdiction issue. I cautioned her that if she left the state, the court might decide to discontinue the case.
It then occurred to me that only last week she had told me she only had $300 in her bank account. I asked her how she could afford the trip. Her heart condition restricted her to driving only eight hours per day. She would need several hotel rooms, as well as a rental trailer hitch because she wanted to bring her washer and dryer with her.
Recalling that one of John’s favorite hobbies was buying unnecessary items from late-night infomercials, I asked her if she had anything around the house worth selling. She brightened as she told me about a massage chair John had purchased a few years ago for $3,500.
Her move date was one week away. There was no time to place a PennySaver ad, and none of her friends wanted to buy the chair. Was she familiar with Craigslist.org, I asked? But she had no computer. Knowing that a Craigslist ad was the best way to sell her chair quickly, I posted the ad for her. The chair ended up selling for $500 that week, netting my client enough money to safely make her trip.
Lesson 3: Details are keyThe case settled on favorable terms, and I was charged with drafting the final decree. I labored over the big-picture issues that were important to both parties, making sure that the decree reflected the deal we had reached with John, while at the same time preserving my client’s rights to the fullest degree. I was satisfied with the final document the judge signed.
The problems began almost immediately. My client called in a panic two weeks later - she had not received the first alimony check. I had thoroughly discussed the amount of these checks with opposing counsel, but not the mechanics of transmittal. My client had assumed that the monthly amount would be directly deposited into her bank account, but her now ex-husband had arranged for his bank to send the checks through the mail, and the first one had apparently not arrived.
To make things worse, when the check finally arrived, it was not for the entire monthly amount. John had deducted the fee for the automatic mailing service directly from the check, rather than from his own funds. My client was understandably angry that she was not receiving the full amount she was counting on.
While these issues were eventually resolved, I vowed to cover every detail of my next settlement with the opposing party. Small details often make a big difference.
Take a case – the NHBA Pro Bono Program staff will helpEven if you are a solo attorney, you will not be working alone if you decide to take a pro bono case. Besides the wonderful mentor program (contact Rose Anocibar at the NH Bar Center for more details), the talented staff of NHBA Pro Bono is always available to assist you in representing pro bono clients. In fact, they wish you would call them more often for help!
At the intake stage, the program’s staff will help with issues such as arranging for appropriate social services or mental health services. They will act as a liaison between the client and a domestic crisis center as needed. If the client communicates through an interpreter, the program will make arrangements with the Language Bank, which will bill Pro Bono directly for those services.
As the case develops, the staff will reach out to other professionals as needed: Pro Bono has relationships with various accountants, private investigators, real estate valuators, and court reporters to provide services at no or reduced cost to pro bono clients. The staff will also put you in touch with a mentor in a specific practice area; when my client needed bankruptcy advice, the Pro Bono staff immediately connected me with several local bankruptcy specialists who guided me through the process. The Pro Bono staff members are also more than willing to intervene with clients who have developed unreasonable expectations, or whose cases have ballooned into more work than you can handle by yourself.
As a new lawyer, there is no reason not to take a pro bono case this year if you haven’t already done so. I learned many practical problem-solving skills through my pro bono work, and I suspect other new lawyers will find these cases similarly rewarding. Cui bono? You do.
Joshua Pantesco is with Orr & Reno in Concord. He joined the NH Bar in 2008 and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.