Bar News - October 19, 2012
Pro Bono Program Spotlight: Bankruptcy
By: Kristen Senz
Helping people through the stressful process of filing for bankruptcy has been a central focus of the NHBA Pro Bono Referral Program for more than a decade. Challenged by major changes in the bankruptcy code and then the severe recession, the Pro Bono bankruptcy program has rebounded in the past year with a new grant source a growing volunteer panel.
"It used to be that a lot of practitioners considered bankruptcy as part of a general practice," said Pro Bono Coordinator Carolann Wooding. "We were able to place quite a few cases and it was a pretty standard type of case that we would refer."
The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 changed all that.
"When that happened, there were so many changes to the bankruptcy practice that attorneys needed to learn a whole new set of rules, and they probably needed to have new software," Wooding said.
The pool of volunteers evaporated, but as attorneys became familiar with the new rules, they slowly began to rejoin the effort to assist clients who couldn’t afford representation. Unfortunately, another blow to the balance of cases and volunteers wasn’t far behind. The collapse of the mortgage market and sudden economic downturn flooded the Pro Bono office with calls for bankruptcy assistance. The number of clients calling for help peaked at 414 per year during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, and the small program has struggled with large caseloads ever since.
"We got so backlogged that we had to shut down for four or five months a couple of times," Wooding said. "We weren’t accepting new applications, just so we could handle the ones we had."
In an attempt to handle the massive volume of cases, the Pro Bono program refined its eligibility criteria and focused its efforts on Chapter 7 bankruptcies. At the same time, the application for legal assistance through Pro Bono was streamlined and made available online. It quickly became clear that not only were more people requesting legal assistance, but the number of people who qualified for free representation also was increasing.
"It was just a sign of the times, as people lost their jobs and then their houses," Wooding said.
A few years ago, the Pro Bono Program, in collaboration with the NHBA•CLE department, offered basic training in preparing and filing for Chapter 7. The training helped grow the panel of attorneys willing to take on bankruptcy cases, which now includes 76 attorneys. In March, the Pro Bono Bankruptcy program received an $18,000 grant from the NH Housing Finance Authority, enabling a new emphasis on foreclosure-related cases.
Mark Cornell, a solo practitioner and bankruptcy trustee, has been taking Pro Bono cases and helping with case review for many years. "The staff there does a really good job of screening cases, making sure referrals are appropriate, and providing any extra assistance that’s needed," he said.
The work is rewarding, Cornell said, because the clients are generally pleasant and grateful. He recalls one client who approached him after her case was finalized to express her relief that creditors had finally stopped calling.
"It was an epiphany," Cornell said. "It had never occurred to me how traumatizing it was to have computers call your phone until you picked up… and when you’ve got six credit cards in collections, that’s six calls per hour."
Cornell encourages his colleagues to take Pro Bono cases and said he and others are available to answer questions.
"If any attorney has a Pro Bono case and encounters a bankruptcy question, he/she can pick up the phone and call me, or call the wonderful staff in the Pro Bono office," he said. "We’ll happily spend whatever time it takes to get the attorney up to speed."
Between screening new cases and monitoring ongoing cases, Wooding does her best to match willing attorneys with cases as quickly as possible. For more information or to volunteer, call her at 603-715-3205.