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Bar News - October 19, 2016

Pro Bono Month Activities Challenge Assumptions


Most cases referred to lawyers by the NH Bar Association’s Pro Bono Program, including DOVE cases, take less than 10 hours of volunteer time, according to volunteer attorney reports, and non-family cases make up about 50 percent of the program’s caseload. October is Pro Bono Month in New Hampshire, and this year’s events and activities underscore the program’s diverse volunteer opportunities, debunking many false assumptions about Pro Bono cases. To paraphrase a current advertising slogan – So you think you know Pro Bono? Maybe you don’t.

Criminal annulments illustrate the growing diversity of cases and the opportunity for a new group of attorneys to participate in the organized Pro Bono Program. Criminal defense attorneys signed on for the NAACP/Pro Bono sponsored criminal annulment clinic in Manchester Oct. 6, as part of Pro Bono Month events (see photo.). The clinic provided legal consultations to help people overcome the stumbling block that a criminal record can become in trying to secure employment or housing.

The program also refers individual annulment cases for direct representation, featuring cases in the weekly NHBA e-Bulletin newsletter. Pro Bono makes it easier for lawyers to do this work by covering fees through NH Bar Foundation grants.

By allowing attorneys to spend a few hours helping a number of clients, clinics exemplify Pro Bono’s move to offer Bar members more micro-volunteering options. Home Retention Clinics, for example, have become a staple of the association’s Foreclosure Relief Project, where homeowners in crisis can receive free legal consultations.

Getting legal help over the Internet is already here, and Pro Bono anticipates serving low-income people through the ABA’s Free Legal Answers online platform in the near future, another form of micro-volunteering. Attorneys will be able to anonymously answer legal questions posted online at their convenience. Readers should stay tuned for more on this developing, time-limited volunteer option.

“As a new attorney I’ve gained valuable courtroom experience, while having the chance to give something back. When a problem arose, I was not alone. In one DOVE case, an ethical problem surfaced, and the Pro Bono Program immediately connected me to an experienced attorney in the ethics arena to work closely with me and guide me to successfully resolve the matter.”

Dennis Kurdek,
Kurdek Law Office, Merrimack

“As a newer attorney, DOVE cases allow me to get in-court experience while helping some of the most vulnerable people in my community... The DOVE Project’s training and support make this work a good match for recent grads and really any attorneys wanting to make a difference should consider DOVE.”

Elizabeth LaRochelle
Law Office of Katherine J. Morneau, Nashua

“You don’t have to be a tax attorney to represent a client through Pro Bono’s Low-Income Taxpayer Project. Most of these cases involve negotiations and document handling so it is a good way for transactional attorneys to participate.”

Beth Fowler
McLane Middleton Professional Association, Manchester

“Personally, successfully assisting individuals in the annulment process is a meaningful way to participate in Pro Bono that is tangible! It is especially helpful Pro Bono has grant funds to help cover the court and agency fees, which can run to hundreds of dollars or more and are a significant barrier to indigent people seeking an annulment to improve their prospects and move on with their lives.”

Philip Utter
Green & Utter, Manchester

“As a health care lawyer, I used to feel unprepared to help when Pro Bono called. The Periodic Payment Clinic allows me to help clients with consumer debt by negotiating with collections counsel and assisting at the payment hearing. The limited representation allows me to schedule a specific afternoon each month and gives me a way I can give back.”

Robin Fisk
Fisk Law Office, Plymouth

When it comes to limited scope legal services, Pro Bono has long been a leader, receiving the ABA’s Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access in 2007 for helping to craft and implement New Hampshire’s unbundled legal services rules. The rules are put to use in DOVE’s Rural Access Project where attorneys in southern New Hampshire provide assistance to domestic abuse victims in rural areas with few practicing attorneys. Volunteers perform distinct legal tasks, from preparing clients for hearings to drafting documents.

The DOVE Project was far ahead of its time when it was launched almost 25 years ago. By enlisting attorneys to provide victims with representation limited to final restraining order hearings, DOVE responded to the need for attorneys trained and equipped to deliver discrete, expedited legal services. Using a practical approach, a DOVE seminar this month featured a mock trial and insights from a crisis center advocate into the cycle of domestic violence, as well as a review of case law, court rules and protocols.

Pro Bono’s investment in DOVE volunteers extends far beyond the seminar room. Longtime DOVE coordinator Pamela Dodge stands ready to secure additional resources and support for volunteers, including mentors. In fact, Pro Bono staff fulfill any volunteer requests for mentors, no matter the case type.

Pro Bono’s newest unbundled project, its Periodic Payment Clinic in Plymouth, also exemplifies the program’s expanding priorities. Attorneys negotiate with creditors and occasionally provide representation. On Nov. 16, the Pro Bono Program is holding a consumer debt collection training to prepare attorneys to be “case ready” to represent people facing debt collection litigation and to pursue damages and fees where appropriate.

Extending help to uninsured motorists facing administrative license suspensions is another example of Pro Bono’s efforts to serve important client needs while growing the universe of volunteer opportunities.

Non-litigators should not feel left out. The Pro Bono Program’s Low-Income Taxpayer Project provides opportunities for tax and corporate attorneys to fulfill their pro bono responsibilities by assisting low-income people with federal income tax disputes.

Even with these changes, Pro Bono maintains parenting cases, divorces and guardianships as core priorities. As the program identifies opportunities for unbundled services, some family law clients need more, and the program remains extremely grateful for the attorneys who carry on to assist clients who have so much at stake.

Whatever the case type or delivery method, Pro Bono provides its volunteers with key supports: primary malpractice insurance; filing fee waivers; reimbursement of litigation costs; mentors; low-cost trainings; sample agreements; client financial screening; client management assistance and more. The program is there for its volunteers.

“Over the last year, I’ve taken several cases through DOVE,” commented attorney Dennis Kurdek. “As a new attorney I’ve gained valuable courtroom experience, while having the chance to give something back. When a problem arose, I was not alone. In one DOVE case, an ethical problem surfaced, and the Pro Bono Program immediately connected me to an experienced attorney in the ethics arena to work closely with me and guide me to successfully resolve the matter.”

Although the Pro Bono Program keeps evolving with the times to help meet the legal needs of low-income people, the program’s focus on giving Bar members the opportunities and tools to do good remains constant.

Virginia Martin

Virginia Martin is the associate executive director for legal services at the NH Bar Association.

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