Posts Categorized: Pro Bono

The Fight Starts Somewhere

On November 13, the Boston Bar Association will have the honor of presenting its third annual Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)  and the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General (AG). They will be honored for their work in advancing marriage equality, a civil rights battle thathas its origins well before DOMA. But more on that in a moment.

The combined efforts of both GLAD and the AG’s Office have brought together an impressive network of lawyers to advance one of the most significant civil rights issues in recent history.  What’s particularly meaningful for us is that the two honorees engaged the legal community as an advocate for greater Diversity and Inclusion both in Massachusetts and the nation.

This fight for civil rights for gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts could be seen in a fundamental way as starting with a single pro bono case from the mid ‘80’s,  Babets v. Johnston. It began with The Boston Globe breaking a story about two brothers in the foster care system placed with a gay couple, Babets and Jean. The very same day the story broke, the Dukakis administration removed the children from their home.

The couple’s sexual orientation was the sole reason the boys were removed from their home. No issues of neglect, abuse, or any sort of mistreatment were ever raised. After the children were removed, the administration approved a new DSS policy that essentially banned gays and lesbians from being foster parents.

From GLAD Website: Don Babets and David Jean (back) with
GLAD attorney and Executive Director Kevin Cathcart (r) and co-counsel Tony Doniger
Photo by Ellen Shub

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders started the legal fight to overturn this blatantly discriminatory policy and return the boys to their home. Today, there would be lawyers lining up around the block to help fight for this family, but in 1986, GLAD found it nearly impossible to find any support in the legal community. Attorney Anthony M. Doniger, a partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C. – later to become President of the Boston Bar Association –stepped up to the challenge and represented the plaintiffs in the case pro bono all the way up to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court rejected the claim of executive privilege asserted by the Dukakis administration in order to withhold documents related to the DSS policy banning gay and lesbians from being foster parents. This ruling allowed the plaintiffs to move forward on their suit to reverse the policy. The policy was ultimately reversed back to the “best interests of the child” standard and the initial suit was settled out of court.

The Beacon Award is celebrating the great work GLAD and the AG’s office have done to promote marriage equality not only in the Commonwealth, but across the nation. Every civil rights effort begins with small steps that, like pebbles dropped in a pond, send out ripples that ultimately can have profound impact.  The Babets v. Johnston case is just one of those “pebbles” dropped just over 25 years ago.

Please join us on November 13 at 6:00 at the Liberty Hotel for the Beacon Award.  The event is free but we do ask that you RSVP.

The Rewards of Pro Bono Cases

Over the past ten years I have represented about a dozen debtors pro bono in Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases referred to me through the Volunteer Lawyers Project.  The cases have ranged from the simplest of no asset cases to more complicated matters involving the threat of liens on a debtor’s residence or failed business.  With the help of the Boston Bar Association Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Pro Bono Volunteer Lawyer Training, you could take on these cases too.

A VLP referral is an excellent way for a lawyer just starting out to gain the experience of handling a bankruptcy case from start to finish.  The trustees know from statements filed by the attorney that the representation is pro bono (and I usually state specifically that it is a VLP referral), and they try to be accommodating.   The first three § 341 meetings I did (where a debtor is examined by the Chapter 7 trustee) were all pro bono cases.  It was eye opening to watch the trustees question debtors as they go through the fifty cases they can be assigned in one five hour day (yes, that is an average of six minutes per § 341 meeting).

Once I had a debtor who got sick soon after the bankruptcy filing.  The trustee agreed to conduct the § 341 meeting by telephone, from the debtor’s hospital bed.  I went to the hospital with a notary who could administer the oath to the debtor, and we proceeded.  I am sure the nurses and others around us were puzzled as to what was going on.

Most of all, though, I have found pro bono debtors to be the most grateful and appreciative of clients I have had.  I have often received thank you notes or small gifts, something that doesn’t seem to happen much with my paying clients.  I still remember the thank you note from one of my first clients, which in addition to expressing how pleased he was told me that he had made arrangements for a special novena to be said in church on my behalf.

This program is supported by the Boston Bar Foundation’s Charles P. Normandin Fund, which is dedicated to supporting the public service activities of the Boston Bar Association Bankruptcy Section.

Adam Ruttenberg is a Partner at Looney & Grossman, LLP. Adam is a Co-chair of the Boston Bar Association Bankruptcy Public Service Committee.

Why Bother Publishing an Annual Public Service Report?

It seems like every firm these days is publishing an annual pro bono or public service report to talk about the good work their lawyers are doing. The BBA has never published a report before, but this year, we decided to jump on the bandwagon. We realized that without a comprehensive review of the work done over the past year, it is easy to forget the larger impact we are making on the community. The BBA Public Service Report: Building Stronger Communities has allowed us to document our programs and all the work that is being done by our members and volunteers.

One of the ongoing projects highlighted in the report is the BBA Lawyer for the Day in the Boston Housing Court which began in 1999 with volunteers assisting landlords and tenants in summary process cases one day a week. Since then, the program has expanded to include a second day for summary process cases and one day a month to assist pro se litigants in filing complaints. Over the past 13 years, an estimated 12,000 BBA volunteers have helped more than 14,732 individuals.

In addition to facilitating direct pro bono work, the BBA works with the public schools to help underserved students. One such program is the Summer Jobs Program which began 19 years ago. Summer Jobs is a diversity and inclusion pipeline program with the goal of introducing Boston Public School students to the law and the legal profession. Over 385 Boston Public High School students have been place in legal jobs across Boston.

These programs obviously benefit the community, but the benefit to the lawyers cannot be overestimated. Through volunteering for these programs, lawyers are building new legal skills including negotiating settlements and advocating in court. They are also building new relationships with fellow attorneys and community leaders who could help them build a practice or facilitate a career change or advancement.

We would like to thank all of the BBA volunteers who through their dedication and creativity make all of our programs work. In addition, we would like to thank the Boston Bar Foundation and the Boston Foundation for partially funding many of the BBA’s Public Service programs.

AG Assisting Homeowners Facing Foreclosure Statewide

When the foreclosure crisis hit Massachusetts, one of the most frustrating aspects for legal services lawyers and advocates for homelessness prevention was the fact that many homeowners were falling through the cracks. That is because legal services and other homelessness prevention agencies have strict income guidelines and can only assist indigent individuals or families. Due to these restrictions, many families have been unable in the past to get the help they desperately need to try and save their home from foreclosure.

Good news! Thanks to the multi-state settlement that Massachusetts was a party to, the Attorney General has been able to provide help for to any homeowner facing foreclosure regardless of income. The five national banks involved in the $44.5 million settlement are: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and GMAC.  With a portion of this money, the AGO has launched a new statewide program, “HomeCorps”, available to any homeowner facing foreclosure, regardless of income eligibility.

The goal of the AGO’s HomeCorps is to mitigate the impacts of the foreclosure crisis by providing advocacy to distressed borrowers in Massachusetts facing foreclosure. HomeCorps is a comprehensive program which includes loan modification assistance, free direct legal representation to borrowers and post foreclosure assistance to families, as well as a series of grants to foster community restoration and organizations focused on foreclosure crisis response. HomeCorps has already received almost 10,000 calls from distressed homeowners to date. For more information about HomeCorps, or to refer a client who may be facing foreclosure, please click here.

In addition to the services available to all distressed borrowers via the AGO’s HomeCorps, there are also payments available under the National Mortgage Settlement to 21,000 Massachusetts borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011 and whose mortgages were serviced by Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.  Application or these payments are made directly through the national grant administrator. More information is click here.

Lynn Girton- A Champion of Justice for Those Who Might Otherwise Be Forgotten

Before a crowd of more than 1,200 people at the Boston Bar Association’s Annual Luncheon, Lynn Girton, Chief Counsel of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, will be awarded the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award. Lynn has been devoted her career to helping those unable to afford private counsel in civil cases.

Beyond her direct service work, Lynn has been a fixture at the BBA. Lynn was co-chair of the Delivery of Legal Services Section (DLS), is an active member of the Public Service Oversight Committee, and has been a speaker at countless training sessions. But those contributions pale in comparison to the work Lynn has done as co-chair of the DLS Active Duty Military, Family Members, and Veterans Committee.

Lynn’s commitment to Military Members and Veterans is unmatched. She was initially appointed to the BBA Committee on Legal Services for Military Personnel, Veterans and their Families in 2009. This committee worked to determine how the BBA could help soldiers who are being overwhelmed with legal issues in light of their ongoing military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The DLS Active Duty Military, Family Members, and Veterans Committee was the result of this work.

Lynn has chaired the DLS Active Duty Military, Family Members, and Veterans Committee since its inception in 2010. She has been the driving force behind aligning resources in the community to provide these soldiers and their families with the best legal resources available. But Lynn is more than just the co-chair of this committee. She is the person we call when we have a veteran in need of an attorney and don’t know where to turn. She is the resource we use when we can’t find the answer to a veteran’s questions. She is the glue and the inspiration that has us all coming back month after month to ensure that we are providing the services that these men and women deserve.

Lynn Girton leaves her mark on everything that she does. The soldiers and veterans in Greater Boston are better off today not only because of the work Lynn does, but because of the work she inspires others to do.

Mass Lawyers Weekly Article on MUPC Highlights Need for Continued Help from Trusts and Estates Bar

An August 27th article in Lawyers Weekly, “Bar, court still adjusting to probate code overhaul,” (subscription required) highlights the challenges that the probate courts, the trusts and estates bar and the community have faced as the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (MUPC) has been implemented during the last five months.  The article emphasizes the court’s efforts to adapt to the new law while being constrained by a hiring freeze.  Despite being understaffed, the court has gone to great lengths to provide information about the new law to the public and the bar, including making a procedural guide, forms, checklists, training materials and practice tips available on its website.

In turn, the trusts and estates bar, led by the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association, has made significant contributions of time and expertise to help ease the transition to the MUPC.  Well before the MUPC took effect, the BBA, MBA and the court collaborated on ways to assist practitioners, pro se litigants and court staff in understanding the new law.  In addition to sponsoring numerous CLE programs on the new law, they spearheaded an effort to establish MUPC resource desks staffed by bar association volunteers.  These resource desks have been set up in the probate registries in seven counties across the state and are typically in session for two to four hours each week.

The resource desks have allowed trusts and estates practitioners to supplement the court’s efforts by providing input and guidance on MUPC related questions posed by lawyer and non-lawyer visitors to the probate registries.  Resource desk volunteers have also helped open a dialogue between the court staff and the bar, discussing issues and questions that have arisen for both groups during the first months that the MUPC has been in effect.  To date, 49 volunteer lawyers have assisted 166 people, including at least 44 attorneys, 71 pro se litigants, and 28 court staff.

The MUPC resource desks will be in place at least through the end of October and are in need of volunteers.  If you are interested in volunteering a few hours of your time to help the court and the bar through what continues to be a challenging time, please contact Peter Shapland ([email protected]) or Cameron Casey ([email protected]) for more information about the program.

Cameron Casey is an Associate at Ropes & Gray LLP. Cameron is a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Trusts and Estates Section Steering Committee and currently serves as co-chair of the Section’s Public Service Committee.

Memorial Day 2012: Looking Back at a Year of Legal Assistance

On Memorial Day, people throughout the Commonwealth and the country paused to remember and honor the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.  Here at Beyond the Billable, we felt compelled to look back at the initiatives created to assist the service men and women of Massachusetts by the lawyer-volunteers in our community.    

Seeking pro bono legal services for the families of troops from Massachusetts being deployed in increasing numbers for lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army National Guard  approached the Boston Bar Association (BBA) in 2009. Under the leadership of then BBA President, Jack Regan,  the BBA developed an ad hoc committee to analyze the need for these services and to determine how the BBA might help.  The committee was chaired by Bill Sinnott, Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston and a retired Marine colonel, and included people with extensive military, pro bono, and/or legal services experience. After many months of reaching out to community organizations and conducting research, the committee recommended the creation of the Veterans’ Initiative and the Delivery of Legal Services Active Duty Military, Family Members & Veterans Committee.

Since then, the BBA has supported the following programs – all of which seek to address the unique legal needs of military personnel, veterans and their families. 

The Yellow Ribbon Project

Lawyer volunteers from a variety of practice areas serve as educators at Yellow Ribbon events — pre and post deployment informational sessions open to members of all five branches of the military. At the Yellow Ribbon events, BBA volunteers provide legal advice to military personnel, veterans and their families throughout the state in areas of law that include: bankruptcy, consumer debt & credit, family, financial education, labor and employment and trusts and estates.  Lawyer volunteers have also developed teaching materials and power points presented and distributed at these events.

Financial Education Veterans Initiative

Veterans and families of veterans are experiencing financial hardship brought about by deployment and the reduction in income that deployment may result.  In addition, many veterans are experiencing financial hardship for reasons relating to the current downturn in the economy.  The Yellow Ribbon Project has expanded to include a financial education outreach program.  Through the Bankruptcy Section of the BBA, lawyer volunteers provide speakers to veterans’ organizations in Massachusetts on the topic of personal finance, including managing credit and mortgage modification programs.   These programs are designed to increase the financial knowledge of servicemen and women and their families.   Members of the Section are also working with the Bankruptcy Court to reach a broader audience.

Military Legal Helpline

In December 2010, the Delivery of Legal Services Active Duty Military, Family Members & Veterans Committee created the Military Legal Helpline to connect military personnel, veterans and their families to pro bono and low fee attorneys.  This program represents a partnership of the BBA, Legal Advocacy & Resource Center (LARC), Shelter Legal Services and Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP).  The Helpline is housed and operated by LARC.  Callers are referred to VLP, Shelter Legal Services and the BBA Lawyer Referral Service based on income guidelines.  

To support the Helpline, the John A. Perkins Fund of the Boston Bar Foundation provided funding for the creation of an informational brochure that is widely distributed by our partner organizations.

BBA Lawyer Referral Service Military Panels

The BBA Lawyer Referral Service is committed to serving military members, veterans, and their families. Since February 2010, BBA lawyers have assisted more than 4,500 troops and their families from MA National Guard, Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Reserve. The Boston Bar Lawyer Referral Service has attorneys who certify that they meet certain experience requirements and have completed specialized training to help military members, veterans, and their families with legal issues in a variety of practice areas, including Bankruptcy Law, Employment Law, Family Law, and Trusts & Estates.

To reach the BBA Lawyer Referral Service please call (617)742 0625 or (800)552-7046 Monday through Thursday, 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. You can also email us at [email protected] or visit us on the web at www.bostonbarlawyer.org.

If you are interested in learning more about these projects, please contact Stephanie Lee, Public Service Programs Coordinator at [email protected].

BBA Hosts Unemployment Benefits Training for Prospective Volunteers

Learn a new skill while doing good! On Wednesday, May 30th, the BBA will host a pro bono training session, “Donate Your Time: Represent Claimants Seeking Unemployment Benefits.”   Taught by experts from the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP) and Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the training will guide attorneys through the complexities of the unemployment system and provide them with the information needed to represent clients at unemployment benefits hearings.  Trained volunteers will support the Pro Bono Unemployment Project, a joint initiative of VLP and GBLS.

For an insider’s preview of the Pro Bono Unemployment Project, Beyond the Billable reached out to Lynn Girton, Chief Counsel at VLP and Monica Halas, senior attorney at GBLS to learn more about what the Project accomplishes, what attorney-volunteers can expect when they donate their time, and what difference volunteers make for the clients in these cases.   

Q: What is the mission of the Pro Bono Unemployment Project?

A: Unemployed low income workers and their families need legal representation to obtain Unemployment Insurance (UI) and job training benefits.  As individuals who are unemployed cannot afford to retain the services of the private bar, pro bono representation is critical to meet this serious and largely unmet need.  Data accumulated nationally demonstrates that employers are four times as likely to be represented as claimants, and yet, when represented, claimants have a 30% greater chance of recovery.

UI benefits are a significant source of income for our clients.  The maximum benefit is currently $653 a week plus an additional $25 a week per dependent (although capped at 50% of the unemployment check).  In addition, those families whose income is 400% of poverty or less (all of our clients) are also eligible to participate in a health insurance program.  As low wage employers increasingly offer no health insurance benefits, coupled with the new health care mandate, this is an important opportunity to provide a low income family with access to non-emergency, preventative care. 

UI benefits are critical to keeping families out of poverty.  Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that the receipt of UI benefits prevents up to 25% additional families from falling below the poverty line. During this economic recession where there are 6 applicants for every job, UI benefits – coupled with opportunities for job training to secure reemployment —  are more necessary than ever.

Q:  What is the time commitment and what type of support is provided to a volunteer?

A: These cases typically take no more than 10 to 15 hours of preparation (including the one hour hearing) and with experience, the time can be significantly reduced.  The area of the law is not complex, the issues are primarily fact-based, and a hearing decision is generally received within a couple of weeks. 

We have produced extensive training materials which we will provide t, we run periodic training for the bar in conjunction with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and we are also available to do a customized in-house two or three hour training at the convenience of any law firm that makes the request. By attending a training, attorneys are provided with  all the substantive legal information they need to know as well as procedural tips honed from our over thirty years of practice in this area, so lawyers are able to come up to speed very quickly.  The  GBLS Employment Law Unit is also available to answer any questions to help you in representing your clients.

Q: Can you share examples of how pro bono representation can have a significant impact on the outcome of a case?

A:  Client A

            The client worked as a cleaner. She developed health problems and her doctor instructed her not to mop floors anymore. She requested a transfer to a different floor where she would not have to mop. Such transfers had been given to other workers. The employer told the client that if she was unable to mop the floor, they did not need her any longer. The client applied for unemployment benefits and she was denied. She filed an appeal. She was represented by a VLP pro bono attorney at the hearing. Subsequently, the hearing officer reversed the determination and awarded the client all the unemployment benefits to which she was entitled.

 Client B

           This client worked as a direct care worker in a person’s home. The employer alleged that the client left the person unattended. The client said that he had left the person in the care of another person. The employer fired the client and he applied for unemployment benefits. He was denied. He filed an appeal and was subsequently represented at the hearing by a VLP pro bono attorney. The hearing officer reversed the determination and awarded the client all the unemployment benefits to which he was entitled.

If you would like to register for this training, please click here

BBA Business Lawyers Help Non-Profits I.D. Governance Pitfalls

Maribeth Perry, Executive Director of The Lawyers Clearinghouse speaking to attorney-volunteers.

In this competitive climate for funding, non-profits demonstrating sound management and controls will have a leg up over those raising red flags. Amid this backdrop, The Lawyers Clearinghouse –has launched a new Legal Assessment Program, and joined hands with the Business Law Public Service Committee of the Boston Bar Association to reach out to Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) Grantees and Grant applicants.

Managed by The Lawyers Clearinghouse, a grantee of the Boston Bar Foundation, the program provides a unique opportunity for BBA members to donate essential services to local non-profits.

“Many nonprofit leaders and staff spend their time running programs and providing direct services to their clients, often on a limited budget. This leaves little time and few resources to examine how the organization can run according to best practices.  The Legal Assessment Program provides a preventive “Legal Checkup” where lawyers review and evaluate the corporate governance of the nonprofit to ensure that the organization meets legal requirements in the conduct of its business, ultimately strengthening the non-profit.” Maribeth Perry, Executive Director, Lawyers Clearinghouse.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for corporate attorneys to put their transactional legal skills to good use, and also involves rare social contact with the wider corporate legal community.  This project permits attorneys from different firms and in-house counsel from different companies to team up on a single project.” –Ben Bodamer, Senior Associate, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, BBA Business Law Public Service Committee Co-Chair. 

If you have questions regarding the Legal Assessment Program, please contact Machiko Sano Hewitt at 617 778-1980 or [email protected]

 

Unwavering Dedication

Housing Court

Joanna Allison Staff Attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Chris Saccardi, Law Office of Christopher T. Saccardi. (Photo Credit Eric Fullerton)

When you arrive at the Boston Bar Association Housing Court Lawyer for the Day (“Housing Court”) on Thursday, one thing you can be sure of is that Attorney Chris Saccardi will be there. Since 2009, Chris has donated his time every Thursday to assist unrepresented landlords and tenants on Eviction Day. As he gained more experience and knowledge, he began to take pro bono cases for full representation and eventually focused his private practice in the area of landlord/tenant law. Chris’ consistent presence has led to him being the go-to private attorney for recruiting and supervising other attorneys in the project.

We reached out to Chris to find out — why he donates his time to this Program, what some of his most meaningful memories are as a volunteer and asked him to share any tips for new volunteers.

Why does he give his time?

A significant majority of the people we assist are low-income or disabled, frequently don’t speak English as their first language, and are often unable to afford counsel. They typically face a landlord represented by an experienced attorney and the stakes could not be higher – the potential loss of their home or their rent subsidy. I think that it is very important to try to level this playing field and I have found that a little bit of legal advice can make a big difference. I also enjoy meeting and working with a wide variety of attorneys from various types of practices. I have made a lot of lasting friendships that have been important to me both personally and professionally. Finally, I have learned a tremendous amount both by taking on challenging cases and by asking questions of more experienced attorneys. This knowledge has been immensely helpful to me in my own practice.

Chris’ most memorable experiences as a volunteer:

I have found my pro bono work at the Housing court extremely gratifying. I helped a woman with an extremely sick child stay in her apartment by explaining to the landlord that the reason for her missed rent payments was her preoccupation with the health of her daughter. By arranging for a payment plan and actively monitoring her progress, I was able to get her back on track and concentrate on supporting her daughter.

In another instance, I spoke with an elderly tenant early in the day and was able to intercept the opposing counsel before she requested a hearing in front of a judge, which would have likely not gone well for the tenant. Instead, we were able to work out a simple repayment agreement that satisfied both parties. The tenant was so happy that she actually grabbed me and gave me a hug after the agreement had been signed.

In another case, I spoke with a tenant who I quickly came to understand had exhausted her legal options and was likely to be evicted. I sat down with her and listened to her story and gave her some advice about options for requesting a bit more time from the judge before her inevitable move-out date. When we were finished speaking, I expected her to be depressed by the disheartening news I had just given her. Instead she gave me a big smile and thanked me for my time, saying that this had been the first time someone had actually sat down and took the time to listen to her. I continue to be amazed at how much of a difference a little advice or a few kind words can make to many of the litigants I speak to at the Housing Court.

 Chris’ advice to a new volunteer:

I would encourage them to participate! If they do, I suggest that they try to take as active a role as possible. While it may take a few sessions for new volunteers to start to feel knowledgeable, I suggest that they start talking to clients as soon as they can. There are always more experienced attorneys available to assist should a new attorney run into an issue with which they are not familiar. I suggest shadowing a more experienced attorney and attending a mediation, which is a great way to learn about the substantive housing issues in a typical case and to see first-hand how the procedures of the Housing Court play out.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, the Volunteer Lawyers Project in partnership with the Real Estate section of the Boston Bar Association will be having a training on “Trying a case in Boston Housing Court.” The esteemed panel includes the Honorable Jeffrey Winik, First Justice of the Boston Housing Court, Stefanie Balandis, Greater Boston Legal Services, Joanna Allison, Volunteer Lawyers Project and, of course, Chris Saccardi, the Law Office of Christopher T. Saccardi.

*There is no fee for this program, but we ask that attendees put their new skills to work by taking on a pro bono case through the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

To register for this training, please click here.

The Lawyer for the Day in Boston Housing Court is supported by the Herbert W. Vaughan Fund of the Boston Bar Foundation.