Saturday, January 26, 2008

Attorneys

Having worked in law enforcement and the judicial system, I can't even estimate how many attorney jokes I have heard over the years. Often, it is the lawyers themselves who get the biggest kick out of those jokes - collecting them, re-telling them, even seeming to relish the somewhat disreputable reputation these jokes imply about their profession.

Now I am dependent on the good will and good heart of lawyers to have any success in my own job and for the clients I serve. What I do is go to the courthouses of six counties (Wabash, Miami, Cass, Fulton, Tipton and Howard) to do intake interviews with low-income folks. These are people who do not even begin to have the means to hire private attorneys. The fact is that poor people have at least as many, if not more legal problems, than more affluent Americans. If it weren't for the attorneys who are willing to take their cases pro bono (without pay), they would simply be shut out of the legal system altogether.

In America, you have a right to a lawyer if you are charged with a criminal act. If you can't afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to represent you. The same is not true in civil matters. If you want a divorce or custody of your children, the law says that being provided an attorney isn't an inherent right. If you don't have the money to hire private counsel, too bad, so sad. If you are being unfairly treated by a landlord or a creditor, finding representation in the court is on you. Not having an attorney, if the other side of your case has one, is a huge disadvantage. A low-income person most likely doesn't know the ins and outs of legal forms and litigation and the technicalities of proving their case in court.

So.....what this means is that these people rely on lawyers who are willing to take their cases without pay and some people who have poor opinions of attorneys in general, might be surprised to find what a large percentage of them volunteer to take such cases. Granted, the lawyers' Code of Ethics requires them to do a certain amount of pro bono work but so far as I know, there is no penalty for non-compliance. Some lawyers say they have clients who don't pay them so by writing off those bad fees, they consider they've done their duty. This may satisfy the letter if not the spirit of the law.

I have never tried to sit down and figure out the exact percentage of lawyers in my six counties who do pro bono work but I'd guess it to be between 30 and 50 percent. In 2007, Wabash actually had a higher participation rate even than 50 percent.

Howard County lawyers are far and away the most generous of the counties. Not that there are a higher percentage of lawyers who take cases but in the number of cases they take. Indiana Legal Services asks every lawyer if they will take two pro bono cases per year. Many of the Kokomo lawyers take 24 cases a year. I am grateful for the ones who give me instructions like, "send me two divorces a month". I don't even have to keep calling and begging, I just know on the first of every month, I can assign two clients to them for filing marriage dissolutions.

Maybe this has to do with how much larger Howard County is than my other counties. Or that many attorneys there work in larger firms who can afford for them to designate more time away from the paying part of the practice.

But attorneys in my other counties also step up to the plate. Sometimes they themselves will talk to a client who obviously cannot afford to pay them and will direct those people to me, telling me that they'll take the case if the client meets our criteria for assistance. One week in Rochester, I interviewed 3 people and all had been pre-placed by lawyers who sent them to me.

My least favorite part of my job is being a salesperson, trying to persuade attorneys to take cases, especially those who aren't particularly favorable toward the idea of pro bono work. I never thought of myself as being an especially effective salesperson. I worry that they will think I'm "bugging" them or "nagging". Nevertheless, I do it and I'm gratified by the response. I've grown to know the lawyers who will give me a hearing on a particularly sad case, even if they already have other active pro bono cases.

What I like most is doing the interviews. I like talking to the people who come to see me. Sometimes, they don't even want an attorney so much as someone who'll listen to them and seem to care about their problems. Others are in dire straits and desperately need legal help. I see the relief and gratitude when I'm able to tell them that they can lay their troubles on the shoulders of a professional who has agreed to help them.

Like every other profession, there are a multitude of diverse personalities that make up the legal profession, some more likeable and admirable than others but from the prism from which I view them now, I'd have to say my say, my estimation of lawyers has gone up immensely.