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Hebenstreit: Banding Together for the Greater Good

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IBA-hebenstreitUsually, the collective body of a group can accomplish greater good than the individual parts. That is one reason people band together, be it for religious purposes, political ideals, or service to a community. This is certainly true of your IndyBar.

As lawyers, we know that helping those who cannot help themselves is part of our calling. Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard has stated that “(g)enerations of Indiana Lawyers have lent a hand to people in need at a moment when they couldn’t afford to pay. More of our fellow citizens need assistance during this recession, and it’s fortunate that the profession is better organized than ever to support the thousands of lawyers who’ve been willing to volunteer. It has plainly improved our profession’s standing with the public.”

In addition to assisting a person in need, pro bono attorneys have a positive impact on relieving the congestion of the Courts. But sometimes making the plunge into pro bono legal activity is not as easy as it seems. Is it reasonable for an IP lawyer to learn how to handle an interstate child custody matter just to participate in pro bono? Maybe for some, but there is a serious deterrent effect an anyone who is jumping outside their comfort zone. If your firm does not have a pro bono director, where do you turn? In our frenetic lives, sometimes it is just easier not to think about giving away our time and talents.

One of the many services the Association offers is the ability for lawyers to bridge the gap between knowing they should participate in pro bono services and actually doing it. As a collective group, under the leadership of Andy Campbell of Baker & Daniels, the IndyBar has already conducted the background work and has implemented many opportunities for our members to serve the needs of the community, even if your firm does not have a pro bono director.

One of the most fun programs is the Legal Line. On the second Tuesday of each month, lawyers gather at the IndyBar office to answer telephone calls. Caren Chopp does a great job alerting the community about Legal Line through public service announcements and flyers. Typically, there are 9 to 10 lawyers available each month to answer the calls. Each year, a very helpful booklet is prepared by the IndyBar that is a fantastic reference tool for our volunteers. It contains concise information about a large variety of legal issues including child support matters, immigration issues as well as Social Security information. The callers are quite interesting, and frequently really do not have substantive legal problems; they just need some one to chat with that can help them sort out the problem. Participating in Legal Line is not a frightening process. You will be surprised at how many of the questions you can answer just from law school, but if a call is very specific, both the resource book and one of your fellow volunteers can surely help out.

Similar to Legal Line is the Ask a Lawyer Live program. It is held twice a year in the Marion County Public Libraries around the county. Again, there is promotional material to attract “clients” including paid advertising. Our IndyBar paralegals are typically site coordinators. Lawyers volunteer to work a two hour time slot in the late afternoon, and each is provided a free copy of the resource book. Our volunteers assist 400 to 500 individuals each session.

Almost 2 decades ago, Scott Montross discovered that many residents of the homeless shelters in the city had great need for legal guidance, but no ability to pay for it. In fact, due to the transient nature of some, it was difficult for the person to schedule an appointment, even if they wanted to. Under Scott’s leadership, our volunteers agree to serve a 2 hour shift at the various homeless shelters. Members are only asked to serve 2 to 4 shifts during the year and are paired with another volunteer. Again, the problems are usually very basic, but incredibly important to the primarily women (and their children) who find themselves with no where to turn.

One domino effect of the recessionary economy has been the large number of personal bankruptcies. Several years ago, the Commercial & Bankruptcy Law Section established the Bankruptcy Help Line. If you have expertise in Bankruptcy, you can agree to be a helper. On two Wednesdays per month, the public is encouraged to call and obtain free telephone information. The volunteers do not even have to leave their own office. The calls are routed through the IndyBar, and forwarded right to your desk. How much easier can that be?

For the Probate lawyers, the Low Asset Will program and the Hospice Program could be a good fit. There is a pre-screening process, and our volunteers help prepare wills and end of life documents for individuals who don’t know and can’t afford an attorney to help them with sometimes very important guardianship, Powers of Attorney and related matters. The Hospice program provides an opportunity to assist with end of life legal issues through Wishard, Methodist (now Indiana University Health), the Abbie Hunt Brice Home and St. Francis Hospital.

How terrible would it be to have a special needs child and constantly be at odds with the school system over what type of assistance the school will provide for your child? As a result of Judge Grant Hawkins’ leadership, the School & Advocacy Program was created to assist those low income and foster families receive and enforce an individualized education plan for their special needs child.

If your area is family law, the Marion County Superior Court Pro Bono Project is for you. Judges are constantly faced with problems when a person has no attorney and is trying to navigate the maze of family legal matters. The attorneys who volunteer for this project are listed in an online database. The Judge, while on the bench and in the middle of a hearing, can access the database and assign one of our volunteers to assist that litigant.

We all know about the need for free legal assistance, but why do I think it is important enough to write about now? The numbers. Our pro bono programs are quite successful and have provided many of our members with the structure to participate in pro bono. To be specific, 335 IndyBar members are volunteers in our programs, but we have 5000 members. Many lawyers volunteer through other sources and provide tremendous benefit to our community, but we should have more of our members providing manpower for IndyBar programs. It is easy and does not entail a huge time commitment. Nothing feels better than knowing that you made a difference in the life of someone truly in need. Contact Caren Chopp at cchopp@indoybar.org or contact Andy Campbell to be placed in the perfect fit to gain that feeling.•

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