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Attorneys statewide mark MLK Day holiday by offering free legal help

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Hundreds of Hoosiers received free legal help in January thanks to efforts of local and state bar groups that marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by providing free legal assistance.

The Indiana State Bar Association several years ago began recognizing the holiday with Talk to a Lawyer events in which volunteer attorneys offer free legal advice to people in need at either walk-in or phone-in events.

apb-il-talk01-15col.jpg Bloomington attorney Carl Salzmann speaks to a caller seeking free legal advice at the offices of the District 10 Pro Bono Project. (IL Photo/Aaron P. Bernstein)

“It was a panoply of need,” Bloomington solo attorney Carl Salzmann said of calls he fielded from people who contacted the District 10 Pro Bono office. Attorneys there met face-to-face or answered calls Jan. 20.

Salzmann and other attorneys said the inquiries run the gamut: family law matters, landlord/tenant disputes, expungements, property disputes, bankruptcy guidance and more.

Traci Twait, an appellate attorney in Avon who’s also director of Hendricks County’s pro bono program, said about a dozen attorneys usually take part in the MLK Day walk-in events that the local bar has participated in over the past four years.

“Some people are looking to see if they even have a case,” she said. “I let attorneys know, bring your business cards because some of these people will want to contact you.”

Attorneys get something from helping out at the events, too, Twait said. “They like giving back to the community and feeling like they’re doing something for somebody that needs the help.”

Clients, she said, “are very appreciative and very grateful for the help they receive.”

As pro bono resources have dwindled in recent years, outreach programs offering free legal advice have helped fill the void.

Twait Twait

Several bar groups around the state use MLK Day Talk to a Lawyer events to supplement their regular pro bono offerings. Evansville Bar Association Executive Director Susan Vollmer said the organization conducts monthly Talk to a Lawyer events and usually receives about 50 to 75 calls a month.

Beverly Corn, administrator for the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, said the monthly call-in events receive inquiries from around Indiana and even outside the state.

Corn said the most common cases typically are in the areas of family law, followed by elder law/will and estate questions, and criminal law.

While many local bar groups marked the holiday with Talk to a Lawyer events, the Indianapolis Bar Association conducted its most successful Legal Line call-in event earlier in the month, according to Caren Chopp, pro bono and legal services coordinator for IndyBar.

Chopp said more than 650 people received legal guidance at the Jan. 14 event in which more than 100 attorneys answered calls from the public during a two-hour stretch. “That was the highest number we ever helped,” she said.

The IndyBar also stages Ask a Lawyer events twice a year at libraries around Marion County where attorneys assist hundreds of people.

Patricia Cummings, a deputy prosecutor in Monroe County, took time to volunteer at the MLK Day Talk to a Lawyer event in Bloomington.

Some of the cases are complicated and could result in great injustice if issues go unanswered, particularly in family law situations involving custody and paternity. “Unfortunately, if it’s not addressed early on, it can compound the problem,” she said.

Litigants are often forced, for economic reasons, to represent themselves, and Cummings said Monroe County courts have done a good job of helping pro se litigants navigate the system by providing forms and guidance on how to file, for example. But she said the Talk to a Lawyer event also is an opportunity to give these litigants some practical advice.

“The first thing I do is tell them, ‘Approach everyone you’re talking to with politeness and appreciation,’ because it helps a lot,” Cummings said. She also advises people she counsels on the importance of keeping good notes and maintaining appointments and communication with the courts.

“For some people it’s very empowering to learn they can handle something on their own,” she said. “For other people it’s very stifling. They are overwhelmed.”

District 10 Pro Bono Project Executive Director Diane Walker said the organization conducts weekly legal assistance clinics in four of the southern Indiana counties it serves.

But attorneys also take the opportunity to serve on the MLK Day holiday.

“I think for lawyers, Martin Luther King Day is about volunteering, and lawyers have really, really useful skills,” Walker said. “The things they can do benefit people enormously, even if it’s for a short period of time.”

But in some cases, the connections attorneys make with people through these sorts of pro bono outreach events translate into active involvement in cases. Walker said some attorneys have taken on cases pro bono after a consultation where they felt compelled to do so. “Sometimes they go over and above the call of duty,” she said.

Salzmann said a consultation of a few minutes often can resolve problems that have worried people who don’t know how to deal with a pending or threatened legal matter. “About half the calls I took were just steering people in the right way, or telling them Indiana law says this,” he said. “There are a lot of people that just need some questions answered.”

Salzmann shared an example of how he was able to help a person resolve an issue after a call-in consultation. The person was being sued by a former landlord for property damage.

The attorney who filed the suit, he said, “didn’t know there was an actual inspection and the damage they were claiming now had existed when (the tenant) moved in.

“As soon as that was given to the attorney, the case went away,” he said.

As a solo practitioner mainly handling criminal defense, Salzmann said these events also help him keep his skills sharp.

“The nice thing is there are several other attorneys there. In solo practice, you don’t get to bounce a lot of things off people,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s nice to get out to interact with attorneys from other firms and re-establish friendships and acquaintances.”•

 

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Good advice

The Indiana State Bar Association-sponsored “Talk to a Lawyer” events are carried out through multiple local and regional bar associations and pro bono districts around the state. Contact your local bar association for information about upcoming pro bono events and how you can volunteer. The Indianapolis Bar Association hosts twice-yearly “Ask a Lawyer” events at public libraries around Marion County. The next event takes place April 8.

IndyBar also offers a bankruptcy help call-in line from noon to 1 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month focusing on bankruptcy and collection issues. For information on volunteering, go to http://www.indybar.org/membership/volunteer-opportunities.php

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  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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