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Hebenstreit: With a Need so Great, What Will We Do?

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IBA-hebenstreitWe all know what pro bono legal service means and probably know or believe that it is a good idea. But have you ever thought about how it actually works? If you are willing to engage in some type of pro bono work, where do you turn to make your services available? If you are a patent attorney what happens if you are assigned a domestic violence case? Will you be headed for malpractice in your effort to be generous with your time and expertise?

What if you were a mother of 2 small children, worked part time at CVS, and your husband walked out leaving you 2 months behind on the rent and without any money? Who do you call to get a lawyer to file for child support and help you with the eviction proceedings? Stop and think about it for a minute. Where do you turn to find an attorney willing to undertake this maze of legal problems and how complicated would that process be?

Marion County is well served by almost a dozen independent legal service providers. You may recognize some of the names—Legal Services Organization, Legal Aid, Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, Muslim Alliance, and Heartland Pro Bono Council. But the need exceeds the capacity of these great agencies.

The Indiana Supreme Court created the Heartland Pro Bono Council as part of a state wide plan to enlist volunteer attorneys. Since 2002, it has served the needs of Marion and the surrounding counties. According to their website, it “recruits and trains attorneys to represent low income people who have a civil legal matter in central Indiana. Heartland answers legal questions, refers callers to appropriate agencies and determines eligibility for free legal services through our intake line…” In addition to client referrals, Heartland provides support to its volunteer attorneys by providing free legal training, malpractice insurance, on line research, mentoring, mediation, and paralegal and law student support. Sounds good so far, but its very existence is currently in serious question.

Heartland, like other pro bono initiatives throughout the State, has received funding from the IOLTA funds. Sadly, with the very low interest rates, the interest generated on attorney trust accounts has virtually been eliminated, and the providers are feeling the pinch. Recently, the geographical area served by Heartland has been reduced to Marion County only and their annual budget has been slashed to a mere pittance. As a result, it can no longer afford to pay its legal director who will be resigning at the end of the year. What effect these changes will have on Heartland itself is currently unclear.

The leadership of the IndyBar attends some national conferences of bar leaders in order to share ideas and visions with other similar bars. In late September, we attended the annual meeting of the Conference of Metropolitan Bar Associations. About 20 metropolitan bar associations were represented at the conference. Knowing the changes effecting Heartland, we wanted to know how other cities dealt with the delivery of pro bono legal services. Not surprisingly, the answers were quite varied. One city had been approached by the United Way who requested that there be only one primary provider under which all other agencies served. Others were quite piecemeal and fragmented in the way their attorneys volunteered for pro bono or modest means representation.

Heartland is currently investigating various options, and the IndyBar is engaging in conversations with Heartland to determine if we can help the situation. There are a few items that are very clear. At a time when our county faces the greatest need for pro bono or modest means representation, we, as lawyers, need to step to the forefront. There is a golden opportunity to make it easy for the public to find counsel, be it pro bono or modest means, and we need to make it easy for attorneys to volunteer. With so many recently admitted attorneys who are striking out solo, pro bono and modest means cases are a perfect way to gain experience and exposure to other lawyers and potential clients. We have the need and the manpower to help solve that need. Now we just need to make it easy to match the two.

On a different note, while attending the COMBA conference, Julie Armstrong was elected by her peers from around the country to be its Secretary in 2012 which will ultimately result in her becoming its President in 2 years. I applaud the Conference for their wise decision and congratulate Julie on her new leadership role. Having such a prominent spot in the national arena will be very beneficial to the IndyBar.•

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