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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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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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