Pro Bono Commission chair sees dramatic drop in funding during term

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The outgoing chair of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission said she hopes Indiana takes more steps to encourage attorneys to provide free legal service as programs statewide continue to struggle with declines in funding.

“I’d like to see more law firms getting involved in helping to fund some of the programs,” said Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May, who presided over her final meeting as commission chair in May. The judge, whose term officially expires June 30, reflected on the challenges of keeping the state’s 12 pro bono districts afloat in a tough economy.

il-melissa-may03-15col.jpg Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May discussed her extended tenure as chair of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, which included seeing the state’s pro bono districts through a consolidation period. (IL photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“One of the most heartbreaking decisions I’ve ever had to take was when funds got cut and we had to cut district funding dramatically,” May said.

She remembers spreading the funding requests from each district across her desk and wondering how a burgeoning need for legal assistance could be met with a dwindling pool of money.

“I spent a solid week trying to figure out how to keep them open,” she said of the pro bono district plan administrators. Some economized by closing their doors and moving into offices of a law firm to reduce expenses.

“It has not been easy,” she said.

It was a crisis that May, the commission’s first female chair, said she couldn’t

walk away from. Her second three-year term was coming to an end last year, but it was extended by one year because state districts were being consolidated from 14 to 12.

“I basically volunteered to stay on because I knew it was going to be a tough time,” she said.

The Pro Bono Commission distributes money to the districts based on revenue from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts. From 2007 until 2009, IOLTA revenue allowed the commission to distribute an average of more than $1.3 million per year and build a program reserve of almost $2.2 million.

Then the economy tanked and interest rates went flat. IOTLA revenue decreased 84 percent, and money distributed statewide plummeted this year to its lowest point – just $253,865, according to the Indiana Bar Foundation. Almost twice that amount was distributed from the reserve to make up some of the shortfall, but total statewide funding this year is less than half the amount at the peak of funding in 2009.

Districts got $554,880 less than they requested, and the reserve has dwindled to just over $800,000.

Through it all, colleagues said May’s selflessness and volunteer spirit made her ideally suited for the work. Colleagues said May has been a booster and cheerleader as times got tough. She went to ballgames, dinners and other events in districts across the state to honor the work of pro bono attorneys and volunteers.

pro bono“I can’t imagine how many miles she’s put on her car,” said Sue Ann Hartig, former executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Evansville who now works as a staff attorney for the organization. Hartig served two terms on the commission with May.

While pro bono work most frequently deals with family law, Hartig and May served when unprecedented numbers of Hoosiers faced foreclosure. Hartig said May was deeply involved in training more than 1,000 Indiana attorneys in foreclosure law when the housing market collapsed in 2009. Indiana trained more lawyers in foreclosure law than any other state, said commission executive director Monica Fennell.

That kind of commitment is in May’s character, Hartig said.

“Judge May practiced in Evansville before she joined the court, and she’s a product of the Evansville Bar and its commitment to legal aid,” Hartig said. “She was committed to it long before we had a Pro Bono Commission.”

“Her organizational and networking skills create energy and make things happen,” said commission member Sarah (Sally) Holterhoff, an associate professor of law librarianship at Valparaiso University Law School.

May “has been a very hands-on leader, demonstrating to the rest of the commission really what it means to be involved in pro bono,” said Allen Superior Judge David J. Avery, who also serves on the commission with May.

Fennell said May’s commission leadership was on a list of trailblazing accomplishments.

May “has paved the way for many women lawyers in Indiana by being the first female lawyer and partner at the firm of Fine & Hatfield and one of the first to regularly try jury trials,” Fennell said.

“Judge May does not hesitate to challenge assumptions and to speak up for what she believes is right,” she said.

May became involved in pro bono work in private practice, where she handled insurance defense and personal injury cases. Her rationale for taking pro bono cases: “I can, I’m a lawyer, and I just want to help,” she said.

pro bonoShe praised districts that have developed creative ways to use limited pro bono resources. Some have “unbundled” services, so that various attorneys may work on different aspects of the same case. Some have developed “self-help” centers for pro se litigants. Some have set aside designated times to provide free legal counseling.

Pro bono providers might have to continue finding creative ways to stretch their budgets.

May said that until interest rates improve, IOLTA money will be tight for the state’s pro bono programs. To make up some of the shortfall, Indiana Bar Foundation Executive Director Chuck Dunlap said Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a law designating a $1 filing fee for the next five years on most civil cases. The fee is expected to bring in about $450,000 a year.

“We’ll still have to use the reserve, but not to the extent we were,” Dunlap said.

In the meantime, May said she hopes Indiana will consider rule changes that have encouraged pro bono service in other states. She said New York now requires attorneys in training to document 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition for licensing. Other states require annual reporting of pro bono service. May said a commission task force is considering such possible rule changes.

But May said she’d like to see more lawyers taking the initiative to work pro bono.

“In listening to attorneys who do pro bono cases, some of them tell me these are some of the most rewarding cases they’ve handled, because the people are so grateful to have assistance,” she said.

May’s successor will be selected by the Indiana Supreme Court, but those who know her by her commitment to pro bono work say she’ll be tough to replace.

“Hopefully, whoever succeeds her will see better economic times, but whether they do or not, they’re going to have big shoes to fill,” Hartig said.•


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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.