Pro bono districts hire new plan administrators

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With almost half of the pro bono districts losing plan administrators since mid-2009, it is not going to be an easy job to replace the institutional knowledge of the outgoing plan administrators. Districts 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, and most recently 7 have been forced to tackle that task.

District 2, based in South Bend and also known as the Volunteer Lawyer Network, was able to find its replacement in-house. A previous plan administrator had stayed on as a staff member and has again taken over the responsibilities of the job.

As for the other five districts that have lost plan administrators in the last two years: District 3 based in Fort Wayne, also known as the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana, hired its current plan administrator in late 2009; District 6 Access to Justice, based in New Castle, hired its current plan administrator in summer 2009; District 7 Pro Bono Corporation, based in Terre Haute, is in the process of searching for a new administrator; Whitewater Valley District 9 Pro Bono Commission, based in Richmond, reports being close to hiring a new plan administrator; and Legal Aid – District Eleven, based in Columbus, just hired a new plan administrator who started Jan. 24.

Monica Fennell Fennell

While it’s never easy to lose someone, especially if that person has the institutional knowledge to know exactly which volunteers are willing and able to take on specific types of case, or who among the other plan administrators has the expertise to help with specific cases, clients, or volunteers, Indiana Pro Bono Commission executive director Monica Fennell said she has been impressed with the caliber of new plan administrators.

“No one gets into it for the money. These are good, hard-working people who are used to working with people who are low-income,” Fennell said. “They often are attorneys or have legal experience, and if they don’t, they already have experience in social services or volunteer work.”

To get them up to speed, Fennell said she works closely with the new plan administrators as soon as possible. For instance, she met with the new plan administrator for District 11 and executive director of Legal Aid – District Eleven, Alaina Sullivan, during her first week in the office.

“As soon as a district lets me know they’ve hired someone new, I go and meet with them,” Fennell said.

Among the discussion is Rule 6.6, which oversees the pro bono districts. She encourages new plan administrators to read and study this rule if they haven’t already.

She said they then go over a calendar together to discuss when reports are due, when budgets and grant applications are due, and when funds are allocated. That is especially important this year because budgets are being distributed on a quarterly basis instead of all at once.

Fennell also offers the IPBC’s help in terms of public relations and marketing. Plan administrators, she explained, sometimes need coaching on how to talk to their local media outlets “to get their stories out there” about what the volunteers are doing. She also provides information about pro bono plan administrator retreats, and she encourages plan administrators to work and communicate with each other regularly. Fennell refers plan administrators to others who she thinks would be a good resource when questions or complicated issues surface.

Plan administrators are also encouraged to consider volunteers they would like to nominate for annual awards given by the Indiana Bar Foundation, to participate in the ISBA’s annual Talk to a Lawyer Today event, to have IPBC or IBF representatives speak to local bar associations about what the pro bono districts do, and to learn other ways to recruit attorneys to volunteer.

“We also talk about intake,” she said. “When someone calls, you need to make sure you know the income eligibility guidelines, the kinds of cases you can take, and the kinds of cases you don’t take. If you can’t take a case, what are their other options?”

Sullivan, who interned for the IPBC when she was in law school and her last name was Byers, said Fennell has been helpful in answering her questions and that she is looking forward to the opportunity.

“I learned about the position on the state bar website and I applied that day,” she said. “The real reason I chose to apply for this job was I went into the law to help people, and I feel as an attorney I’m honored to work for an agency that gives access to the legal system for those who can’t pay for an attorney or don’t understand their case or legal system. I think it’s important for lawyers to understand that role.”

Scott Wylie Wylie

R. Scott Wylie has served as a co-plan administrator for District 13, based in Evansville and also known as the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, since 2006. He voiced similar reasons for wanting to be a plan administrator.

“It’s such a privilege to have this kind of job. Everyone in the legal system admires what you do. You are their charity. When it gets difficult, especially in times like these when we’re cutting back, the work is something to be proud of and that gives you motivation. … Even attorneys who don’t know me well, because of what I do, they respect me for that and are proud of this work,” he said.

Wylie observed that with the decrease in budget, attorneys have continued to step up to volunteer, perhaps more so than in the past.

In mid-December, District 13 had almost a dozen cases left to assign. After Wylie sent an e-mail, “in one day, in one day, we placed every remaining case,” he said. “If I had 20 wills, I could have placed 20 more wills. If I had five more guardianships, I could have placed five more guardianships.”

While he said he could have probably placed those cases normally, having such an instantaneous response made it the “best day of placement we ever had.”

Another newer plan administrator, Terry McCaffrey of the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana, also said he has felt welcome since he started in late 2009.

As for advice for new plan administrators, McCaffrey said, “When you’re new, you inherit the reputation of the program. If things need to be changed, you look into what could be done … to try to make it better and easier for the volunteers and the clients.”

McCaffrey and Wylie said Fennell and the other plan administrators are always supportive of each other, as are their boards and attorney volunteers.

“Due to the changes in staffing and how many hours staff members are working, I imagine this will be a fairly unstable period until we get bigger interest rates and more funding as a result,” Wylie said, adding the IPBC has been “supportive to keep things as stable as possible.”

Sullivan expressed some concern about the current budget but is remaining optimistic about the future of her program.

“I have no doubt things will come back around and we’ll work our way through it,” she said, adding the board has also been helpful in working with her.

“I look forward to working with the attorneys in these five counties, meeting individuals in the community, and getting our organization more widely recognized,” she said. “I’m really excited to be here and can’t wait to see what the next few years bring.”•


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