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Pro bono efforts reflect culture of southwestern Indiana attorneys

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When the pro se litigants approached the bench in the Vanderburgh County family law court, they often asked the judge for legal advice. They did not have the money to hire a lawyer so when they had legal questions, the litigants naturally turned to the judge, the only resource they had available.

The Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, serving the counties clustered in the lower corner of the state, decided to offer some help. That decision came during the worst of the economic recession when not only were many households struggling, but the funding for pro bono programs was withering.

sw-probono-15col.jpg Attorneys Beverly Corn (left) and Scott Wylie champion pro bono legal assistance. (Photo by David Greene, DIA Photography)

Though times were tough – but because times were tough – the Volunteer Lawyer Program moved forward with the new initiative. Led by then co-chair of the program, Vanderburgh Superior Judge Wayne Trockman, the VLP developed a family law clinic to offer assistance to these pro se litigants.

Now, two afternoons a month, local attorneys answer questions, explain the legal process, give advice and help fill out forms for the individuals and families going into family court.

Trockman called the clinic a success. The feedback has been positive, and many individuals have received the help they needed.

He attributed the reason for the clinic’s accomplishment to the same reason that underlies the achievements of the pro bono program overall – the culture of the legal community in southwestern Indiana.

“The volunteers are very diverse. They don’t come from one group. They come from all segments of the bar,” Trockman said. “The attorneys in our district really care and, at least for me, it shows in the abundance of participation.”

Sitting recently at the conference table in the small office from which the VLP is run, Beverly Corn, plan administrator, and Scott Wylie, co-administrator/program director, also linked the program’s success to the culture of the region’s attorneys.

A reflection of the legal community’s commitment comes during Evansville’s Law Day celebration. The day begins with the local attorneys reciting the Indiana Oath of Attorneys. The last clause of that oath speaks to not forsaking the poor and to the attorneys’ obligation to not turn away people from justice.

That sentiment, say Wylie and Corn, is deeply engrained among the attorneys in the district.

“I sleep at night because I know that I’m working with attorneys and individuals who have a belief that we do what we can to help those that we can,” Corn said. “We do what we do because we are who we are.”

Needing more, having less

Doing what they could became more difficult during the economic recession. Also known as Pro Bono District K, covering Evansville and the surrounding counties, the program has faced budget cuts like other districts across the state. And on top of the belt tightening, the district grew bigger.

In 2008, the pro bono programs were hitting their stride, said Wylie, who recently became a member of the Pro Bono Commission. Every district had a program, and all programs were fully incorporated, doing high-quality work.

Then the economy stumbled and interest rates dropped. With the pro bono districts subsisting on funds from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program, the market upheaval ushered in deep cutbacks and painful choices.

The Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana was allotted $156,000 in 2007-2008, according to Corn. For the last three years, the program has received $86,330. And when the Pro Bono Commission consolidated the number of districts from 14 to 12, the VLP picked up Sullivan and Vigo counties.

Wylie applauded the work of the commission in steering the districts through the economic recession. The consolidation helped redistribute resources to keep the staff attorneys who were already in place.

In turn, when the interest rates rise and the money comes back, he said, the institutional knowledge will still be available so the programs will be viable and not have to be rebuilt from scratch.

When the district expanded, Corn traveled the 125 miles to Terre Haute to introduce herself to the local bar association. In the audience that day was Derek Conner, a young attorney at Wright Shagley & Lowery P.C. in Terre Haute.

After hearing Corn speak, he volunteered his help.

Conner currently serves as the Vigo County representatives for the Volunteer Lawyer Program. The cases land in his inbox, and then he sends out a mass email to 100 or more attorneys in the area, looking for someone to offer their services. Usually, the responses come quickly, and the cases get picked up.

“I feel like we’ve got a base of attorneys who are willing to give people some of their time,” Conner said.

In fact, he said the pro bono effort in his community could handle more cases. Knowing what his hometown has been through economically, Conner worries that residents are going without legal services because they do not realize help is available for free.

Those who come for pro bono legal assistance in Terre Haute are no different than people in other parts of the district. Many have low-paying jobs and after they cover food and rent, little is left over. A landlord-tenant dispute, a divorce or custody matter can send them to court without a lawyer.

“People are poor for a reason,” Wylie said. “No one wants to be poor. They’re poor because they didn’t get the love to have a wonderful education or they weren’t blessed with parents who were able to steward them through education or provide them an inheritance or whatever helps all the rest of us get jobs. They get outcompeted at McDonald’s.”

Finding alternatives

At the Volunteer Lawyer Program, the administrators dealt with the cuts by distilling its work down to core functions such as placement of cases, and increased alternative services like clinics and self-help materials.

This is done, Wylie said, so they can funnel the tough cases, the people who truly need legal representation, to attorneys like Jean Blanton of Ziemer Stayman Weitzel & Shoulders LLP.

Since she stared practicing about nine years ago, Blanton has always worked on at least one active case from the VLP. Focusing on family law, she has handled a custody battle that included a day-and-a-half trial, and she has taken two cases on appeal.

Family law cases can be emotional and stressful, she acknowledged, but when she goes to the county courts building, she sees the individuals who have to maneuver through the system by themselves because they cannot afford an attorney.

“We can’t help everyone,” she said, “but everything we do makes a difference.”

Sometimes that difference comes in the simple legal matters.

The VLP organized a “wills clinic” for the clients at the community mental health center in Vanderburgh County. These individuals live on a monthly income of $674 from Social Security. This is certainly not a lot of money but when they die without a will, their survivors cannot access their last check.

At first, the clients entering the clinic area were leery and extremely shy, Corn remembered. She had arranged the clinic space to mirror an actual law office, with a receptionist to greet the clients and introduce them to their attorney.

Walking out the door at the end of the process, the clients had their heads high, smiling and were clutching their wills.

“There was not a dry eye in the place because of the work,” Corn said. “This is why we do what we do.”•
 

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  • concerned grandma
    i have tried ti find a pro bono for my son we live in bedford indiana but we cant find any help we cant afford a high priced attorney and my grandson is going through abuse but even cps wont do anything can you tell me how to get help

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  4. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  5. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

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