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Too few pro bono attorneys in Indiana rural communities

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Trent Patterson may be typical of many attorneys practicing in rural communities and small towns throughout Indiana.

He arrived in Bluffton, fresh from law school, 45 years ago and began practicing in the Wells County community which now has a population of 9,897. In his office two blocks from the county courthouse, he eschews a computerized database for a card file with the names of every client his firm has represented going back to 1946, the year the law office he now runs opened.

Along with practicing privately and serving as the attorney for local government agencies like the county drainage board, the public library and the health department, Patterson also handles pro bono cases. Right now he is also the only attorney the Volunteer Program of Northeast Indiana can call upon for help in Wells County. When he retires, something he is seriously considering, there might be no one to take his place.

The dilemma facing Wells County is becoming increasingly common across the United States. Rural areas in many states do not have enough attorneys, and residents are at risk of going without legal help.

In August, the American Bar Association passed a resolution calling upon federal, state and local governments to support efforts to address the decline in the number of lawyers practicing in rural areas and address access to justice for residents in small communities.

The situation in Indiana is believed to mirror the nation. Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, has seen an increasing need among rural residents for pro bono attorneys.

“I don’t think that ‘crisis’ is too strong a word,” he said of the situation.

To help alleviate the overwhelming list of people who are seeking legal assistance, the foundation and the Indiana Pro Bono Commission is preparing to launch the Indiana Legal Answers website. Modeled after the OnlineTNJustice.org, a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Bar Association, the Indiana website will connect low-income Hoosiers from anywhere in the state to attorneys who can answer their questions.

Dunlap acknowledged it is not the answer for all people but it will help those who do not need a full-time attorney to appear in court. They can get a couple of questions answered and maybe some help filling out a form without languishing on a waiting list.

The IBF site is scheduled to go live this month. As bonus, the foundation has only had to invest a “few thousand dollars” to get the website running, Dunlap said. Tennessee has turned over everything it developed to Indiana for no charge and Barnes & Thornburg LLP is donating the technical and IT support.

With the limited number of attorneys in rural areas able to provide pro bono work and with legal service providers not able to fill the growing gap, the foundation turned to technology, Dunlap said. The older model of an attorney in an office with a client is not always available.

Few rural attorneys

The economic recession has exacerbated the problem of too few attorneys offering pro bono assistance in small towns, pro bono district directors say.

Loss of jobs are throwing more people into poverty, which can lead to legal problems arising from their inability to pay rent or the mortgage and from the stress placed on families and marriages. Lawyers in the communities are often limited in whom they can represent because many supplement their incomes by moonlighting for the local prosecutor’s office or a government agency, which usually leads to conflicts of interest with certain clients.

“In my opinion, strictly my opinion, I think any legal issue that doesn’t get addressed in a timely manner can snowball into a larger thing,” said Terry McCaffrey, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana.

The strongest drive for an attorney to practice in a small town is family ties.

Jeffery Houin, an attorney at Easterday & Ummel in Plymouth, considered working in Indianapolis and Chicago after graduating from Notre Dame Law School but decided to eventually practice in his hometown because he and his wife wanted their four children to grow up in a small community with extended family close by.

“If we didn’t have young children, then I don’t think we would have come back to Plymouth,” Houin said. “When you have kids, your perspective changes and I’m happy to be back.”

He pointed out he could have easily continued working in South Bend but he was enticed to practice in Plymouth by the opportunity to someday take over the Easterday & Ummel law firm. In fact, looking five to 10 years in the future when a large percentage of the Marshall County attorneys will be retiring, he is optimistic about the “significant opportunity for us younger attorneys to take on all that business.”

However, many worry that retirements will compound the shortage because younger attorneys have not historically been willing to practice in small communities.

Patterson said despite interviewing potential associates, he never found one who wanted to work at his office. So his current plan for retirement is to shred his client files and lock the door. He feels his responsibility to his clients is not to pass their files along to other attorneys.

Helping themselves

In Monroe and the surrounding counties, the courts are seeing a good portion of people who are representing themselves, said Diane Walker, pro bono coordinator in District H, previously known as District 10. Although not ideal, it indicates many residents are able to maneuver through the system on their own.

She believes the coming Indiana Legal Answers website will be a “tremendous help” especially in rural communities. Through the site, residents will get answers to their legal questions, get preventive legal advice so they can possibly avoid a dispute altogether, and get directed to other legal services and resources.

“Legal advice and an attorney to help with legal paperwork can go a long way,” Walker said.

A program in Clark County demonstrates that individuals do not always need a full-time attorney. The Clark Legal Self Help Center, spearheaded by Judge Dan Moore of Clark Circuit Court 1, started in May 2010. Set in the middle of the county courthouse in Jeffersonville, the office is staffed by volunteer attorneys two afternoons a week and, Moore emphasized, provides information and guidance – not legal advice – to people who have questions.

Residents from Clark as well as neighboring counties are accessing the center regularly and the legal and business communities have been strongly supportive of the project, Moore said.

The implementation of the Tennessee online program will not only provide some free legal assistance in large and small communities alike here, but Dunlap pointed out, it will give attorneys an easy way to do pro bono work. They will be able to determine when and how much work they do.

He is hoping the success the website has had in the Volunteer State translates to Indiana. He is hopeful the program will be a significant resource for Hoosiers and will encourage more attorneys to volunteer.•

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  1. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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