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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. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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